Free is magic. Yes, please read that one more time: Free is magic.
The Magic of Free
Internet marketers will tell you that the word ‘free’ is right on top of the list of magnetic words. Everybody wants free; everybody loves free. In modern welfare states, we are educated to demand free. We dammit feel entitled to free. We search the Internet for free games, free music download, and books for free.
What a wonderful world. Let’s lean back on your well-nourished backsides and let the goodies rain from the heavens, For free!
Well, not quiet.
No Pain No Gain
‘There is no free lunch,’ we sigh with an all-knowing smirk. Whenever we have a serious discussion about why things went wrong or did not come to be as intended, we apply this famous adage as the ultimate truth.
Take a deep breath, suck it up, and try again. Because from nothing comes nothing.
‘No pain, no gain’ is cheap and profound at the same time. It is cheap when applied as a catch-all explanation to forgo scrutiny of what has to change in our behavior to achieve success.
And it Is profound because it is the ultimate truth. Nothing happens without the right effort.
How can a universe built on the principle of cause and effect possibly let you taste its nectar without climbing stairs and slaying some monsters first?
When a hero tells about his achievements on television, he will glance into the distance with a pain-stricken face. I suffered for my glory; he is telling us. The relentless, strenuous effort in pursuit of an admirable goal makes a hero. And if we got just lucky, we wouldn’t want anybody to know.
Cheap Things Can’t Be Good
Just like a worthy deed must come from demanding effort, a product becomes desirable as such from a high price.
Every marketer knows that a high price implies quality. For some goods, demand increases as the prices go up as we use conspicuous consumption to validate our status in society.
Staying in that fancy resort can’t possibly have been not extraordinary, because we paid an absurd amount of money for it. Who would want to admit that we’ve been taken for a ride in the name of our longing for status?
Cheap things can have no value because everybody can have them. Exclusivity is the driver.
Wait a Minute – Free works like a charm; everybody wants it. But then ‘no pain, no gain’ and cheap things can’t be good? How does that go together, please?
So, Can Free Things Have Value?
Yes, free things can have value, more than anything else. Let’s sort this out:
Free is magic in three distinct ways:
First, the word free short-circuits rational thinking. This is known as the zero price effect: Since we don’t risk our money for purchasing a good, the perceived value is higher. Smart marketers advertise products for free on the Internet. The hook: you have to pay for the shipping, which accidentally, is more expensive than usual. This obvious trickery works anyway. Even if we know that free is not free. It is magic, or predictably irrational. Dan Ariely has written a book on the subject matter with the same title.
Second, free is magic, and we know that this is magic that cannot work. At least in the face of failure, we tend to reconcile our poor battered souls with that harsh reality. We might still feel that playing the lottery makes sense. And when after ten years of not winning the jackpot, we take a closer look at probabilities, we realize that the lottery is a nuisance to our goal of becoming rich. The flipside, of course, is that we associate money with achievement and signal our success with luxury goods. For most people, this signaling works, even if it’s all just a bank loan or Daddy’s dosh.
Third, there is the magic of free that is real. But it requires the effort of having authentically lived and acquired some wisdom.
It was Coco Chanel who beautifully summarized this in her saying, ‘The best things in life are free. The second best things are very, very expensive.’
The Magic of Free is Real – If Only You Can See
It is free to marvel into the starlit sky. It is free to feel to wind on your face. The bird sings for free. A good friend or lover celebrates your presence – for free. Now that is magic. If you have learned to appreciate it, this might have taken some effort, most likely it involved failure and loss to step back and look at what is really of the value of life. An effort is not just pure brawl, but the required energy for a realization.
And then there are the second-best things which are also worth the while to strive for: The financial freedom to live life on your terms. To buy that Porsche, rent that yacht or place that jewel on the neck of your beloved.
But a wise soul does not confuse these costly things with the magic of being alive, free and healthy. ‘Nothing more beautiful under the sun than to be under the sun,’ says the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachman.
And this is also true: The free things in our life are also the dearest to lose — our freedom, our health, and ultimately our life. Being grateful for them, cherish and nourish them is an excellent start to also enjoy the second-best things in life, that are very, very expensive as Coco Chanel said.