Robinson Crusoe and Your 401K
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is the original cast-away story. Immediately a best seller, Robinson Crusoe has inspired a such a multitude of shipwrecked tales and survival drama, that the entire genre is known as the "Robinsonade." In this way, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe has become almost synchronous with “deserted island story.” Today this type of story is more popularly known from the viewpoint of fictional Fed-Ex employee, Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) and his volleyball sidekick, Wilson. Unlike in Cast Away, the eponymous protagonist of Robinson Crusoe does not find himself abandoned on an uninhabited island due to a plane crash during a routine job function. Instead, the events and themes leading up to his eventual marooning are part adventure, part hubris, and part providence. But most importantly, Crusoe is driven by an ever-relevant temptation: impatience. Eventually spending over twenty-eight years marooned on his island, Crusoe learns a valuable lesson about patience, productivity, and long-term growth. Thankfully, he did the time so we don’t have to.
Robinson Crusoe opens on an eerily contemporary scene: a well to do middle class father sits down his coming-of-age son and lectures on the virtue of hard work, a simple life, and the existential ease of the middle class. Crusoe’s father assures him that it is “the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he [has] found by long experience [is] the best state in the world.”[i] If Crusoe will just take his father’s advice, he will be guaranteed a manageable life--perhaps a bit simple, prosaic, and full of labor but his station will be guaranteed nonetheless. Predictably, the young Crusoe chooses adventure over home, excitement over comfort, and the gamble of instant riches over the boring promise of the middle class. Sneaking off to sea he leaves the life of simple work and relative ease behind him to risk it all on the high seas. To translate to today’s terms, Crusoe dropped out of college as an accounting major and hit the road to be a travel blogger. Or perhaps the modern-day Crusoe would take all his savings and buy penny stocks on Robinhood instead of starting a 401k. There is nothing more alluring than the chance of beating the system and being that one in a million that becomes rich and successful overnight: for this allure was just as strong in the 18th century as it is today.
His first time at sea, Crusoe faces a large storm and the ship he is on sinks. Luckily, he and the crew are close to shore and all are saved. This is certainly a bad omen for a life dependent on luck, but Crusoe--ignoring all forebodings and palpable signs, in addition to the strong advice from his friends--sets off on another sea journey immediately afterwards. Upon embarkation, the next ship is attacked and Crusoe is captured and enslaved by a Turkish pirate. After spending two years in captivity, Crusoe escapes in a small craft and is rescued by Portuguese traders, who sail Crusoe to Brazil where he decides to remain as a plantation owner. After four years of slowly growing his plantation, Crusoe finally starts to rise into the middle station, i.e. the life that his father lobbied for and was ready to provide him with years ago. It was on his plantation that Crusoe, beset with grief, reflected upon his life before admitting the fact that he could have had this "middle life" much sooner, more easily, and in a place he knew with family he loved--if only he had listened to his father.
Not long thereafter however, Crusoe grows tired of his slow success which bores him and he decides to once again chase the “rash and immoderate desire of rising faster than the nature of the thing admitted; and thus…cast [himself] down again into the deepest gulf of human misery that ever man fell into…”[ii] Seeking adventure and an immediate increase in wealth Crusoe boards another ship--this one en route to Africa on a mission to make a fortune overnight in the transatlantic slave trade. Abandoning his moderately successful and slowly growing plantation, Crusoe heads to sea and was shipwrecked yet again and this time for good: as the only survivor from the ship, Crusoe ends up marooned on a deserted tropical island for the next twenty-eight years.
The rest of the story chronicles his attempt at survival, which ultimately culminates in his flourishing. With no knowledge and very insufficient tools, Crusoe is able to carve out a life for himself. Crusoe builds not just a place of basic survival, but an intricate and enjoyable homestead--his only want being human interaction. With small hatchets and homemade shovels, he fells trees, digs out caves, and builds several “houses” for his defense and enjoyment. The reader follows earnestly as fate finally forces Crusoe to face his youthful intemperance and impatience. Marooned, alone, and with no other prospects to tempt him, Crusoe finally accepts the slow, consistent, and productive work he failed to embrace before. With a glut of time and no escape, Crusoe spends months learning by trial and error to learn how to make a single clay pot; he spends a full year crafting a canoe from a single tree; he waits out the crop cycle year after year to learn how to effectively grow corn and wheat. In short, he learns a lesson that permeates the book, a lesson we should take to heart: that is, with patience, commitment, and time all things are possible. No matter how boring or minute infinitesimal growth may seem--with consistency and patience--a weekly 401k contribution can turn into a fortune, just as a desolate island can turn into a kingdom.
While other novels are measured in days and weeks, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is measured in months and years. By the end, Crusoe is not marooned on a desolate island, instead he is king (albeit a lonely one) of a successful kingdom, which includes: a large herd of domesticated goats, a farm of corn and barely, a vineyard of wild grapes, three homes, a potter’s, a tailor’s, a dairy, and much more. Over long and tedious time, Crusoe learns and grows to create where he originally thought impossible. This idea is perfected in the image of his original “house”: fearing for his safety when he first arrives, Crusoe builds a fence around a hill, and around this fence he plants various saplings. As time progresses, these saplings grow larger and closer together forming a living fence of trees and a thick wood around his home. While the trees grow, Crusoe burrows into the hill with his homemade wooden spade forming a large and comfortable cavern for his home. After almost thirty years, what was originally a small, damp tent has become large, dry, and living fortress; Crusoe is practically a lord living in his castle.
The lesson of growth in Robinson Crusoe is not strictly financial. It can be applied to many facets of how we live. Human flourishing rarely occurs overnight and even if a large advance is made all at once, that exaltation easily wears down, abandoning its slow growth for what is next. Human flourishing advances organically, slowly, and continually throughout our lives in virtue, in learning, in skill, in wealth, and in anything else that is truly worthwhile. As we seek our own fortunes, both fiscal and humane, and are worn down by monotony and seeming insignificance, let us remember our friend Robinson Crusoe and be reminded that it is better to work as if we were a cast-away before our wanton actions make us one. With patience, determination, and time all of our endeavors will grow--even our 401k’s.