Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to live

That title is my question, not a a pronouncement that you're about to be enlightened with some great truth.

Let me say up front that this is a bit of a processing exercise for me, and my thoughts are not clearly organized, so this will probably wander a bit and may be about as clear as mud. I'm going to try to put something down anyway, maybe it will make some sense.

Lately, work has been a struggle, largely due to the current economy. But generally, work IS a struggle. For most everyone, most all the time, right? Financially, I had it pretty darn good growing up as a result of my dad's hard work, ingenuity and wisdom in conducting his business. Or so i always believed. And i still do for the most part, but he has told me himself that no small part of his success has been luck and good timing.

I'm now at an age where i feel like things need to start rolling if I am going to have similar success. I struggle with direction and ideas that are practical and marketable. I'm having a hard time seeing how i'm going to "make it happen" and lately a more foundational question has been traveling around my mind a lot: What is success and do i even want the type of success that i've admired in the past?

When I look at those who I admire and consider successful, one of the primary things that makes them successful in my mind, is control of their time. Money, obviously has been a measure of success as well, probably second only to time. (I'm assuming things like health, relationships and family, etc) Because with lots of money and no time, you can't have any fun or do the things you want to do. But with lots of time and no money, you can still have some fun. Having both would be ideal, but that is very difficult to achieve. Even the possession of both is no guarantee of satisfaction or happiness. I know this is not groundbreaking stuff here. Anyone possessing the least bit of maturity realizes that money does not equal happiness. But we still often act as though it does, and maybe we have a tendency to think that way without realizing it.

I've had a brief but interesting period in my life where I was making a lot of money. It was pretty nice. But it wasn't the answer to all life's problems. It really didn't last that long, and i was being relatively conservative so i guess i still don't have a good "feel" for what it was like. In any case, I'm confident that having lots of money doesn't contribute to my overall happiness much other than in the freedom that it provides.

When i say freedom, mainly what i mean is time. I need enough money to cover my basic needs and some entertainment (for me that means "gear" for the various activities i enjoy) and beyond that, more is great but it isn't as important as that first bit. Once that set of basic needs and wants is covered, I'd rather have more time than money. But it turns out that it can be very difficult to make money. In fact, it takes most of my time just to make enough money to cover the basics, leaving me feeling like i'm spending too much of my life doing something I don't want to do. I wonder if there is another way to get more time.

When i look forward and try to imagine what my life will look like, i have a hard time being confident that it will not be a constant struggle between time and money. Time is only going to get more and more precious as life changes and children will probably come along and Burl and I try to maintain a healthy marriage and fun relationship.

Lately, Burl and I have been very intrigued by the ideas of homesteading, or off-the-grid living, or the back to the land movement. Even things like intentional communities, communes or kibbutz types of living arrangements. When I think of homesteading, what i envision is living more or less like pioneers might have when they travelled west across the US and settled the land. That is a pretty wild thought, and there is a lot that i don't know about what that would entail.

One thing that was a contributor to these thoughts bubbling around in my head was my recent trips to Peru and Thailand, mainly Peru. When I was there, riding a motorcycle through the rural villages of the Andes mountains, I was struck by the lifestyle of the people. First we encountered the high-elevation Inca people living in pretty barren high-alpine landscapes, raising llamas and other critters. That looked like really hard work and i can't say it appealed to me very much. Also, we could barely breathe, it was over 12,000 feet! Things changed drastically though as we crested the mountain range and began down the eastern slopes. There clearly was a lot more rain because there was a lot more green vegetation and the people were able to raise a larger variety of livestock as well as having agriculture for themselves.

I saw these people working on building their mud-block houses, tending their animals and working in their fields. They didn't have jobs, they just built their shelter and raised their food and lived. Maybe i shouldn't say "just" because i'm sure it's no small feat. These communities were small and you could tell that the people depended on each other and knew each other and were very much a community, for better or worse.

I have to say that there was a lot I saw in their lifestyle that i was envious of. I'm sure there's a lot about it I don't know, and i'm pretty sure they would be envious of my lifestyle as well. There is always the old "grass is greener on the other side of the fence" syndrome to contend with. That seems to be a common feature of human mentality. I'm probably more susceptible to that even than most, because it seems i'm never satisfied with what i have and always wanting something different.

In any case, they were living much more closely to the way that humans have lived for most of history. We westerners have largely been veering away from the traditional lifestyle at an exponential rate over the last few hundred years (or even last few generations).

So, seeing the rural people of Peru was a bit of a catalyst to these ideas i've been having.

I can't help but wonder, if i was spending my days working on my own home and livelihood in a direct way, rather than doing some other "job" in order to pay others to provide the things to meet my needs, would i be more satisfied?

The whole modern western lifestyle of being a cog in an industrial or service wheel by day, and a consumer by night/weekend seems to lead to dissatisfaction because the production seems like such an odd endeavor when you step back and look at it, and because you can never consume enough to be satisfied. There are so many things out there for consumption, and we can never have them all, so we never seem satisfied. Or so it goes for me at least. And when i say odd endeavor, what i mean is the things that we all spend 6-10 hours a day (hopefully not more!) doing, can seem like such unnecessary and odd behavior when you think about what it is that people need to live and be happy.

When i think about ditching the modern lifestyle and going totally retro-rural, the things that i struggle the most with mentally letting go of, are my recreational activities. I sure wouldn't mind never going to work again. But i think i'd really miss road trips, and mountain biking and skiing. And i'm guessing that going camping just wouldn't be the same if you lived in in the woods in a smoky dirt and wood hut all of the time!

Social aspects could be a real challenge too, depending on where you are and who is around. It has the potential to be a much better or worse social lifestyle than that i'm currently living, depending on whether i was on my own little space in the middle of nowhere, or working an area along with several other families. There's even the common ownership models like communes, kibbutzes and the like. And there are more modern compromises between the completely agrarian lifestyle and the urban, like the intentional communities where people have there own properties as well as shared common property and social areas. There is a whole spectrum of possible implementations.

Imagine not having money, but rather just making sure you have enough food saved up to last you through the winter.

Imagine not getting up and driving to work and building or selling or coordinating or whatever it is you do each day, but instead working the earth to provide the things that you literally need to live.

I don't really know how hard it would be. I'm sure it would depend largely on where you were doing it and what the climate and natural resources are like there. I've read in some places that it's actually very easy, and in others it obviously can be difficult or even impossible. But if you were to pick a reasonably hospitable place, i can't help but wonder if it wouldn't be an awfully damn satisfying lifestyle. I think for me it could be.

A more realistic thought might be having a few acres somewhere with a long growing season, trying to cut way down on your energy consumption and having a smartly built home. Growing the majority of your food. Using solar and hydro energy production where possible and minimizing the things you need cash for, and having a part-time job or produce something on your land that can be sold.

It's intriguing to me. I'd sure like a test-drive, but i'm not sure how one goes about that.


  1. I have had a lot of similar thoughts Troy. Seems to be more to life than a throttle cable jump starting my adreniline. My wife Karrie and I have thought about places such as Montana for a new, more down to earth way of living and self relience. In todays world it would seem odd if many others did not have thoughts similar to yours. I know I have for quite some time now. Making that into a workable and livible reality seems to be the hard part. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this as it sparks another look in to ones self, how we are living as a society and what is truly important in life. I agree, stuff and money is not the answer and only provides happiness for an instant in the grand scheme of things.

    Rick Rambo

  2. There was a study done this year, and in American society money does make people happier. I don't believe this takes into consideration those who go "off grid." people who say money doesn't make you happy are taking into consideration that it is not the only factor in happiness, and that is true, but it makes life so much less stressful! Good luck, we have all been there, or are there.

  3. Modern life isn't all perfect, but it has its perks. I wouldn't want to give up coffee, running water, occasional medical care or the internet. We do cooperatively raise cows, raise chickens for eggs and meat, grow a huge garden, go to pick-your-own farms for what we don't grow, and do lots of canning. This fills up a great deal of time, and we still buy more than half of our food at the store. And I don't know where we'd begin with producing our own clothing. If we did much more we'd be stuck working at home, and we'd miss going to the beach and to visit family and friends. We wouldn't be able to take our kids to visit the Redwoods. I think unless you want to be a total recluse, you would have to be a part of a cooperative community to be happy off-grid.

  4. Thanks for the feedback guys. Ashley, i would agree that money makes you happy in that it can eliminate some of life's problems and free up time for you to work on the others. I tried to say something to that affect, but it may not have been clear.

    Bethany, great points. I'm sure there is a ton that i'm not thinking of or taking into consideration. It is a very provocative subject to me though, and i'm enjoying the exploration.

    Rick, glad you enjoyed it. I like your point about there being more than recreation. I agree, even the things i listed, like biking and skiing, the best part isn't the activity itself, but sharing it with friends. The same ride is way more fun and satisfying and contributes far more to my happiness if i have friends with me. If i do it by myself it is often pretty lack-luster. So the social aspect is more important than the activity itself. I think having lots of good relationships is much more important in life than getting to do things like ski or ride dirt bikes. But sometimes it's hard to convince myself of that, i still lust after gear and gadgets and want to ride all the time.

  5. PS - Which Ashley are you? Pants?

  6. Troy,

    Great article. I really enjoyed this and have had similar thoughts. I often wonder how difficult it would be to strike off the beaten path and do this. I also think of what it would be like to "rebel" against the system by not working as much as most people do, not buying into the heavy commercialism of our society, and only work just enough to get by so that there is more free time.

    I struggled with a similar idea when thinking of what a good career would be. This is a bit different, but not that different really. Do I try to enjoy the work or the life away from work. Do I want to have a stressful or painstakingly boring job that earns good pay, or sacrifice some money or time for a job that is a bit more enjoyable. I am sure there are situations where you could have the best of both worlds, but they are probably few and far in between.

    The fact that we are able to have this conversation with choices shows just how "well off" we all are in a security standpoint. Most f us in the Western world have the ability to choose a safe yet boring and unrewarding work environment if we would like to. It provides all of our basic needs for us and our children. A large proportion of the rest of the world probably never gets this choice.