At first sight, philosophy and credit referencing might seem worlds apart.

One is concerned with data and deep computation, complex analysis and definitive answers. Philosophy, on the other hand, seems preoccupied with fascinating but open-ended questions about how to live well.

However, there is a critical area of intersection when a feeling of being out of control of our finances prevents us from taking even the first steps to living a more fulfilled life.

For this reason, Experian has conducted a comprehensive piece of research into how we take First Steps – because they are determined to help people turn their personal ambitions into reality through better money management. Often it’s not the amount we earn that holds us back, but what we do with the money we have and the level of control we feel.

Experian commissioned us to explore the deeper behavioural reasons that can stop us from taking a First Step towards greater fulfilment and provide some pragmatic suggestions on how to overcome apathy.

- The School of Life

Facts of life around plans

One of the basic, irritating and woefully familiar things about being human is that so often we can see a change we’d like to make in our lives.

We can envisage things being better – and yet we find it maddeningly difficult to simply get started. Taking the first step towards change appears to be surprisingly tricky. We can lose heart and give up. A lot of the time, we might never even get started.

Perhaps it’s half-empty packets of pasta and dusty tins that need clearing out of the kitchen cupboard. Maybe we’d like to feel healthier or spend more time with friends. We might really like the idea of buying our own place and shifting career. But we put off the change. We tell ourselves this isn’t quite the right moment (that moment somehow never arrives).

Often it’s the first steps that seem so daunting. If we got properly started we’d probably be fine. But somehow we can’t quite get going.

Even a small step or minor adjustment can create a real difference and have an immediate impact on our careers, health, love life and money matters – but so often it’s that crucial first step that seems to elude us.

We can sometimes fall into a state that can be summed up in a single word: apathy. We can feel we’re stuck, somehow condemned to a life of endurance, without the power to change. And typically we imagine that it’s just us - that other people aren’t prey to the same sense of not getting round to things they actually want to do and making the changes that they’d like to. We imagine that others pretty much sail through the things we find so challenging. But this is a mistake. No matter how competent others seem, no matter how relaxed and confident, they struggle just as much as the rest of us – finding it equally difficult to break out of old habits and actually get down to making a change.

Rather than just blaming ourselves, we deserve a bit of sympathy. Sometimes there can be some big and understandable reasons why getting started on change is difficult, while other times a subtle shift in mind-set is all that’s needed. But there are things we can do to help ourselves. In the following pages, we look at four key barriers that hold us back from making a change and finding more fulfilment in our day-to-day lives. And we look at the practical steps we can take to get past them.

01Fear of the Unknown: "I'm not brave enough"

Our earliest ancestors lived in a hostile world: a new cave might make a great place to live, but there could be snakes in the shadows. A plant might be nourishing, or it might stop your heart beating. Evolution favoured those who retreated, who took no chances; the bold ate an inadvertent last lunch of poisonous berries and stepped on the tail of a tiger slumbering in the long grass. We are the descendants of people who were safe rather than sorry.

Although our world is in some ways much safer, the instinct to caution is still with us and it manifests in lots of unnerving ways. We don’t really define the danger. The threat might really only be embarrassment, a tedious half-hour, a few aching muscles or a bit of psychological discomfort – but we still shy away from these minor pains as if they were threats to our entire existence.

Or worries lurk at the back of our minds. We might think that a new dance class will leave us crippled with embarrassment if we trip up over a simple step (in fact, most people at a beginner’s dance class will do this). We might like to start cycling into work, but fear the sly comments of our car-obsessed brother. We might want to try some healthier, adventurous cooking but fear the kitchen catastrophes that might ensue.

These fears are deeply natural, but they keep us from exploration and experimentation – and from the pleasures and satisfactions which are otherwise within our grasp. But we don’t actually spell out our worries. They are powerful partly because we don’t analyse them and weigh them up.

Facts of life around fear of the unknown

How to take the first steps:

01Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario

A useful guide here is the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, who taught himself to rehearse a wide range of worst-case scenarios. For instance, he made a fair bit of money as a financier but often felt terrified of losing it all. So he regularly set himself to imagining how he’d cope; he’d try out a day spending no money and living very simply. He realised that he’d still be OK. In fact, he never did have to actually confront poverty, but he did manage to overcome his anxieties. Seneca’s aim wasn’t to champion a negative outlook on life but to fortify himself with courage by seeing that – even if the worst were to happen – he’d still (in most cases) be fine.

Perhaps that new dance class will be a humiliating flop: imagine you arrive wearing the wrong outfit, you trip up constantly and bump into the others, everyone laughs as you fall on the floor. Once this has been clearly imagined in advance, we can ask: will any of this truly matter? The world will not end and we will continue, a little crestfallen, to live as well as before. And in fact it is very unlikely to be as bad as that. By taking our worries very seriously we can actually learn to be less alarmed by them.

02Join a Community

When trying to adopt a new habit, or abandon an old one, it can be additionally difficult to do it alone. Often, a better solution is to surround ourselves with others who are also taking the small steps we want to embrace. Using a supportive community to help foster change is an idea that has been used by many groups: from Trappist monks to Alcoholics Anonymous. The community shows us how normal it is to find something tricky, but it also brings us into contact with people just as weak and inept as we might see ourselves (and sometimes much more so) who are making a decent go of it.

We tend by nature to be community-oriented creatures, adopting the thinking of our peer group without really noticing. So if we put ourselves into a peer group that’s willing to try something out, it will start to seem less daunting to us as well.

02Fear of Loss: "If I make a change, I’ll lose out on what I’ve done so far"

One of the reasons we hold back from change is that we’ve already invested quite a lot in our old habits – the very ones we otherwise would like to change. It could be nice to cut down on snacks (you hate seeing your waistline in the mirror when you step out of the shower) but you recently bought a top-of-the-range four-slice toaster; you’ve spent three years studying engineering but in your heart of hearts you know it’s not for you and you’d really like to start taking your acting career seriously, but the thought of ‘wasting’ those three years is slightly sickening; you’ve been to every football game your team has played this season which has left you drowning in debt, but the thought of missing the final breaks your heart.

Facts of life around fulfilled life

How to take the first steps:


Central to the art of selling is spinning an appealing, positive story to a hesitant buyer. Sometimes we need to play the role of salesman to ourselves when contemplating taking a first step.

Rather than focusing on all the possible losses, we would do well to try selling ourselves on all the potential gains. Perhaps you have spent a number of years working (very successfully) in finance while secretly harbouring a desire to work with animals.

Rather than thinking through the many valuable things that will be lost should you make the change, we might try making a list of all the advantages, the new things we’ll learn, the sense of reward, the new people we’ll meet…

02Take an Economics Lesson

Economic advisers often refer to the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy when trying to wean clients away from failed but expensive strategies. They realise that clients have a strong inclination to stick with a plan not because it’s working but because they have invested in it and by a powerful process of magical thinking they feel that their past investments give them good reason to continue. The stern but rational advice is that it doesn’t matter how much you have spent in the past, if the strategy is wrong, things will only get worse.

It’s really about defining our priorities more clearly. Sticking with the past investment isn’t really helping us to do what we want. It’s true that we will lose something. But what we’ll gain is more important.

03Learn How To Lose with Grace

It is very natural to be afraid of loss. Life is frustratingly inconsistent and prone to change. It is a comfort to have things which we can claim as our own – providing a powerful protection from the ever-changing world around us. And yet, at the same time, it is important to feel comfortable with loss and change.

It is something we all face, and we can learn to feel more comfortable with it. A symbolic act of giving or throwing away an item we no longer need can help to remind us of this. Perhaps it’s time to throw away that old T-shirt you never wear, or give your old DVDs to charity. These small tokens of separation help us to understand that not all loss is bad and sometimes losing something can be very good.


02Fear of Missing Out: "Everything else seems better, I just don’t know where to begin"

The modern world continually bombards us with suggestions about what we might be doing: go sky diving, visit the latest bar, see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, have a bucket of ice water poured over your head. Social media in particular constantly reminds us of the amazing things our friends have done or are shortly about to do. There are endless hints of how alluring life is in other, more glamorous, places. Our smartphones and laptops make sure we are agonisingly aware at every moment just how intensely we’re missing out on so much of life’s rich tapestry.

In such a set-up we can easily fall prey to an acute, anxiety-inducing form of decision paralysis: with such a multitude of options before us, it can become near impossible to choose anything. But this is to ignore a simple fact. We are already missing out – all the time. Every decision we take represents missing out on some other possible choice.

This feeling of missing out can be particularly fierce when it comes to those things we’re most excited about. The idea of saving for a deposit on our very own home is delightful, but so too is the idea of spending what we’ve saved on a lavish holiday with our friends. We might decide to be sensible and keep saving, but the thought of all that lost fun in the sun comes back to haunt us on social media.

Photos of pristine swimming pools and dazzling scenery make us wonder if we should change our mind and book a last-minute flight.

Learning to make a choice, whatever the reasons that compel us to make it, is the first step that moves us past the fear of missing out: allowing us to become content with what we have carefully and consciously chosen.

Facts of life around first steps

How to take the first steps:

01Choose Satisfaction over Perfection

There are broadly two schools of thought when it comes to making decisions: to be satisfied, or to get the best. People in the former camp will identify a few different features of a partner or project that they’d be happy with and will then be satisfied if any of those come to pass. The perfectionist, on the other hand, tends only to be interested in the best possible option.

On the whole, perfectionists tend to feel far more conflicted with their decisions than those of us able to feel relaxed about lost alternatives.

02Imagine the Alternative

The fear of missing out often takes hold when we overlook a central fact about all the wider options available to us. In general, not merely this or that option, but every option, will disappoint us in some way.

We always believe that we know the truth of a desirable other – the way it will make us feel, the wonderful way it is different to what we have now – when the real truth is that we often see what we most want to see. If we became fully acquainted with the personalities of those people we form a passing attraction to, we would learn that there is something substantially wrong with each and every one of them. If we can learn to imagine their faults and failings as keenly as we see their beautiful attributes, we can become more comfortable with the knowledge that we will likely never know them.

03Contemplate the Human Condition

Missing out is horrible. But it is also completely inevitable. Because no matter what we do there will always be many more things we don’t do.

In the nineteenth century there was a bizarre case of King Ludwig the Second of Bavaria who decided to build himself a palace. He was very keen on Italian architecture, so he commissioned an architect to build him a magnificent Renaissance-style palazzo. But while it was going up he became depressed. He was missing the chance (which he’d always coveted) of constructing a mountain-top castle. Since he was the king, he was able to rouse himself, pull together the nation’s resources and set about building the perfect fairy-tale castle as well (which later became the model for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle). But while that was going up, Ludwig went on holiday to France and visited the vast, splendid palace of Versailles, at which point he was struck by the horrific realisation that he was missing out on having a Versailles-type home of his own. He therefore commissioned a third immense project.

Then he read a book about India and another about Morocco … he was missing out on so much. In the end, his civil servants had him declared insane in order to save the country from economic ruin. The point is, no matter what we do there will be great things we can’t also do: to choose is to kill opportunity. It’s extremely hard to force this fact into our brains. We need to think quite often about Ludwig.

02The Duty Trap: "I can’t make a change, people wouldn’t like it"

Most of us begin life seriously interested in fun. In our earliest years, we do little but seek out situations that will keep us amused: jumping in puddles, drawing elaborate scenes in crayon, climbing up trees, putting things up our noses to entertain our friends or chairing lengthy discussions with teams of teddies. As children, we have little to no sense of obligation towards anything or anyone. As soon as boredom strikes, we drop what we were doing and rapidly set off on a new adventure – and no one appears to mind very much.

But as we grow older, we slowly become aware of one of life’s most frightening secret social laws. This is the law which tells us that there are many hundreds of things we must not get involved in or enjoy doing because other, more intimidating and serious people, will not approve. It’s one of the sadder aspects of growing up that we have to learn to feign interest so skilfully in so many things that bore us so deeply.

By the time we enter the world of work, the idea that we should be focused on our duties has often become utterly ingrained in our minds.

It’s a rather sad reflection of the power that the Duty Trap has over us, that the most commonly requested song at funerals is Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. For the majority of us, perhaps, the song’s refrain is not a statement of truth but more often the reflection of a wish, sadly unfulfilled. A life lived under our own auspices, unconstrained by the expectations of others.

This is not an impossible dream, rather, it is a life that awaits us if we dare to be more assertive in deciding how we live.

Facts of life around worrying

How to take the first steps:

01Experiment with What You Want

The most innovative businesses don’t immediately commit huge funds to new, untested ventures. More often they start with small, inexpensive prototypes which, if they fail, will prove no great disaster.

We can think of our own approach to change in a similar way, taking a small amount of time every week to try out some new and unexpected activity. It may be setting aside ten minutes to dust off the guitar from behind the sofa, listening to some Spanish lessons online, or taking an initial yoga class. Whatever it is, it’s far easier when our mindset is that of an experimental scientist, testing the waters.

02Learn to Respect Your Own Discomfort

When it comes to warding off the influence of duty and obligation, one of the best tools we have is our own instinct. Sometimes, weighing up the facts of a situation can be very enlightening, but it counts for nothing if our gut feeling tells us otherwise.

The Duty Trap might tell us that we are being foolish for feeling this way, but in truth, feeling uncomfortable with a situation lets us know that change is necessary. When fully listened to, it can guide us and help us decide on the course of action that feels true to our own innermost wishes.

Making a change in our life can feel daunting or impractical. Often what we need is to take a first step – even a rather small one.

In a better world, we might lend these first slight acts greater recognition and prestige. Our colleagues would stand respectfully to congratulate us on our first-ever walk to work. Scanning the week’s job adverts would become a special (and honourable) ritual – a chance to contemplate our potential future selves. Opening a savings account might earn us a headline in the local paper: Woman Invests in Future Generations.

We can give the same attention to first steps in our lives – bravely starting new endeavours large and small. Taking a first step is the antidote to being overwhelmed. It starts us moving and can be far more satisfying than we imagine. Over time, these small steps can carry us into the future we hope one day to inhabit.

- Alain de Botton

Facts of life around grasping finances