On July 4, 1845, an eccentric and unconventional 27-year-old began a two-year experiment in simplicity. The man’s name was Henry David Thoreau, and the location of his experiment was on the shore of Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.
On a 14 acre parcel of land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau built a simple 10 foot x 15-foot cabin that included a fireplace, table, desk, bed, and 3 chairs. The cabin cost him $28.12, or about $878 adjusted for inflation to 2015.
By living in this simple home, trading labor for land rent, growing his own food, and otherwise living a life of simplicity, Thoreau only spent a small amount of his two years at Walden Pond actually working. In essence, his simplicity bought himself freedom of time.
What did Thoreau do with his wealth of free time? He read, wrote, walked, observed nature, talked with occasional visitors, and thought deeply. These were the activities that fulfilled Thoreau and fed his soul. Freedom of time just made them possible.
But maybe Thoreau’s idea of freedom is not for you. Perhaps you’d rather spend your free time visiting with family, traveling, gardening, volunteering, making art, connecting with friends, or doing some other worthwhile activity.
However you want to spend your time, that’s just fine. But the method of Thoreau’s uncommon path to freedom – simplicity – is still valid no matter what your goals are.
And simplicity doesn’t have to mean living in a small hut or becoming a wild-eyed hermit. You don’t have to deprive yourself of life’s pleasures. The opposite is true.
Just by going against the grain of society and making a few unconventional choices, you can achieve an enviable level of personal freedom. And even without winning the lottery or becoming a millionaire, you can use this personal freedom to live an amazing life.
My Personal Experiments in Simple Living
Now I must say up front that I’m no Thoreau! First, I lack his talent for philosophy and writing. Second, I’m not as courageous in my anti-establishment stands (see Civil Disobedience) or my extreme simplicity of living. Third and most importantly, my beard could never look as wild and cool as his did!
But I have been inspired by the clear, penetrating wisdom of Thoreau. His writing convinced me that simplicity is a powerful tool for personal freedom (and also an enormous challenge). And his example inspired me to try my own experiments in deliberate and simple living.
You probably have heard me refer to my experiments as mini-retirements. They are a way to take an extended break from normal life and experience the benefits of retirement long before actually retiring.
My first mini-retirement was in 2009. My wife and I had been married for two years, and we decided that the most important thing we could do for our growth and happiness was a long, slow trip somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world.
So, we began with 6 weeks in Spain, where we explored old cities, drank excellent wine, ate amazing food, improved our Spanish, and met all sorts of interesting people.
The second half of our adventure was two and a half months in South America, beginning in Peru, continuing to the southern tip of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and ending in the amazing city of Buenos Aires.
Now in 2016 life has changed some. We have moved a couple of times to new houses. We have two beautiful girls, ages 3 and 5. And the U.S. economy and my own real estate business have recovered well from the depths of the 2009 recession.
But one thing that has not changed is our desire to explore and travel. It’s a central theme in our life, and ignoring it would be like ignoring what’s most important to us.
So, we’re getting ready to embark on our next mini-retirement as a family to Ecuador in South America. It’s a country of friendly people, colonial Spanish cities, beautiful Andean highlands, Amazon basin rain forests, and of course the Galapagos Islands. We plan to live there for a year beginning in January 2017.
But the important part of my own experiments aren’t the experiences themselves. You may or may not be inspired by my own choice of adventures. The important part of the story is HOW they come about so that you can create your own.
The Challenge of Simplicity
You may think that money is the biggest challenge to taking an extended mini-retirement. Money is certainly an important part of the equation, as the total cost of the 1-year trip to Ecuador will probably be $35-40,000.
But, the bigger challenge has been to simplify our lives so that we can leave. The real anchor preventing our escape has not been money, but rather it’s been our stuff and our responsibilities!
For example, we’ve been getting rid of mountains of stuff like clothes, old kids toys, unneeded furniture, junk in the basement, and my worn out backpack (see below). Craigslist, consignment sales, and roadside garbage pickup have been regular fixtures in our lives!
Everything that’s left must either fit into one of our few suitcases for the trip or into small spaces for storage because our house will be rented the entire time we’re gone.
It turns out that space limitations were a wonderful way to force us to simplify!
But even harder than the stuff has been the simplification of the obligations and responsibilities in our lives.
For example, I’m the president of the board of a non-profit, a member of the board of trustees and another committee at my church, a member of the planning commission of my hometown, and the owner and CEO of multiple small businesses.
My wife also has her own list of obligations and responsibilities. Luckily we’ve been able to fight back the temptation to over-involve our kids at this point. Their lives are still fairly simple (and happy).
While all of these responsibilities are important, they also get in the way of our immediate travel plans. The only answer is to simplify.
So, I’ve resigned from some boards and committees. I’m working on replacements for others. And I’m working to delegate or systematize as many of my business responsibilities as possible. The remaining tasks, like paying bills each week (something I don’t want to give up), I will do remotely from South America.
My wife and I will both admit that the process of simplification has been an even bigger task than we imagined. We knew it would be challenging, but dealing with each and every accumulation in our life was a reality check. It made clear the consequences of our past actions, and it inspired us to do better and live more simply in the future.
One of the obvious problems that led to our accumulation of stuff was something called the Myth of More.
The Myth of More
You think you have to want
More than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free”
Eddie Vedder, “Society,” Into the Wild Soundtrack
One of my favorite authors, Joseph Campbell, called mythology “other people’s religion.” For example, modern students study ancient Greek myths in school, and to them, the myths are just interesting stories. But to the ancient Greeks, the myths were more than mere stories. The myths informed their core beliefs and guided their every-day decisions.
In many ways, our modern economic “religion” is the Myth of More. This myth says that when in doubt, more is better. When in doubt, buy a solution to your problem. When in doubt, earn more money so that you can pay for everything you need or want in life.
Of course, there are many times more IS better. For example, if you can’t pay for your basic necessities, more money will certainly help! But the Myth of More always seems to miss something. It promises a final state of satisfaction, but like a carrot dangling in front of you, the satisfaction never comes.
As I’ve observed my own past immersion in the Myth of More, it has led to a lot more questions.
If more is better, is what I have right now not good enough? Does striving for more keep me from appreciating and enjoying what I already have?
If more is better, at what point will I finally have enough? Will I really be satisfied when I have that new real estate deal? The higher income? The better house? The extra vacation?
Does more or better stuff (i.e. a higher standard of living) necessarily translate to a better quality of life? How much extra time will I have to work to earn the money for the things I buy? How much time, hassle, and extra worry will more stuff cost me?
Most importantly, what is the opportunity cost of constantly striving for more? What important part of myself do I sacrifice now that is lost forever? Is the future benefit appropriate for the level of sacrifice I am making now?
There are no right answers to these questions. Working more, buying more, and accumulating more are not bad things in and of themselves. But they do have a cost. The cost is a loss of simplicity.
And I’ve learned that blindly following the Myth of More could have another cost – my happiness.
The Lottery Approach to Happiness
[I]n spite of the fact that America is famous for its unhappy rich people, most of us remain convinced that just a little more money will set life right. In this way, the messianic metaphor of modern life becomes the lottery – that outside chance that the right odds will come together to liberate us from financial worries once and for all.”
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
I am going to assume that you don’t play the lottery really expecting to win. It’s fun to dream, of course. But I’m sure you realize that it’s more likely you’ll be struck by lightning, become a movie star, or die from chronic constipation than win a Powerball Jackpot (see 7 other crazy things more likely than winning the lottery).
Yet in a strange way, the lottery is a model for how many of us approach financial freedom and happiness.
Some day when I earn more money, then I’ll be happy.
Some day when my family and I live in the right home, then I’ll be happy.
Some day when I own ten free and clear rental properties, then I’ll be happy.
Some day when I achieve financial independence, then I’ll be happy.
The odds of these events happening are MUCH better than winning the lottery. In fact, I write about improving your financial odds every week in my newsletter!
But, the danger is the tyranny of some day. Some day is too often an excuse we give ourselves for not being happy now.
And some day makes us vulnerable to marketers and salesmen of every sort. Our dissatisfaction with today is usually a prerequisite to a new purchase or a new project or a new job that may make us happier (at least for now).
Even though I personally love long-term goals like financial independence, the truth is that you and I don’t have to wait to be happy until we reach the top of the financial mountain. It’s possible to enjoy the peak and the plateaus along the way.
And mystics, aesthetics, pilgrims, vagabonds, backpackers, and humble-living people all over the world and in all times have known a common truth. They’ve known that accumulated wealth without careful grounding actually prevents happiness.
That, I believe, is the spirit of the verse in the Bible that says:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
It’s also what Henry David Thoreau meant when he wrote in Walden:
I have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross [junk], but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters [shackles].”
[The bracketed comments are mine, because do you really know what “dross” or “fetters” are? I didn’t:)]
Riches can easily complicate your life to the point that you lose sight of what matters. The comforts and ease of wealth can distract you from the simple decisions that made you happy even before you had money.
For example, owning a vacation home may seem like the symbol of freedom. But how many hours will you spend cleaning and fixing the home for every hour you enjoy it? Or if you pay someone else to do the work, how many more hours will you have to work a job to pay for that luxury?
Add a boat, a sports car, nice furniture, and other luxury items, and you’ll have enough work to keep you busy for the rest of your life … if staying busy is what you really want!
So, simplicity is an excellent strategy to take back your life and your happiness – whether you have a lot or a little money. If you would like to start your own experiment in simplicity, you can begin in a small or a big way with the following three tips.
3 Tips to Simplify Your Life
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
As I shared in my story, thinking about simplicity and executing simplicity are two different things. So, the following three tips may help you as you work to simplify your own life.
Simplicity Tip #1 – Create Your Own Motivation
You may be so sick of your clutter and over-complication that simplicity alone motivates you. But for the rest of us, an exciting event or goal provides additional motivation and gives us a deadline.
For me, our trip to South America provided the motivation. We decided that the trip was worthwhile and that the time would never be right. So, we committed to it.
Once we committed, the gap between our ideal and our current reality became obvious. What would we do with all of our stuff? What would we do with our house while we’re gone? What responsibilities would I need to eliminate or outsource before leaving?
As we lived the answers to these questions and started preparing for the trip, simplification became the necessary means to our end.
Simplicity Tip #2 – Experiment With Minimalism
I’m not a hard-core minimalist. I am thankful to live in a nice house, have every modern convenience, and want for little materially.
But I love the idea from the ancient Stoic philosopher, Seneca, to experiment with minimalism. Here is what he said in a letter to his friend Lucilius Junior:
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ … Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”
The point is to test out your limits so that you’ll know what you REALLY need. Eat plain and minimal amounts of food. Dress simply. Use less technology. And do it for at least a few days.
My wife and I like to go camping and backpacking for long weekends. These small trips always reinforce that we can be as happy or happier with just what we can carry on our backs.
Then, once you return to your normal life, your perspective on what you need may change. You may find it easier to get rid of things you were formally attached to. And you may find it easier to contemplate being happy with less, which will help you with the next tip.
Simplicity Tip #3 – Ruthlessly Reduce Clutter
Ultimately the task of simplification comes down to the mundane task of eliminating clutter, item by item or responsibility by responsibility. There are no short cuts. You have to pile up the stuff and do the work.
But the attitude you bring to the process will make a difference. Be ruthless. Don’t timidly begin the job. Instead, attack the task with gusto.
Before I cleaned out over 75% of the clothes from my closet, I reminded myself of the benefits. This reminder gave me motivation, and I used that energy to plow through the inertia and resistance that continually came up.
I also found it helpful to arm myself with a couple of questions as I looked at each item. I used these questions as I considered whether to keep an item or to throw it away.
First, I asked a question I got from the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.
“Does this item bring me joy?”
This question helped me to get off the fence on mediocre items. It was easy to decide to keep my favorite shirt or pair of pants. It was also easy to decide to give away my least favorites. But what about the bulk of my junk that was just so-so? If they didn’t bring me joy, I decided to get rid of them.
The next question also helped me when I was on the fence. I learned it from my friend and fellow real estate investor Joe Breslin.
“How much would it cost to replace this item?”
We all face those de-cluttering moments where we say “But I might need that someday.” It stops us dead in our tracks and derails our decluttering plans.
But if you know it would cost, for example, $50 to replace that item with a reasonable substitute, you can relax and get rid of it. Chances are you’ll NEVER need it anyway. But if you do, you can look at the $50 as a storage fee. The store just kept it for you until you needed it!
I hope these three tips will help you get started with your project of simplification. But if you want additional inspiration or specific guidance, here a few books or online resources I also recommend:
- For travelers – Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts
- For a step-by-step plan to eliminate debt – The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey
- For simplifying a path to financial independence – Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
- For a good-humored financial kick in the pants – classic posts from Mr. Money Mustache
- For young (or young-at-heart) wanderers and dreamers – Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
When the dust clears from your hard work of simplification, I hope you’ll finally accumulate the only true wealth in life – time.
Time is the Ultimate Wealth
By switching to a new game … time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”
Ed Buryn, as cited in Vagabonding, by Rolf Potts
When you commit to simplicity, you really do commit to a new game. But your game will not look exactly like my game. And my game will not look like Thoreau’s.
But I think our games all have the same goal – to live more. And to live more, we need time!
Time is the ultimate currency because it’s so limited. Each day has 24 hours. And the days left in each of our lives are numbered. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.
So, the point of simplicity is to put your time back in the priority position where it belongs.
Then you will gain that ultimate freedom, the ability to decide what to do with your own life.
That’s an exciting idea! I hope the energy behind that potential freedom will challenge you and inspire you as you play with and win your own simplicity game.
Let’s get started!
What are your personal goals? What would you like more of in life? What clutter or stuff do you need less of?
I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments section below.