New Escapologist reader Richard directs our attention to a likable 2013 film from Finland called Tavarataivas, or “My Stuff“. It’s fun!
It tells the story (it’s a documentary but shot in a very filmic and narrative way) of a chap called Petri who decides to put all his material possessions temporarily into a storage unit. Starting over with nothing on January 1st, he allows himself to retrieve one item per day for the rest of the year. He’ll end up with his 365 most important things. A one-year minimalism project.
So Petri wakes up on New Year’s Day and dashes nude through the winter snow to retrieve a coat. It continues from there. What will he get next? What will he never retrieve? Will his friends and family disown him over his inconvenient experiment?
The result is a fun way of understanding the necessity or superfluity of things, of working out material and spiritual/psychological priorities.
Obviously, Petri’s doesn’t suggest that everyone should do this or even that he needed to himself. He doesn’t even sing the song of minimalism particularly loudly. It’s just a good-humoured experiment about how much stuff is enough.
I enjoy the way he’s forced to be resourceful without certain conveniences. Without a fridge, for example, he cools his food on the ledge outside his kitchen window. He has to get by without plates or cutlery for a while and discusses the problems and benefits of having no phone or computer.
I also like how he gets to (if memory serves) 23 things and starts to think it might actually be enough if it had to be: all problems solved with 23 things. He has similar thoughts around 50 things, the debate over which object to retrieve next becoming less and less important. There’s also a touching interview with his grandmother about the value of stuff and how it might differ between old and young people and men and women.
It’s interesting. But mainly, it’s just quite heartening fun.
Issues 1-7. A bundle containing our first seven issues in print. Featuring minimalism, Houdini, Leo Babauta, Bohemianism, Alain de Botton, Sartre, Joshua Glenn. Seven issues, 567 pages. £35 / €44 / US$56 / C$63
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?
Now the process becomes more specific.
In Part 2, you identified where you want to be, situationally. You now have to consider what lies between here and there. What obstacles do you have to overcome? What things do you have in your favour? What resources do you require? What limitations are you constrained by? And so on.
You need to consider all the relevant factors, and assess what bearing each has on achieving your aim. The simplest way to do this is to ask yourself, for each factor:
Let me demonstrate.
In responding to one of the comments left by a reader in Part 1, I said that my wife often keeps me grounded by dousing my big ideas with an ice-cold dose of reality. Example: I once had it in my head that I would own a coffeehouse. She pointed out that coffeehouse owners don’t tend to take off on weeklong hiking trips very often, and also said “you know, if you have a customer that irritates you, you can’t just tell them to get the hell out of your cafe”.
I could have avoided that discussion by thinking things through:
Fact: I prioritize my free time over my work, and want the flexibility to take time off on short notice.
So what? I need to be conscious of, and limit, my responsibilities.
So what? Limiting responsibility implies avoiding work that requires my persistent presence.
Deduction: Any course of action I consider must focus on project work, or on work that can be done remotely.
Fact: my temperament has been described as mercurial, and my manner blunt and/or acerbic.
So what? I need to either avoid situations that depend highly on relationships, or deal only with people who can take it.
So what? Customer interface, teamwork, and supervisory roles are not for me.
Deduction: I won’t consider any course of action involving customers, subordinates, or collaborative environments.
See? Had I done my homework, there’s no way I would have considered a coffeehouse.
Now let’s pretend I’m the guy who said, in Part 2, that I’d live well by becoming an organic farmer. As you recall, I temporarily parked the idea of the farm, and determined that what I’m really after is a situation characterized by simplicity, financial independence, and good health.
Here’s a notional conversation I might have with myself, in which I examine some of the relevant factors:
Fact: I seek financial independence, which I define this as not having to rely on others for money.
Analysis: This can be achieved in two ways: self-employment, or the accumulation of wealth such that I don’t have to work anymore. Realistically, my current income won’t permit wealth accumulation soon enough: I’ll literally die trying.
So what? All roads lead to self-employment.
Deduction: I need to research business ideas (one of which will be farming) ASAP. In the meantime I need to keep working my day job.
Analysis: Financial independence will be achieved more quickly if I increase my savings rate. There are two principal ways to do this: maintain my current lifestyle, but work harder; or change my current lifestyle.
So what? There’s no way in hell I’m going to work harder. I need to change my lifestyle in order to reduce costs.
Deduction: one of my immediate tasks is to assess what I’m spending my money on, and slash discretionary spending.
Fact: I currently work 40 hours per week, have a full slate of social engagements, and try to squeeze in several leisure pursuits.
Analysis: This is unsustainable, particularly for someone who seeks simplicity. I have little time for focused leisure, or for researching my future business.
So what? I need to load-shed, and create more time for myself.
So what? I need to determine what’s essential, and stop doing everything else.
Deduction: Effective immediately, I will cut ties with people who don’t add value; I will engage in only those hobbies I truly enjoy (hiking and cycling); I will conduct a scorched earth minimalism campaign among my belongings.
You get the idea. As you go through all the factors relevant to your situation, you’ll arrive at specific deductions, or endpoints in your logic. A clearer picture will emerge as these deductions drive and shape your planning effort. You’ll identify realistic courses of action, and eliminate those that aren’t viable. You’ll shed light on required resources, as well as limitations and constraints. And you’ll have a better understanding of your priorities.
Which factors should you consider? The ones that you deem important, and the ones that are central to the problem. The sky’s the limit, but there’s value in keeping it simple.
In Part 4, we’ll assume that we’ve analyzed all of the relevant factors and identified several viable courses of action (COAs). We’ll look at ways to compare COAs and select the COA on which you’ll base your plan.
See you next week.
Part 0 provided background.
Part 1 discussed the benefits of planning, and outlined the process:
1. Identify your aim.
2. Analyze relevant factors.
3. Consider the courses of action available to you.
4. Select the most appropriate course of action and develop your plan.
Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and tackle Step 1: what are we trying to achieve through all this planning?
This is trickier than you might think. On the surface, we all know that the aim is to live well. But we need to look under the hood and see what living well is actually comprised of. Not just what, but also why.
The importance of this exercise can’t be overstated: a clear aim gives us a sense of purpose that informs and guides the remainder of our planning effort, as well as our subsequent execution of said plan.
Our aim is the “where am I going? (and why)” portion of “where am I? where am I going? how do I get there?”
In preparing to write Plan Your Escape, I asked friends and family what they want out of life. I got two types of response. The overly vague: “I want to be happy”. And the overly precise: “I want to be an organic farmer”, or “I want to own a coffeehouse”, or “I want to live in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean and never work again”.
Both types of answer demand clarification.
To the person who says they want to be happy, I ask “What is happy comprised of?”
To the person who says they want a farm, or a nice house and no work, I ask “Why? How did you arrive at that conclusion?”
Somewhere in between platitudes about happiness and defined outcomes involving farms and houses, lies the essence of the good life: the intangible, descriptive effects that we want to achieve, which we believe will make us happy.
Take, for instance, that person who says they want to own a farm. Do they really? Or do they want a life characterized by attributes that they think farming will provide? Because owning a farm is not an end unto itself. It’s not a what, it’s a how. It’s one possible means among many to achieving a set of underlying effects. Perhaps our would-be farmer envisions a life of independence, good physical health, and contact with nature. Perhaps they assume that farming will be a simple, care-free existence. Perhaps they think organic farming will make their community better.
So instead of saying:
I want to be an organic farmer.
They might say:
My intent is to live well by achieving four desired effects: simplicity, economic independence, community involvement, and good health.
Upon further review and analysis, they may decide that the best course of action is to be an organic farmer. On the other hand, they may decide to embrace minimalism, rent a small apartment in a city with lots of green space, and become an advocate for dedicated cycling lanes on their streets. Both courses of action will achieve the aim.
Establish Your Intent
How do you identify the effects you want to achieve? By asking yourself questions. Start with the one I asked at the end of Part 1:
What do you think it means to live well?
Actually, let’s rephrase that:
What will it mean to have lived well?
Because that’s really the one that counts, right? I find it useful, because it puts the day-to-day stuff into perspective.
If you’re a visual person, you might use a mind map…start with “the good life” in the centre and work outward from there.
Or, you could project yourself forward into an imagined future where you’re living well. What does that look like? What elements are present? What elements are absent? Why?
The key is to get beyond–or rather beneath–the material, status-based, or situational outcomes that you have in mind. A healthy dose of skepticism comes in handy, and you might just conclude that you’ve led yourself astray. The first time my wife and I really did this, we sold our house. Why? Because a house in the suburbs simply didn’t jibe with the attributes that we saw in our desired future: financial flexibility, maximum leisure, minimum stress.
You may see an entirely different future for yourself. You might throw everything into the hopper and determine that your long-term aim is characterized by strong relationships and economic stability.
The point is that you deconstruct your image of the good life and reduce it to its essence, as opposed to manifestations of that essence. Focus on the effects you want to achieve:
My aim is to live well by achieving a situation characterized by the following desirable effects…
I’ll leave you to it. Next week, armed with your thoroughly considered aim, you’ll start to refine the problem by examining all relevant factors and analyzing their impact.
See you next week.
In Part 0 to this series, I said we’d be exploring a simple, logical planning framework.
The method I’ll describe here is loosely based on The Combat Estimate, which I learned about during my military service. The Estimate is comprised of four steps:
In the military context, this method is useful for solving all sorts of problems: applying a limited budget, organizing a training event, engaging one’s enemy.
Here at New Escapologist, however, we’re interested in a project that’s so much more appealing than mortal combat: life, and how to live it well.
1) Aim. What does it mean (for you) to live well? Are you sure about that?
2) Factors. What aspects about your own character and your situation do you need to consider, and how do they inform and shape your solution?
3) Courses. What avenues are realistically available to you?
4) Plan. Among the options available, which path grants you the greatest probability of achieving the good life?
In truth, there’s nothing really remarkable about this method, and it’s not strictly a military tool. You’ve likely seen elements of the process in your workplace, because operational planning is at the heart of all organizations: where are we? where do we want to go? how do we get there?
And if you think about it, we inherently go through this line of questioning at the individual level, in a continuous, subconscious decision-making loop: where am I? where would I rather be? what’s the best way?
So. Why Bother?
Right now you’re probably feeling a little ripped-off.
If there’s nothing remarkable about the process, and we already do it, what’s the point of this blog series?
Because most of us don’t do it very well. We don’t do it deliberately, or holistically, or consistently. At best, our lives are a process of trial and error–we’re like paramecia, bumping into the same obstacles over and over, hoping for different results each time. Through equal parts luck and pain, we finally figure things out after X iterations…by which point we’re in our 40s. That’s the most likely scenario. The worst case scenario is that we make a complete hash of things, but don’t realize it until it’s too late.
Wouldn’t it be better to strive for the best case scenario? To cut the crap, avoid the hassle, identify early on what it means to live well, and make a beeline for it? That’s really what this is all about: efficiency, economy of effort, focused action.
Because personally, I’d rather come up with something like this:
My mission is to live well through self-sufficiency and community involvement, which I’ve determined to be the true drivers of my happiness.
After considering all the relevant factors, I’ve concluded that I need to break this mission down into three phases. 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–what I’ll focus on when I have to prioritize–is the accumulation of savings for the purpose of buying land.
My desired end state–the performance metric by which I’ll judge my success–is to produce 50% of my family’s food consumption on my farm, and to be a positive force within my circle of influence.
My immediate tasks for Phase 1 are: [insert list]
Especially if every single phrase in that statement was the result of careful contemplation and analysis.
By contrast, I’d like to avoid saying something like this:
You know, I always wanted a farm. I guess it was just a silly dream, and in any case, life got in the way. Marriage, house, dog, kids…then I got a promotion and a transfer at work, and my responsibilities piled up. Life just happened, and before I knew it…blah blah BLAH!
Life doesn’t just happen. We make it happen. For the record, I don’t want to be an organic farmer, because I’m very lazy (my laziness is a key factor that I must consider when formulating plans)…it was just an example. But regardless of what your personal version of the good life is, a statement like the one in the example is what you want to aim for by the end of this series. We’ll work on that together.
Of course, the skeptics will say that planning is futile. That plans are almost always overcome by events. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, someone once said. To which I’m tempted to respond, “Okay, don’t plan…go shopping instead…best of luck with your tiresome, cookie-cutter, unplanned, unfulfilling life of sheer bullshit.”
Thankfully, I’m above that sort of response.
Instead, I’ll argue that planning has benefits beyond your basic probability of success. Even if things don’t go exactly according to plan, you’ll have gained crucial insight. You’ll have a much greater appreciation of yourself, your situation, and the underlying factors that constrain or enable your success. This understanding will grant you strength and flexibility in the face of adversity. Your plan will be a stable, thoroughly-reasoned starting point from which you can make informed adaptations.
A Word Of Caution
I’m going to show you a process, but nobody can do the work for you. Because it’s your life, and it’s a personal voyage. The more you’re willing to put aspects of your situation (your character, your relationships, your work, where you live, your preconceived notions of success, etc) into play, onto the table, and up for debate, the more you’ll get out of it.
Ideally, this series will make you think, engage your imagination, and ask yourself some awkward questions. The good news is that it will be both fun and rewarding. Most of the hard bits can be accomplished while lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling, and by doodling on blank sheets of paper.
In Part 2: Good Intentions, we’re going to discuss the importance of establishing a long-term, overarching intent. To prepare you for that, I have a question:
What do you think it means to live well?
See you next week.
As always, we invite your comments and participation.
It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him. If there is, his work will not be good for him, will not be good in itself, and will not be good for others. And by work I simply mean activity of any kind.
It’s Oscar Wilde’s birthday. Three cheers for the birthday boy!
The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a sacred text of Escapology.
We should be able, Wilde says, to spend our time precisely as we’d like to, slave to no duty or demand from others; and that the best way for society to cater for this is through a kind of non-authoritarian Socialism. In the meantime, of course, there are individual acts of Escapology–freeing ourselves from the grip of the system through clever individualist means–but that we’re brought to this is something of an indictment.
Wilde also uses the word “escape” a bewildering number of times in the essay. It’s quite uncanny. “Scarcely anyone escapes,” he says in his opening paragraph; artists of means are able to escape; Byron and Shelley escaped oppressive England for bohemian Rome.
Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.
We should be free to work as cottage industrialists, to put ourselves into our art or science or craft:
One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living. He is also, under existing conditions, very insecure.
Minimalism comes up in the form of Wilde’s argument against private property. Not that it’s immoral per se but that it’s a pain in the arse.
The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising, and that is, of course, one of the reasons why Socialism wants to get rid of the institution. In fact, property is really a nuisance.
I especially approve of this part about rebellion. Rebellion is not a thing to be enjoyed for it’s own sake, no matter what the punks might think. What great things might have been accomplished by, say, Tony Benn or Che Guevara or Richard Dawkins if they had not been required to spend so much energy going against the grain?
Most personalities have been obliged to be rebels. Half their strength has been wasted in friction. Byron’s personality, for instance, was terribly wasted in its battle with the stupidity, and hypocrisy, and Philistinism of the English. Such battles do not always intensify strength: they often exaggerate weakness. Byron was never able to give us what he might have given us.
Wilde also, like Andrew McAfee, suggests appropriate technology might be our salvation:
At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. […] The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else.
They who have been traveling long on the steppes of Tartary say, “On reentering cultivated lands, the agitation, perplexity and turmoil of civilization oppressed and suffocated us; the air seemed to fail us, and we felt every moment as if about to die of asphyxia.” (Thoreau)
My wife and I are taking advantage of temporary homelessness by meandering through northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We’ve lounged around and sampled the excellent local fare, but mainly we’ve spent time in the woods. Read the rest of this entry »
You don’t normally find gold nuggets lying around in the street and you don’t usually have to stockpile tap water.
The more scarce a commodity, the more valuable. The less scarce a commodity, the closer it is to being garbage.
Maybe one day — through technology — no commodity will be scarce. Everyone will share unlimited abundance. This design is called a post-scarcity society and is fueled by post-scarcity desires and post-scarcity economics. The word ‘rare’ will come up primarily in steak houses.
Most of us would see post-scarcity as a beautiful Utopia: enough for all, no poverty, no insatiable commodity lust. Post-scarcity Anarchists believe the Utopia’s already here (or at least already possible if only we’d distribute the abundance more evenly).
Many of you will know of my aloofness to material goods. By choice, I don’t own much of anything. My idea of heaven is a spartan, minimalist enclave where nothing exists save for the relevant, the useful, the beautiful. Most people share this sentiment but don’t observe it, or their definitions of relevance, utility and beauty are broader than mine.
A good guide for deciding what to keep and what to jettison as a minimalist is to “act as if” we have a post-scarcity economy. This way, you’re more likely to keep things of value and less likely to waste your time fussing over garbage.
I have a friend who isn’t a minimalist and doesn’t think in post-scarcity terms. He’s a spectacular fellow, but he basically lives in a man-shaped cavity in a cube of refuse.
He accumulates all manner of stuff. A thousand DVDs, hundreds of books, a graveyard of superfluous kitchen equipment (salad spinners and the likes). The effect is of a clogged-up nest, a hoarder’s den, the walls closing in, empty space at a premium. His home is the very antitheses of minimalism.
If he likes to live this way, so be it. But he “acts as if” airport paperbacks and unused kitchen appliances were somehow scarce; as if having them in his proximity at all times is worthwhile; as if it gives him some advantage.
He thinks his stuff provides an advantage because he thinks he still lives in a pre-scarcity world: a world where there aren’t enough salad spinners to go around. He thinks he’s richer than his neighbour because he hasn’t noticed that these things are in massive abundance.
The kind of books he’s accumulated, for example, are not scarce. Should one of his books vanish or be destroyed, he’d be able to replace it in moments. The local library undoubtedly has a copy, as will the local bookstore. eBay is chock full of them. A digital edition floats in the ether, ready to be captured at a moment’s notice. To all intents and purposes, this book is not scarce.
Realising that these things are not scarce leads one to believe that maybe we really do have a post-scarcity society already. What, really, is scarce any more? For what do we want today?
If an era, as Arthur Miller said, is over “when its basic illusions are exhausted,” maybe we’re at the end of the era of scarcity?
There has, ironically, been a lot said about minimalism in books and online. But to live minimally really just requires adherence to two simple objectives:
1. Don’t buy or otherwise acquire anything inedible;
2. Rid yourself of anything not frequently useful or aesthetically pleasing to you.
That is the whole of the law!