personal manifesto: home

(All the pieces of my personal manifesto fit together and build the bigger picture, so to get the full meaning you’ll need to scan the previous posts, in particular, for this post, the one on community.)

Home: a place to love

Identifying with a community or tribe helps me understand and communicate who I am in the world. My drives for pleasure, betterness and meaning are rarely hidden; they are about my engagement in the external world and so by definition are ‘public’ pursuits. But the extent to which my engagement with those communities is healthy, is determined somewhere else. The formation of who I am is inner work. I am who I really am when no one is looking.

‘Home’ is that place where I am free to be my unpolished self. It is also the place where that small number of people I call my family are free to be their unpolished selves too. The quality of my being in the external world, the demeanour and character with which I pursue pleasure, betterness and meaning is determined by the love I experience at ‘home’.

Note that home is not necessarily the family home, or indeed the house where I am living. It is the space, where I am accepted unconditionally and accept unconditionally. If community is about belonging, home is about love.

What happens if I don’t have a ‘home’ in this sense of the word? I compensate, and I look for it in the various communities to which I belong or am seeking belonging. But there is a hard edge to this; without a loving home – a place where I am unconditionally accepted and accept – my engagement in the external world, my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning, will tend to become a search for ‘home’, and my ‘performance’ and corresponding affirmation in those arenas becomes a surrogate for a loving home. My navigation of life will be characterised by recurring indications that society in general or people specifically ‘owe me something’

The counter is naturally also true; that if I love and am loved unconditionally, if there is a place where I am relationally secure and safe, I will be equipped to engage in the public pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning with confidence and grace.

I am screwed up. I am not free from the psychological impact of living among other screwed up people. This is not about perfection, a sure psychological illusion. It is about a foundation of self esteem and a confidence with which I can engage our society with the primary posture of being a giver rather than a taker. I have a deep need to be loved and affirmed for who I am. Without a ‘home’ where this need is at least partially satisfied, the rest of my life becomes dominated by social maneuvering and manipulation to get people to affirm me.

There is a paradox here, similar to the one in the meaning discussion. The path to be loved is to love. Children aside, there is no shortcut to being loved. I can manipulate people into doing things that look like love, but they aren’t love. Of course just because I love someone does not guarantee that person loves me back, so loving can never be a ‘strategy’ to get loved. Love is simply the highest and most potent human act. But unlike self actualisation that sits on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love is not the end point. Love is the beginning and the end, the foundation and the peak.

The pursuit of a well lived life, the sustained satisfaction that comes from harmonising pleasure, betterness and meaning, starts and ends with a place to love.

Questions to help me understand my home(s).

  1. With whom and where am I most ‘at home’?
  2. Who do I really know and love? Who really knows and loves me?
  3. How will I become more vulnerable and give more ‘at home’? What do those I love need most (from me) in this season of life?

personal manifesto: design

This is post 5 of 15 in a series sharing my personal manifesto. You can read why I ended up writing it here. There are 4 parts or sections in my manifesto, this is the last bit in the section about the three key drivers in my life: pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Design: using the three drivers as design elements

The pleasure, betterness and meaning lens is very helpful in assessing the ‘design’ of more specific parts of life. For example, at the west end of Bourke Street in Melbourne is Donkey Wheel House (dwh), a building that is home to social enterprise and a plethora of innovative business practitioners. It has the X factor. But what is the X factor? We use the term to attribute a positive trait that we can’t really put our finger on. Let’s apply the pleasure, betterness, meaning framework to a few things to see how in combination and harmony they produce a so-called X factor, starting with dwh.

The building is a physically pleasing place. It is a heritage building that has been renovated tastefully into great spaces fit for purpose. It has corridors, workspaces, meeting rooms, shop fronts, and interesting utility spaces that are appropriately if interestingly connected. It has good natural light to complement the internal colours. It includes kitchens and cafes so smells and tastes are catered for. (pleasure)

dwh is a place where people do what they are good at – whatever that is. Designing, cooking, administration. Legal work, coding and politics. The social power of the networks in the building inspire people to broaden and deepen their competencies. There are communities within the building that value care alongside professional competencies, whether the support networks in The Hub, the staff gatherings at Kinfolk Café, or the comradeship in The Difference Incubator. (betterness)

And overlaid is an overwhelming sense that this is a place committed to a better future for the world. Kinfolk Café is a social enterprise, The School of Life helps people apply practical wisdom to everyday life, Ethical Property Australia’s vision is to facilitate the use of property for the common good … and the list goes on and on. There is mission and vision for a healthier world in every nook and cranny. (meaning)

If any one of these was absent or weak, the whole package loses whatever it is that elevates it to something special.

The Do Lectures is a gathering that changes people’s lives. It is a potent mix of these three design features. It is intentionally held in stunning natural and remote locations. The sensual experience of being in the natural environment alongside the highest quality food is an assault in the most positive sense. (pleasure)

The team that puts on the event ‘do their thing’. It is a team of people in flow, doing what they love to do, and this translates into a collective experience where attention to detail and quality is paramount. (betterness)

And the talks, the discussion and emerging themes are unashamedly about prototyping better ways of living for people in communities and around the world. It is rich with mission. (meaning)

Same deal, it is the mix of these things that elevate the Do Lectures beyond a regularly good event. Diminish one of these and mediocrity is just around the corner.

Pretty much every aspect of life can be assessed through the lens. Here are a few more examples.

A workplace

Frequently we hear of people unsatisfied at work. Every situation is unique, but understanding the pleasure, betterness, meaning design framework offers helpful insight. Every time I have offered this framework to someone who is restless at work they have quickly identified the diminished nature of one of these design elements.

– The workplace is sensually unattractive- it is simply not an enjoyable place to spend time;

– There are too few opportunities for them to do what they are good at. There is no sense of them becoming a better person as a result of being there.

– They can’t reconcile their best energies being spent on things that ultimately don’t matter, or are not important to them (such as making someone else wealthier).

A relationship with a significant other

Our relationships go through seasons. Some times they feel fabulous and other times more ho hum. When we are committed to cultivating growing relationships it can be useful to ask:

– Are we doing fun stuff together? (pleasure)

– Am I appreciated in the relationship for things I am good at, and does the relationship draw out my best? (betterness)

– In our shared experience of life, are we engaged meaningfully with the things that matter most to us? (meaning)

A city

There are various ways to assess cities, with residents of my home city tending to cite the ‘most liveable’ city criteria, as Melbourne frequently scores highly on that scale. But these design features also give me a quick and intuitive sense of why or why not some cities just ‘work’.

– Are there lots of sensually stimulating places to be? (pleasure)

– Does it have a particular strength? Is it known for being ‘good at a particular thing’? As in, ‘Melbourne is really good at ….’ (betterness)

– Do the city and its residence make a contribution to the common good? Do the civic values honour people and the future? (meaning)

In the earlier chapters I have commented on how useful it has been for me to apply these design features to my living. The three drivers can be thought of as ‘sliders’. Each needs to make a contribution; the extent to which we dial up each one will depend on the situation.


Questions to ‘test’ the framework?

1. Think of an event, a space, a relationship or any other aspect of life that comes to mind that you would describe as having a bit of X factor. Assess the extent to which it is an expression of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

2. Now think about an aspect of life that is not quite doing it for you. Look at it through the pleasure, betterness, meaning lens. What is missing?

personal manifesto: harmonising pleasure, betterness & meaning

In the last three posts I have defined and shared some notes on pleasure, betterness and meaning. The introduction to my manifesto gives some context. For me, pleasure, betterness and meaning are three fundamental drivers in life. They explain most of the motivations behind decisions I make – small and big. In this post I explain how they fit together for me.

Harmonising pleasure, betterness, meaning: patterns not balance

Allowing my life to be dominated by just one of these three drivers is a mistake. The hedonist in me is doomed never to have my thirst quenched (pleasure). Despite the relentless parade of so-called successful people getting to the second half of life and asking “what has it all been for?” the pursuit of personal or professional mastery (betterness) is also tempting. Why am I so slow to learn that becoming the best I can be, ‘reaching my full potential’ is only slightly less hollow a goal than the pursuit of pleasure?

Perhaps the reason I am inclined to make decisions based on pleasure and betterness, is because of the paradox of meaningful living. I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that the deepest satisfaction in life, the highest levels of happiness come when I am focussed on the wellbeing of others.

But it is a mistake for me to then make life solely about meaning and relegate pleasure and betterness as the domain of lesser beings. This is what I have done in the past, in statement, if not in reality. The value of ‘the cause’, or ‘the other’ has at times been so elevated that ‘sensual’ pleasure or ‘selfish’ development, was effectively prohibited in my thinking. In statement only though, because my natural and healthy drive for these, ‘found a way’, even if not acknowledged overtly.

A well-lived life harmonises pleasure, betterness and meaning. The idea of harmony is more useful than balance. Balance implies that one thing needs to be diminished for another to be enlarged. But harmony is about the three drivers co-existing in measures and routines that fit with each other, feed off each other and shape life into an integrated rhythm of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

I am always thinking about how life is going. When I am sufficiently fortunate to answer ‘very good’, I have found that it is because the elements of pleasure, betterness and meaning will all feature. I will have consistently done stuff that was sensually enjoyable, pleasurable experiences have been integrated into my life (pleasure). There will have been a pattern over time that I have made valuable contributions by doing what I am good at, and most likely became better at it, either by deepening or broadening my capacities (betterness). And my life will have been shaped by prioritising what matters to me, there will have been integrity in my life because I have acted in ways that have been consistent with what is important to me (meaning).

The converse is naturally true. If things haven’t gone so well, then it will be because one or more of the key drivers was unsatisfied. There was little in my life that gave me genuine pleasure, I had few opportunities to do the things I am good at, or I ended up busy with activity but didn’t really contribute much in areas I believe matter most.

Time and seasons are important. I can neglect one or more drivers for a season, but if diminished over time, I will have a growing unease with my lot in life. And clearly the three are not mutually exclusive. A meaningful contribution will likely require me to do what I’m good at, and I may well experience sensual pleasure along the way.

Pleasure, betterness and meaning are essentially my design features in a well lived life. I look for patterns not balance. Whatever is going on in life, these are elements that I need to find ways to incorporate.

Questions to understand how the three drivers are harmonised in my life

1. Which drivers are most prominent in my life in this season?

2. Are there patterns over time? Are any of pleasure, betterness and meaning dominant or missing over time?

3. What will I do to better harmonise the three drivers in my life for the coming season?

Personal manifesto: Pleasure – engaging beauty

Last week I posted the introduction to my personal manifesto. Please read this for context if not already. In this post I’ve included some notes on the first of “three drivers”. The “drivers” are the three key motivations that shape our living. Psychologists vary in how they describe these; my framework draws mainly from the work of Martin Seligman.

My understanding of the place of pleasure has changed a lot over the years. Knowing deep down that pleasure doesn’t offer deep and lasting satisfaction, I had mistakenly not given it a healthy place. I now appreciate better the relationship between pleasure and beauty. Elevating pleasure has helped me embrace the incredible beauty on offer in the natural world.

Pleasure: engaging beauty

I define pleasure as being associated with the five senses. I am a physical being, I live in a material world. This is not about materialism or sensuality in the way those terms are normally used, it is about the enjoyment I get from experiencing the beauty of the world via my senses.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and that holds true here too. Whether it is the feel of a new car, a breathtaking vista, the taste and smell of an exquisite meal or favourite tea, or a long slow embrace with Maria, I am buoyed by great sensual experiences.

My drive for pleasure

I have a natural drive to maximise my pleasure, and I do not think I am alone: it is an unusual person who actively shuns opportunities for pleasure. In some communities of which I have been a part, there has been a high value placed on sacrificial service, the drive for pleasure may not have been immediately apparent and was certainly not overtly encouraged. Austere living or choosing socially or environmentally challenging contexts masked, at least for me, what a little scratching below the surface revealed; a consistent drive to ensure I was being sustained by sensually pleasing experiences.

The connections between pleasure and feeling good about life

The pursuit of pleasure alone leaves me unsatisfied. But my desire for pleasure is insatiable.

It is not that the overseas holidays are not satisfying, even exhilarating. In fact some of the genuinely best times of life have been when in strange and distant lands. The point is that if I expect my holiday, my new jeans, or new home alone to deliver me deep and lasting contentment, I know I will be sorely disappointed. However, nearly every media message I consume lies to me that maximising pleasure is what life is all about. So instead of the pursuit of pleasure contributing to a well lived life in concert with other elements, despite it continually failing to quench my search for satisfaction, I keep going back to the well in pathetic addiction.

Pleasure is a fundamentally important part of being fully alive, but it must be pursued in concert with other drivers.

Questions that help me understand what gives me pleasure

1. What gives (has given) me pleasure? What are those daily or special things that warm my soul and make me thankful I’m alive? Not only the routinely ‘pleasant’ things, but those things that really enliven me.

2. To what extent are these things part of my life in this season? (Not at all / every now and then / frequently / my life is full of them)

3. What will I do to inject and integrate more pleasure into my living?

Next post: betterness: competent participation

personal manifesto: intro

In my last post I explained why I ended up writing a personal manifesto. This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll share the content. Each piece is designed to fit into a cohesive whole, so I’m a tad nervous about posting in isolation, but hopefully the little bits carry some value on their own and add some value for your own deliberations on living well. If you’d prefer to get it all at once, you can download a pdf from the bottom of this page.

If bite size is your preference, then to get a sense of where it’s going, here is the contents page.

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IN MY OLD AGE, assuming I am fortunate enough to get there, I’ll be reflecting back on my life and the memories will provoke deep reactions. The panoramic view of life in hindsight will distill the reality from the rhetoric I told myself along the way. I’ll see the consequences of my choices, all of which seemed to make sense at the time, but some of which I will wish I could re-visit.

For a very long time I’ve been interested in understanding what constitutes a well lived life. What does it mean to be fully alive? Generally, I have had a good time of it: a loving, stable childhood, tons of opportunity, and some achievement. My mother is currently living with dementia, one of our daughters has a chronic disease, and one of our other kids has lost a partner in an air crash, each of which has shaped (and continues to shape) our little family significantly, but in the scheme of things we consider ourselves fortunate. Grace and luck: tick and tick. But there have also been choices; real choices that shape how life has gone. Occasionally there have been big calls (career, life partner, where to live etc), but for the most part living is defined by patterns of behaviour, patterns that are formed over time and that I perceive as part of who I am rather than choices I have made (what I do in my discretionary time, what I eat, how I exercise etc).

I have come to realise that the quality of my living has had less to do with external realities and more to do with how I see and make sense of the world; my mental models. These notes are, in that sense, a mental model. They offer a framework to help me understand what the underlying realities are, for me, in what I believe will be a well lived life; it helps explain why my life seems to be going well in any given season (or not) and as a corollary offers me a diagnostic lens to determine what I can seek to change if I have a hunch that things are not quite right.

My framework is not prescriptive. It is not about living a particular way, within a particular ideology or worldview. The framework is a set of design elements, things that I have discovered are true of my living in any context, with whatever ‘attribute hand’ I have been dealt, if I am to be fully myself, living life to the full and making choices that ensure I don’t look back on my life with regret.

The framework helps me develop a meaningful response to the question, “What kind of life have I lived so far?” and also provides a lens through which to evaluate smaller chunks of time (the seasons of life). There already exist some ways to describe elements of being ‘fully alive’, (such as mojo & flow), but I haven’t come across a single word to describe, with nuance, what I have developed here, so I have chosen to use ‘generative living’. These notes explain how I get there, and why this word has been valuable for me in figuring out better ways to live.

This is a personal manifesto. I am an educated, urban living, professional with a family. I am under no illusion that my notes here are applicable across cultures and contexts, or even for other people, although my suspicion is that those living in a similar environment might identify with some of my ideas.

There are two parts. In the first I’ve outlined the elements of a framework through which I view my life. (see below) Included in this are notes on:

  • three key drivers; pleasure, betterness and meaning
  • two foundations; home and community, and
  • four enabling disciplines; getting & staying unstuck, being uncluttered, modal living and contentment.

The second part introduces the idea of generativity; what it is and how it is a helpful frame applied to the earlier notes on living well.

overview annotated

Next post: pleasure: engaging beauty.

it takes all sorts, including yours

wooden boat rally, Launceston

wooden boat rally, Launceston

There is an emerging and predictable challenge to the millennial inspired exhortation to quit your job and follow your dreams. Just like the world champion sports person who suggests to teenagers they can achieve what ever they want, those who believe it is open to anyone who wants, to step off the job treadmill and follow their dreams is naive to how particular educational and life opportunities facilitate a capacity to navigate our social systems with capacity and power. But that doesn’t mean identifying what we enjoy and what we are good at, and figuring out how to carve out time to dedicate to them is not a healthy and even necessary part of a well lived life.

Passion and competence, and a small dose of eccentricity, was on display in spades this weekend out our front door on the marina in Launceston. We had seen the signs for the ‘wooden boat rally’, but really didn’t expect to see the number of boats that showed up. Boaties are a particular breed. Restoring and maintaining seafaring craft seems like more of a life commitment than a hobby or recreational pursuit. Seeing the workmanship and dedication that has gone into some of these huon pine, kingbilly pine and various other timber boats made me wonder about the character and skill these men possess. As we wandered past one incredible little punt, the braces wearing owner-builder offered to answer any questions about anything to do wth his boat. I couldn’t fathom what to ask that would do justice to how many years of weekends in the shed he must have spent. He would have thrived on the common appreciation of wooden boat building technical minutia, and the shared comradeship of the other eccentrics similarly hanging around their pride and joy. All I could have mustered would have been, So how long did it take? Did you have fun? … I decided to keep my mouth shut.

So while it is the domain of privilege to quit your job and sustain participation in society without dropping out, I reckon we could all do with knowing what it is that gives us joy and a sense of accomplishment. And sometimes the way we commit to work robs us of being our true selves. Seeing the proud smiles of these old salties on the water this weekend renewed my resolve to make choices to do the things I love, to figure out ways to get better at what I’m good at, and hopefully make a meaningful contribution in the process.

Have I got time in my week to do stuff that I love?

Am I becoming better at the things I’m good at, am I making progress?

Am I making a contribution that matters?

deferred gratification for the common good

One of the most well known psychology experiment is the ‘marshmellow’ one, where kids are offered a sweet. However if they wait 15 minutes without eating it, they will receive two sweets. Stanford Marshmellow experiment It turns out that the ability to defer one’s gratification is a great predictor of positive life outcomes. Our kids are probably sick of hearing me go on about deferred gratification!

Not long ago I happened to have the radio on while Melbourne’s Lord Mayor talked about the disruption to Melbourne’s CBD that will occur during the construction of major new infrastructure. We are not talking about the odd road closure here; we’re talking about whole city blocks without utilities for months. We are talking about businesses being compensated, residents relocated etc. City Square will be a works depot.

Now we know that investment in major infrastructure is critical to maintain liveability in cities, something which we in Melbourne particularly like to talk about. But how much do we complain about the inconvenience required to get there? From road works on the Bruce Highway, to power disruptions … listen to us moan.

It’s one thing to choose to defer our gratification when we anticipate even greater personal benefit at the end. Home renovations are the classic. But what does it look like to suck up the inconvenience when the personal benefit is marginal or (at least perceived to be) non-existent?

We have heard ad infinitum that we suffer a social pathology arising from unchecked individualism. We are far enough into our collective journey to get a sniff of what comes next to correct this. Instead of being the ideological domain of hippy left wingers, we are now beginning to appreciate connectedness. We are part of systems where cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. And the systems all form part of bigger systems. Human beings are actually part of the natural system, not masters of it … etc.

So I wonder how, as this collective consciousness becomes more mainstream, we will process disruptions to our living that are in service of the common good. I wonder what the Stanford experiment equivalent might be for communities, societies or nation states that resist scoffing the marshmellow in front of us now for the sake of two in 15 years time? CBD disruptions, changed lifestyles to mitigate the affects of climate change … have we got what it will take?

summer and January

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

It is not particularly cool these days to talk about new year resolutions. Very passé. But in the wake of the festive season, especially one that has been satisfying for all the classic reasons (family, summery recreational activities, afternoon snoozes, excessive quantities of plum puddings, fresh rasberries and cherries etc), it feels like a part of the natural rhythm to take stock and reset for the year ahead.

Brigid Delany wrote a nice little piece in the Guardian last week, on lazy, long summers; or at least the way we remember them. It is true that we romanticise some of our memories into myths. As kids we were spared the unsanitised reality of adult responsibilities and relationships, so it is no wonder we imagine long lazy summers with rose coloured glasses. But let’s not give up the dream too easily.

As Delany says, it is our contemporary work-centred lifestyles that trump our summer dreams. (Also see: Why are we still working? – thanks for the share @MelinaChan) But choices can be made. Yep, many of us feel we are compelled to fit in with what everyone else is doing, but as with most things in life, where there is a will there is a way. Maybe there are some habits from the 60s and 70s worth retaining. Our friends the Shorts and the Baxters have spent 6 weeks over summer at an iconic Sunny Coast caravan park ‘since Adam was a boy’, with commuting back into Brisbane the necessary price. And they are not alone … I’ve loved seeing updates from lots of friends this December / January who have done the iconic Aussie thing and lived temporarily on the coast. It is good for our souls; the simplicity of life in shorts and thongs. Board games, simple meals, long walks and salt water on our skin.

What we hope for is a quality of life, the evidence of which can be seen in everything we do, rather than by ticking off a few activities. If you’ve baked a rubbish cake with too much salt and not enough sugar, you can’t redeem it by putting strawberries on top. Sometimes, new year resolutions look like that … people trying to redeem life by adding some strawberries. The fundamentals of a well lived life are pretty ordinary and unglamorous. But if we get the basics right, adding some strawbs can make it a pretty special.

So, long lazy summers did not, do not, and will not deliver the quality of life we imagine. Long, lazy summers can refresh my soul, but only when I have a clear picture of what is important in life and somehow I manage to give expression to that in the hustle and stress of contemporary urban working life, as well as when I’m on the banana lounge. What is the quality of the relationships with those I love most? How is my health and physical resilience? Where do I find pleasure, goodness and meaning in my life?

Let’s take stock and reset; it is a good thing to do. But let’s build in weekly habits and routines that align the foundational routines and commitments in our lives with what is most important to us, rather than add in some activity that is unlikely to stand the test of a stressful winter Monday.

aging, consuming and caring

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Until not long ago I drove a car with which I had a love hate relationship. Despite being made in 2001, it drove better than any new car I’ve driven recently. For the first five years I owned it, it never missed a beat. Then things started to happen that cost me money. But I was determined to keep it running well, so every year or so I’d grudgingly fork out the dough. Until late last year, when I just couldn’t justify the mechanic’s bill I knew would follow a trip to the service department. So I got rid of it and now have a shiny replacement.

We rarely question this process. We buy stuff, and then buy replacement stuff, typically a notch better than the stuff we had before. We wear things out, and sometimes when we are careless, we break things. But no drama, we just go and get another one.

Yesterday I visited my father-in-law in hospital. When I spoke with my own dad last night, he explained how my uncle is now in palliative care. My mum lives at a place that offers her fulltime care. And I am acutely aware of how my own body is wearing out. It comes as a bit of a slow leaking shock; the dawning realisation that unlike pretty much everything else in life, you can’t upgrade or replace. When this one is done; finito, owarimasu, the end.

Consumerism is ingrained in our psyches. It governs the way we understand how the world works. Our economy is built on the premise that we need to replace stuff with similar stuff. I wonder if this is one of the reasons we live in denial of our inevitable ill health and death, and why the so-called cult of youth is ubiquitous. Despite everything we know about diet, exercise and health, the link between cause and effect is separate in time and space, so we carry on as normal. We look away and cross our fingers.

The incremental damage we do to ourselves through excess sun, salt, sugar, and office hours can be buffed up with some ‘elbow grease and some cut and polish’, but transplants aside, we can’t replace the engine or the motherboard. And when we bang ourselves up badly, no insurance company will write us off and fund a shiny new set of organs.

I also have a hunch that our collective and individual attitude to environmental care and climate change is similar. We simply can’t reconcile the trajectory of environment damage at our collective hands with the fact that we only have one planet. We cling to this ‘consumerist driven’ idea that we’ll be able to spend or invent our way to a new beginning. We cling to a belief that we can keep extracting stuff that can’t be replenished and storing toxic stuff out of sight and that somehow we’ll be immune to the consequences. Good luck with that.

In my blog last week I wrote about essentialism. To link these ideas, I wonder what it would look like if we drew a line in the sand and committed to keeping the stuff we have now for the rest of our lives, without replacing anything. Would it affect our purchasing decisions if for the next set of stuff we bought, we outlaid for items that would go the distance? Would it influence how we cared for the stuff we own now, if we determined not to replace any of it?

Of course our economy would take a beating. Maria and I were browsing a Le Creuset retail store recently and got talking with the sales agent. He said, “We have a significant problem to overcome with our customers. Once you buy a pot, you never, ever have to buy another one. The one I’ve got has been in our family for three generations.” Of course they try to sell us other kitchen products, even though, like him, we’ll never need to buy another pot like the one we bought years ago.

This is not simply an argument of quality (and expense) over affordability. I am wondering about a change of mentality that refuses to accept the inevitable replace-ability of the things with which we surround ourselves. I reckon it will influence what we buy and how we care for the things we have. But I also suspect the same mentality, when applied to our health and care of our bodies, and the health of the natural environment and our care for it, will change so much of what we do now. Perhaps we will not bend the knee as easily to the throne of consumerism and think more about what it looks like to care for stuff for the long haul.

essentialism and wellbeing


Some years ago I met someone in Toronto who invited me back to his small apartment. He was a minimalist, meaning that he was deeply committed to living with as little as possible while maintaining engagement in normal life. After walking a long distance to his place (intentionally avoiding motorised transport) I recall having a cup of tea and something to eat, an awkward experience because he had only one cup and one fork. I was inspired by his commitment, yet left feeling his drive for simplicity had ended up in a weird kind of austerity.

In this phase of life Maria and I are living transiently. A few years ago when we vacated the house in which we had raised our four children, we threw out skips full of junk, gave away virtually all our furniture and took many loads to op shops. It wasn’t because the stuff we had wasn’t valuable or held memories, but we decided to declutter and facilitate a mobile lifestyle that is impossible if you have to maintain a lots of ‘stuff’. (and yes we store a few boxes with photos and kids toys etc, things that money cannot replace.)

But we kept some things that, at face value, are not necessities. Pruning our possessions was not a discipline of eliminating non-luxury items or keeping a small wardrobe of white T shirts. It was an exercise in surrounding ourselves with the few things that facilitated pleasant, good and meaningful living. The books I kept weren’t the best books I owned, they were the most meaningful to me. The couple of bits of furniture we kept for our 1 bedroom apartment were not the most expensive but the ones that had stories associated with them. And yes, it’s a bit cliche, but it also means that when we buy things that we intend to keep, we pay for handmade or quality to last the distance. A few things that matter.

The current Kinfolk is the Essential Issue. It contains this great introductory sentence, “Deciding what is essential in our lives isn’t about paring back our belongings and forgoing our beloved but unnecessary frivolities: Instead of determining how little we can live with, it’s about working out what we simply can’t live without.”

This same idea surfaced for me in a surprising context a few days ago. A friend asked me what I do to maintain mental health. As I thought out loud, I realised I have a few ‘modes’ of living. For the sake of simplicity, lets call them ‘on’, ‘slow’, and ‘yurting’. In each of them, as is true for everybody juggling contemporary urban living, there are a multitude of things going on and decisions to be made. But I am at my best when I have a system or set of processes that take good care of all of them automatically, except for a very small number. I could call it focus, but that doesn’t do the concept justice. I’m ‘on’, when I’m working. Adrenalin pumps through my veins from when I get up to when I go to bed and I need less sleep in this mode. I walk faster, I eat more functionally, I do everything in ways that help me work better. In this mode, it is all about making a positive difference in the world through my work with clients in values driven organisations. I have routines and systems that take care of domestic decisions (clothes, food, cleaning, shopping, and yes even family etc) so those things take up very little emotional energy as a rule.

When I’m in ‘slow’ mode, typically at home with Maria on the weekends I cook, go to markets, get exercise, explore the natural environment and sit around. Conversely, I have habits and systems that mean I spend very little energy on work. It is simple things like where I put my computer, and the clothes I wear. Call it anal, but it works for me. It means my attention and energy is present in our weekend-type activity. ‘Yurting mode’ is harder to explain but you get the idea. Be present in the context and determine ways to take care of decisions and distractions that don’t permit you to be present.

The point I am attempting to make is that simplicity is an extremely potent lifestyle choice for me, one that I believe contributes to my mental health. And it’s not the simplicity that smells of austerity. Minimalist austerity is a poor idea when compared with essentialist simplicity. One is clinical and transactional, the other rich with values and embraced compromise. Identify the essentials, the things that matter most (in that context/mode) and figure out ways for the other stuff to take as little energy as possible.