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drawing of Plato's cave

❝The path to wisdom begins with the courage to step out of the shadows and embrace the blinding light of truth.❞ -unknown

I am at the library reading The Allegory of the Cave from "The Republic" by Plato. This story is effectively a conversation between his teacher, Socrates, and his brother, Glaucon about prisoners kept in a cave who stare at shadows all day long.

Plato’s Cave is nothing more than an interesting story to me, that is until my professor asks us to draw parallels between this story and real life.

This exercise was immediately profound because of how many parallels can be drawn between Plato’s Cave and life.

Below I will attempt to use Plato’s Cave to serve as a new way to think about financial change.


Imagine a cave. The cave might look something like this.

drawing of Plato's cave

Now, admittedly, these illustrations look like they were done by somebody in middle school (even though they were illustrated by a grown up in his 40s) so you might need some clarifying labels.

drawing of Plato's cave

Next, imagine you are a prisoner in this cave. You are chained at the bottom and are unable to see anything except for the front wall.

drawing of a person in Plato's cave

Behind you is a fire that provides light to the cave wall you can see.

drawing of a person and fire in Plato's cave

Between you and the fire is an area where people can hold up cutouts you can’t see.

drawing of puppets in Plato's cave

These cutouts make shadow puppets on the cave wall. These shadows are all that you’re able to see. And it’s been this way for your whole life. To you, this is what reality is. There’s no other way you could understand the world.

drawing of Plato's cave's shadows on the wall

The point of this thought experiment is that this is kind of like what it’s like to see the world only through the lens of your experiences. You develop your Money Story, Money Scripts, personal values, sense of coherence, and other schemas based on what you experienced in life. It is very difficult for us to understand that there is a different way of seeing the world. Somebody who highly values family can find it difficult to connect with somebody who chooses not to have children, for example.

So the first key takeaway from Plato’s Cave is that we are all viewing the world through our own experience, and that’s what we consider to be reality.

drawing of Plato's cave and shadow reality


What you know is that reality feels safe. This is why psychological concepts like confirmation bias are so strong. Once we have an opinion or sense of coherence, it’s very uncomfortable to be presented with information contradicting our worldview.

Back in the cave, imagine you can break free from your chains. The first thing you would notice is that there are other prisoners there. You would then see the fire and the puppets behind you. You would start to make the connection between the real puppets, the light from the fire, and the shadows on the wall.

This would be very uncomfortable. This would be discovering that everything you thought was real was an illusion.

This is enough for many people to sit back down and put the chains back on. It’s so uncomfortable to learn that we may have been wrong and that we prefer to live in illusion. One might call this living in denial.

drawing of escaping Plato's cave

Suppose you were to leave the cave. When you leave the cave, you would be confronted with a world you couldn’t have imagined before. You would notice a sun in the sky, but you wouldn’t be able to see much else at first. Your eyes have been accustomed to being in a cave. This new world would be too bright. You would have to squint and cover your eyes.

At this point, it would be tempting to tell yourself the story that things are worse outside the cave. After all, you were never this uncomfortable staring at the cave wall.

The analogy is that change is hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Becoming a runner is harder than being a couch potato. Eating healthy is harder than eating fast food. And implementing good financial habits is harder than ignoring your finances. Much like being outside the cave for the first time, our behaviors will be uncomfortable at first. They will come along with the temptation to revert back to how things were.

drawing of leaving Plato's cave

The Value Compass is designed to help you gain insight into your own values and how they guide your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can be used to explore your personal goals and motivations, as well as to gain a better understanding of others' values and how they may differ from your own.


Although stepping out of the cave at first would be uncomfortable because the sun would be blinding you, eventually, you will get used to it. Once you get used to it, you would have a hard time understanding how you used to be.

drawing of outside Plato's cave

Because of what you’ve discovered, you would naturally want to share your new insights with your friends who are still in the cave. But upon reentering the cave, you would find that your eyes are now accustomed to being outside, and you wouldn’t be able to see. Everything would be too dark.

So imagine what the cave dwellers would think of you. You left and came back unable to see. To them, and looks like you made a big mistake.

drawing of going back into Plato's cave

Further, what you would describe to them is something they can't fathom. Remember, like you once were, their reality is based on shadows on the cave wall. Their experience will be similar to the first time you stood up and saw the fire and the puppets. Learning that there's an alternate way of thinking about the world is uncomfortable.

They would naturally dismiss you. You wouldn't be accepted back. The analogy here is around the subject of a financial comfort zone. Financial comfort zones define the range of money inside which you are comfortable. Having a lower bound makes intuitive sense. It's easy to imagine not feeling comfortable if our income or savings dropped below a certain threshold.

What's more difficult to understand is that there is an upper bound. When you move up the wealth spectrum, things change. It's almost like you moved to a new neighborhood, a new financial neighborhood. And if you moved to a new financial neighborhood (left the cave), your old friends in the old neighborhood (the prisoners) might not be too accepting of you.

When you make positive change, you open yourself up to the potential that others will judge you or have a belief that you think you're better than them.

drawing of talking to the other prisoners in Plato's cave


Try as you might, it might be difficult to convince your fellow prisoners. You owe it to yourself and the others to educate them on your newfound knowledge. You shouldn't necessarily ignore people who disagree with you. But what do you do if you are unable to convince them? Or worse, what do you do if the others are actively harming you in some way (physically, emotionally, mentally)?

Marketing expert Seth Godin famously encourages us to shun the nonbelievers. If we find there are people who are actively sucking the energy out of us with no upside, then it's time to revisit those relationships.

If there are people who don't want the best for you, that's okay. They can think what they want. They have the freedom to do so. You also have freedom. You have the freedom to live your life according to your own personal values, sources of meaning, and Financial Purpose.

drawing of being outside Plato's cave

Learning more about Plato's Cave, a story written over 2,300 years ago, has the potential to change how you view lifelong learning, positive change, and habits.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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