Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
There was a good article at the BBC the other day about small living spaces. In it, they profile a lady from Colorado who, years ago, bought a small apartment at a time when her friends were all buying houses.
“I was teased a lot because I bought so conservatively,” said Michelle Jackson, now 42. “Some of my friends didn’t understand why I wanted such a small place. There was some peer pressure that I didn’t expect.”
Ah, yes. Peer pressure. But Jackson gets the last laugh. Her reduced living costs have afforded her a degree of financial freedom, such that she’s been able to leave her job. I guess she does all the teasing now, during her ample spare time.
There are some interesting stats, including the average size of newly-built, single-family detached homes in select countries:
Denmark: 1,475 square feet / 137 square metres
U.S.: 2,506 square feet / 233 square metres
Australia: 2,616 square feet / 243 square metres
The article goes on to discuss a range of factors that should be considered by prospective owners of small (< 500 square feet) and tiny (< 350 square feet) houses. In my opinion, they save the most important consideration for the end:
Professionally built tiny houses [in the U.S.] typically cost between $30,000 and $50,000…Build it yourself and you could do it for $25,000 or less.
Just think what you could do with the $325,000 you didn’t spend on your house, or the equivalent amount of time that you didn’t need to work. The possibilities are endless.
I trust readers will recognize the house in the picture…
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
I once had a friend who worked as an addictions counsellor. Drugs, booze, gambling, sex…she dealt with every kind of addiction conceivable. She would frequently regale us with fantastic stories from her work (usually over drinks, come to think of it), and she was fond of saying that “Everything — EVERYTHING — comes down to self esteem”.
I thought of her this week when I read a series of articles about our growing addiction to consumption and debt. The articles were about Canada (my homeland), where people seem to have an insatiable appetite for borrowing money to buy things. This problem is not unique to Canada, of course, or to so-called rich countries. Consumerism is rampant wherever people have a bit of money, access to credit, and TV ads telling them what they should buy in order to be like the cool kids.
Here are two of the articles, for your reading dismay. The first deals with the issue of debt, money and depression. In it, a middle-class woman describes how her family was sideswiped by sudden loss of employment (emphasis mine):
It took Zerr four years to clear her credit card debt through the credit counselling service…[she] has torn up the Visa, Brick and Bay cards in favour of prepaid credit cards when needed.
For those readers not from Canada, The Brick is a furniture store, and The Bay is large department store that sells clothes and home decor items.
Here’s how I think this counter-Escaplogical scenario played out: couple gets married, has children, succumbs to the pressure to buy 2000+ square foot suburban house because everyone else is doing it and because banks make it easy, then they rush to furnish said house. I’m also guessing they had two vehicles, took the odd vacation to Hawaii or Mexico, and purchased a lot *indispensable* Martha Stewart type stuff like toss cushions for the sofa, a big mirror to go above the fancy table at the front entrance, a KitchenAid stand mixer, and an extra TV for the man cave.
I try not to judge, because I’ve lived on the fringes of that world and I understand the insidious nature of the process. And as much as anything, the article speaks to a lack of financial literacy and shoddy government / central bank policy. But the overwhelming take-aways for me are about personal responsibility and the underlying motivations for spending money. The reality is that people waste a shocking amount of money, and in some cases incur a crazy debt load, solely to keep up with expectations. The sad part: they don’t even need to.
Here’s the second article, which reads like something out of The Onion. In this case, I almost hope the debt crash happens so that there can be a follow-up interview with these lunatics. “Honestly, we never saw this coming…my wife even had to sell her collection of Chanel purses.”
You be the judge.
The bottom line is that my addiction counsellor friend was right:
Everything — EVERYTHING — comes down to self-esteem.
Escape would be a lot easier if people learned to examine their spending patterns through that lens.
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am currently living in Medellin, Colombia. My wife and I have rented a small apartment which, at 572 square feet, is roughly half the size of the apartment that we just vacated in Canada. Which in turn was half the size of the house we used to own. If this trend continues, we’ll be living in a small yurt by the year 2020.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’ve stayed in a yurt before. It was fun and relaxing.
Back to the apartment. There’s one bedroom, 1.5 bathrooms (i.e. 0.5 bathrooms too many), a decent sized living area, a small walk-in closet, and a small laundry room / pantry. There’s no clothes dryer, so right now I’m sitting with wet laundry draped across all the chairs. Gives the place a nice fresh scent.
Since we’ll be here temporarily (end-Oct), we’re renting a furnished place. Bedding, towels, cleaning supplies: all included. We brought our own coffee paraphernalia (as one does) but otherwise the kitchen has all the essentials. There’s even a sandwich press, of which I’ve become a huge fan.
We’re very happy here. With each successive move, as our square footage has decreased, our peace of mind has increased. Maybe we’re like dogs, who instinctively seek refuge in small places, rather than be exposed to the dangers of large open areas. I suspect many of you will feel the same way about the comforts of small living spaces.
Because we’ll go mobile at the end of our stay in Medellin, we must remain unencumbered. There is simply no incentive or impulse to buy anything. This creates a real sense of freedom, because a whole thought process is removed from the equation. Contrast that with more permanent scenarios, where we tend to nickel and dime ourselves with small purchases of “must-haves”, unwittingly spending our hard-earned money just to create a maddening world of clutter.
Our stay in Medellin, and our forthcoming life of hostels and tents, will serve as boot camp for when we eventually return to Canada. Our spartan existence on the road will allow us to recalibrate our stuff-o-meters. We’ll return to the land of plenty as hardened minimalists, inured to making do with enough. We’ll be armed with the knowledge that we’re happier with less. And we’ll know that 572 square feet is overkill.
Yes. I think we’ll go back and live in a yurt…
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
“If you can read, you can cook.”
So said my dear mother. She was referring to a person’s ability to read a recipe, follow the instructions, and produce a proper meal. It works, in theory.
Here’s another theory:
“If you can perform elementary school math, you can be a successful Escapologist.”
So said Lentus Ambulandus. I’ve unearthed the essence of Escapology, herein represented in its raw mathematical form.
We know that
Income = Work x Compensation
where Work is a time value and Compensation is a rate.
We also know that
Income = Consumption + Savings
Work x Compensation = Consumption + Savings
Work = (Consumption + Savings) / Compensation
We are also aware of The Unfortunate Law of Leisure:
Leisure = Adult Lifespan – Work
where Adult Lifespan is an unknown constant.
But Leisure is really Escapology in its quantifiable form. Thus, we may say:
Escapology = Adult Lifespan – (Consumption + Savings) / Compensation
In order to maximize Escapology, and taking Adult Lifespan as given, we have three options: minimize Consumption, minimize Savings, or maximize Compensation.
However, experience has taught us that there’s an inverse relationship between current Savings and future Work:
Savings(now) x Work(future) = k
where k is a constant.
It would be foolish to minimize Savings, because this would increase Work(future). Our options are therefore reduced to two: minimize Consumption and maximize Compensation. But is increased Compensation really possible? Theoretically, yes, but the preponderance of evidence shows it to be a rare occurrence, and therefore not a reliable course of action.
In the end, we are left with only one clear, dependable path to Escapological maximization:
Stop buying stuff.
If we can do the math, we can Escape.
It works, in theory.
Posted by Lentus Ambulandus
I have two favourite travel quotes. The first is by Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar):
…leaving was a cure: “Have you tried aspirin?” “No, I think I’ll go to India.”
The other is by Bruce Chatwin (Anatomy of Restlessness):
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” I said. “So have I,” she added. “Go there for me.” I went. I cabled the Sunday Times: “Have gone to Patagonia.”
When I was younger, I was always thrilled at the prospect of setting off for parts unknown. The melancholy associated with leaving — if it existed at all — was superseded by the excitement of what lay ahead. Change was a virtue. The more different and challenging the new place promised to be, the better.
But as time passed, the lustre of travel seemed to fade. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe I thought I’d seen enough…or perhaps we decided so much change had become costly. I wrote about the merits of staying in place, and told myself that it was time to focus locally. My wife and I made a concerted effort to settle down, in what might be described as an ideal location. It felt unnatural.
About a week ago, my wife (an accountant, of sorts) phoned me as she was boarding a flight home from a work trip.
“I just got offered a six-month contract in Colombia.”
“When do they want you to start?”
“In two weeks. They need to know tomorrow.”
We’re going to Colombia. On Saturday.
The most striking part of this was the complete lack of debate. When the opportunity to hit the road presented itself, it was like we breathed a huge sigh of relief: we aren’t settling down, after all! It’s almost as though the Colombia offer was a test, designed to reveal a great truth about how we really ought to live.
It’s also testament to the freedom of manoeuvre one gains by living an untethered, unencumbered lifestyle. Translation: we rent, we hardly own anything, and we have no commitments. The ass-pain associated with moving on short notice is fairly low.
Escapological lessons abound. I’ll write about freedom of manoeuvre, as well as the economics of our decision (hint: South America is a lot cheaper than Canada), in the next print edition of New Escapologist.
We’re taking two suitcases, two backpacks, and two bikes. After we’re finished in Colombia, we’ll put a moratorium on work and head further south — Peru, Chile, Argentina — where we’ll hike, cycle, and live simply. We’ll be gone for at least a year.
Leaving is a cure.
Have gone to Patagonia.
Play outdoors. Love the earth. Live simply. Use only what you need.
That’s the creed of Daniel Norris, rookie pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball. Despite earning a seven-figure salary, he chooses to live in a VW Westfalia, and gets by on $800 per month.
Here’s hoping he can stick to his principles, stay free, and keep the van running.
The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.
This statement, equal parts indictment of, and warning to, the ambitious, is how Robert Louis Stevenson concludes his essay An Apology for Idlers. Better known for books such as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson appears to have been an Escapologist at heart.
He reminds us that our concept of work-as-a-virtue is merely convention and tradition, and not necessarily valid. While he doesn’t denigrate work, he builds the case for the alternative — Leisure — to be given its due:
Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.
Stevenson makes a very compelling argument for truancy (take note, Parents!), making me wish I had a time machine…
If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret.
While others are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week be out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.
The idler…has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind.
Come to think of it, I do not regret skipping Econometrics class in fourth year to ride my bicycle across a frozen stretch of Lake Ontario and drink beer at a pub on Wolfe Island. It’s one of the few things I remember about fourth year: although I recall nothing of Econometrics, I did learn a thing or two about windchill.
Finally, on the subject of duty, Stevenson has this to say:
There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.
Be happy. Call into work sick tomorrow and take the kids out of school. You owe it to the world.
On a recent flight, I felt a strange compulsion to peruse the shopping magazine “conveniently located in the seat pocket in front of me”.
It was the Christmas edition, and as I flipped through it, I recalled my childhood in rural Canada. Each November, my brother and I would comb the pages of the Sears Christmas catalogue, carefully highlighting the toys that we wanted. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were subjecting ourselves–and our parents–to a huge marketing scam, founded on guilt.
I like to think I’m wiser now. And the shopping magazine served as a hilarious proxy for the non-existent in-flight entertainment system.
For what home is complete without a 21-inch, 19-pound Santa table, at the very reasonable price of $129.00?
Or, for the nature lover, nothing says “Yuletide” like this 6-foot tall, plastic pop-up poinsettia tree. Yours for just $129.99.
And for the Ukrainian in your gift-giving circle, this little gem. Please don’t confuse it with an amputated, bronzed ear…it’s actually a fake dumpling.
I’m increasingly amazed/amused/dismayed at the sheer volume of crap being relentlessly peddled. Christmas, of course, is Exhibit A of mindless consumerism. We’re subconsciously ransomed into spending our money on mass-produced plastic decorations, and on gifts purchased at the last minute when our pre-Christmas angst finally forces our hand.
To fight this tendency, my wife and I have binned or donated 99% of our accumulated Christmas junk…there’s no tree, no lights, no Santa table, and no plastic pierogis chez Gagne. We have, however, retained the important parts of Christmas: food, friends, family.
We hold a secret gift exchange each year: names are picked from a hat, everyone gets one gift, and there’s a $30 limit. It tends to work better when it’s not just the two of us. I usually give books that I think will hold meaning for the recipient. Failing that, I make sure they hold meaning for me. This year, “someone” is getting Thoreau and Seneca.
My friend Izzy, a dedicated Escapologist from the UK who quit everything a couple of years ago to travel, has taken it a step further. She wrote to me recently about the simplicity of Christmas on the road, and the lasting impact that had:
I loved the fact that I didn’t have to write 100 cards, lick all those yucky envelopes, buy all those expensive stamps, or traipse round shops looking for things in desperate hope that people might want or need them, and, best of all, not getting in return a pile of tat (mostly) that I neither wanted or needed. So when we got home, I simply decided not to do it any more. I just send an email around saying “happy whatever you are celebrating this month” and give a donation to charity (one for the homeless).
I think Izzy nails it. We buy things for people because it’s expected, or because we’ll look bad and/or feel guilty if we don’t. If I’m honest about the gifts I’ve received over the years, I neither wanted nor needed them. Acknowledging that, I certainly wouldn’t want my loved ones to waste their time, money, and emotional energy on a gift for me.
What if everyone else feels the same way? Could it be that we’ve all been duped, and Christmas is just one big scam? It’s worth considering.
And since you’re probably well behind on your Christmas shopping, here’s a suggestion that will make life easier for you. This year, share the gift of leadership with your family and friends.
Take a stand and say NO! to gifts.
Part 0 provided background.
Part 1 discussed the benefits of planning.
Part 2 established your long-term aim: what does it means to live well?
Part 3 showed you how to analyze the relevant aspects of your situation.
Part 4 presented ways to compare potential courses of action.
And here we are. The final post!
So…your overarching aim is to live well. You’ve identified what you want that to look like. And, having thought long and hard, you’ve decided upon the best course of action for getting from here to there.
Surely that’s it…
There’s one more step to complete in order to achieve escapological planning nirvana: you need to actually articulate your action plan. How–in terms of resource allocation, sequencing, and prioritization–are you going to carry out your selected course of action? Think of this as your mission statement, a manifesto-style declaration.
The Elements of a Plan
Borrowing from Part 1, here’s an example of how such a declaration might read:
My aim is to live well through simplicity, self-sufficiency and community involvement. I will achieve this by embarking upon an ambitious plan to become an organic farmer, as follows:
Phase 1: I’ll optimize my finances by maintaining my current job, by embracing scorched-earth minimalism, and by focusing only on core leisure activities.
Phase 2: I’ll quit my job, I’ll move to a place conducive to my long-term goal of self-sufficiency, and I’ll find interim work that pays the bills. No later than July 1, 2017 I’ll purchase a small parcel of land.
Phase 3: I’ll develop an organic farm and I’ll turn my attention to being a productive member of my local community.
Common to all phases is the maintenance of my fitness and my close relationships, because without those things, I am nothing.
My main effort is the accumulation of savings for the purpose of buying land.
My desired end state is to produce 50% of my family’s food consumption on my farm, and to be a positive force within my circle of influence.
You’ll note the following characteristics, which I consider essential to any plan:
1. A statement of your overarching aim and the enduring effects that you want to achieve.
2. A clear statement of your selected course of action.
3. Broad sequencing of events, or phasing, with dates if possible. Does one thing have to happen before another? Does one aspect of your plan depend on the completion of another? Are there important aspects of your plan that are common to all phases? State them.
4. Prioritization in the form of a stated main effort. This is what you’ll focus your attention and effort on when you have to prioritize among competing activities. It’s likely the lynchpin to your whole plan: fail at this portion of your plan, and the rest cannot happen.
5. A clear and measurable end state. This is the performance metric by which you’ll judge your success. [The end state above is lacking, somewhat, in that “positive force within my circle of influence” is not measurable.]
6. Every aspect of the plan should be there for a reason. After all the analysis you’ve done, there should be nothing in your plan for which there isn’t an explanation, and a trail of bread crumbs leading back to earlier steps in the process.
7. Most importantly, it needs to be a bold statement of intent. When the going gets tough (and it usually does at some point) you want this to be something you can refer back to. “Where am I going? Ah, right. Back on track.”
The Planning Cycle
No plan is forever, and no plan survives contact with reality (as they say). If your analysis was sound, your plan will be robust. It will withstand a certain degree of change. But…but…life happens, and from time to time, you will be confronted with what is known as a significant change to the situation (“honey, I’m pregnant” or “man…farming actually sucks!”). This will, of course, require a plan revision. Which is okay, because you’ll be starting from a position of strength and knowledge.
Even in the absence of significant change, you should review and revalidate your plan on a regular basis. Maybe tweak things a bit. Are you assumptions still valid? Do you have new information? Are things as you thought they were? My wife and I actually take time to formally review our plan on a quarterly basis. Wine and spreadsheets…a winning combination.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. (Seneca)
I think it’s important that we take time to think about life. Sooner, rather than later. We all have this inner dialogue running in the background, about what’s important, what we want out of life, where we are, and where we want to go. We should strive to bring that conversation forward, and to actually have it with ourselves and with our loved ones, deliberately and proactively. That’s what this series has been about. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Part 0 provided background.
Part 1 discussed the benefits of planning, and outlined the process.
Part 2 focused on your long-term aim: what does it means to live well, and what are the desired effects that you want to achieve?
Part 3 showed you how to conduct an analysis of relevant factors.
If you haven’t read the preceding instalments, please do so, otherwise this one won’t make much sense to you.
But assuming you have read them, and done some thinking along the way, you may now find yourself at a fork in the road. Having determined what it means (for you) to live well, and having analyzed the factors relevant to your situation, you might be thinking of several possible courses of action. The next task is to compare those different alternatives, and select the one that’s best for you.
A Few Thoughts About The Way Forward
When I refer to a course of action, or COA, I’m talking about a possible way forward to achieving the desired effects that you’ve outlined for yourself, and thus, the good life. Returning to the previous posts in the series, we considered an escapologist who wanted a life of independence, simplicity, and health, and figured they might achieve those effects by owning an organic farm. Farming is an option, but only one of many. COA 1: Organic Farm would need to be compared against the other COAs that our fictional escapologist developed during their analysis.
Your COAs may be drastically different from one another. Or they may be variations on a theme, with differences related to timing, the sequence of actions, and so on. If all of your proposed COAs are along a similar vein, it probably means you have a pretty good idea of what you want to achieve, but lack the nuts and bolts of a detailed plan. COA 1: Clean Kill might be the high-risk option whereby you quit your job today and immediately start farming. COA 2: Water Torture might be the more measured approach, where you maintain your shitty job for a few more years and take farming courses in your spare time.
One COA you should always consider is the status quo. This is important, I think, because your analysis may well have shone a positive light on your life, or aspects of it that you want to maintain. Conversely, if the status quo isn’t what you want, then including it among COAs for comparison will surely be the final nail in its coffin.
Finally, much of the discussion thus far has centred on the means by which we make money, be it employment or some other endeavour. While work is a significant part of our lives, it’s not the only part, and the COAs you consider don’t necessarily have to contain a work component.
My preferred way to compare COAs is to use a matrix with some sort of scoring mechanism. I list my COAs across the top, and list the assessment criteria down the side.
What assessment criteria should you use? Whatever you think makes sense. As a minimum, I’d advise you to ask yourself the following questions:
How effective will this COA be? Assuming all COAs have equal probability of success, how do they stack up against each other in terms of achieving your desired effects?
How quickly can this COA be implemented? And is this important?
How likely is this COA to be successful? How much risk is there? How much of the COA in question is dependent on others, or on chance?
How much ass pain does this COA involve? Because if it’s going to be a lot of work, and cause a lot of stress, what’s the point?
You could use a numerical score (1 = low ass pain, 5 = yer killin me), or you could use a ranking system (of all the COAs under consideration, which involved the greatest ass pain? the next greatest? and so on). Both have their merits, so try both systems and see what you come up with. If one criterion is more important than the rest, consider a weighting system.
To demonstrate how this works, let’s return to our fellow escapologist who wants a greater degree of financial freedom, good health, and a simple life. But imagine, if you will, that their analysis led them to consider three vastly different COAs: 1) organic farmer; 2) minimalist urban barista; and 3) bohemian writer.
Here’s how the comparison might look:
If our notional escapologist friend ended up with these results, they should give strong consideration to COA 2. If nothing else, such an exercise will expose the relative merits and weaknesses of each COA. The trick is to choose assessment criteria that are meaningful to you, and based on the end result you’re trying to achieve.
That’s it for this week. In the next and final instalment, we’ll wrap things up by looking at key aspects of your final plan, as well as ways to measure performance.