The Ultimate Luxury

August 19, 2018

I’ve been here for a full ten days now on a wonderful August vacation. We haven’t had a schedule or a planned event the whole time really. We’ve had a few things we definitely wanted to do - like take our kids to the rides one day - and we did that, but there was no plan. It just happened.

The other interesting thing, aside from a lack of schedule, is how full the time has felt. Both Maureen and I have been biking and running almost every day. There’s been kayak rides, grill nights and extended family parties, house projects, hikes, kid bike rides without training wheels (finally), and plenty of beach time. I also managed to prototype a simple website, design and construct my first furniture project (a slab walnut desk with a live edge), and do some writing.

Always On

At the beach, there’s just more room to think. It’s almost like the wide open landscape here let’s your brain grow to take it all in. For most of the summer, I’ve been working in Maryland from Monday through Thursday then heading to the beach for the weekend. That, plus this vacation, have given me a wonderful juxtaposition between the two halves of my week.

When I’ve had time on the beach, I’ve been reading the incomparable book, Sapiens, by Harari. Here’s a quote that’s stuck with me:

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed - washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online), receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

For everyone today, everything always seems on. It isn’t just that we have more efficient tools like washing machines and computers and phones. It’s that we’re always using them. Our tools have changed the way we live; they are invasive. The same way our sense of place is gone, so is our sense of time. Our thoughts last no more than 10 seconds. Our PR and news comes in 140 character snippets. Our work is an email here or a chat there. All of this is not just faster, it’s °different* too.

And most people seem to want to speed this up more. All of our current luxuries - novelties that we will soon depend on - cost money and time and effort. They tie us to a yoke and keep us driving harder and faster so that we can have more of them.

Being Present, Not Efficient

One of the most beautiful surprises about the beach is how much it’s slowed me down. I’ve been unable to unplug somewhat (not all the way). When I’m here I seem to do less, but I do it better. I’ve been washing my car with my kids most Fridays. It’s a menial, physical task, and I really enjoy it. So do my kids! My wife and I have been gardening. These aren’t just slower tasks that I don’t get paid for, they also feel satisfying. We don’t need to pay someone to wash my car or take care of our garden. We can do it ourselves.

Our workouts at the beach seem better too. Both Maureen and I are preparing for the duathlon in September, and getting in workouts feels relatively effortless. I did a 28 mile bike ride and a 6.2 mile run this past week. These take time, but we both do them. On any one of our 3 day weekends we’re taking walks with kids, getting some beach time, reading, grilling out, seeing family, and any number of other chores or activities. It seems effortless. We aren’t even trying to do a lot. It just happens.

The number one measurement in the world today seems to be efficiency. Do more with less. Speed up your productivity. Write ten emails in half the time. Busy, busy, busy. Everyone is on their phones all the time - grownups to do work, and kids to play games or “be social”. We do it because it’s easy and fast and efficient. I’m no different, but I’ve realized that the phone isn’t actually the problem, it’s a symptom. Being engrossed in your phone is just the tool we use to make it clear that whatever else we’re doing isn’t The Most Important thing right now.

It’s true. Being on your phone is just a way to say that’s more important. More urgent. It’s possible that’s true. If someone calls you on the phone and interrupts you, you get to decide. Is this something you have to take now, or do you tell them you’ll call them back? We don’t do that with texts, emails, or Instagram posts. We don’t because there’s this thin veneer of efficiency and multitasking attached to looking at a screen. We’ve all become master multitaskers, and so we think we can be in two places at once.

But we can’t. If you’re on your phone, you’re not present. And you’re not efficient either.

And this is true for everything, not just our phone habits. Efficiency may in fact be one of the most dangerous metrics we have. When we try to cram everything into a day, we end up getting nothing out of the day. One my favorite historical figures is Churchill. Aside from being one of the saviors of World War 2, he was also an accomplished writer, speaker, and painter. He did a staggering amount during his lifetime, across a variety of fields.

Churchill, like many in past generations, measured time in weeks, months, or years. When he went on holiday, he went for weeks or months at a time. He spent months long spans of time at home writing or painting. The whole world around him moved slower, and there was time for these sorts of activities. It wasn’t just the letter-writing that Harari mentioned, everything was slower and considered carefully.

The Ultimate Luxury

Weeks of vacation. Months spent in a routine at home. Time to paint or write or fill your life with worthwhile activities. The ultimate luxury is not mentioned in Harari’s litany of luxury tools. It is not an invented tool or a productivity aid in the usual sense.

A life unfocused on efficiency, with slower movements, is the most important luxury we have available to us. It is available to the very rich, because they have enough money to “not work” and satisfy their every whim. But even the rich may not take advantage of it. Or they’ll focus instead only on the act of purchasing; itself a tawdry derivative.

Comfortable inefficiency is available to some classes of the poor as well - the poor who have either a safety net in a middle class heritage or who have just enough to focus on what they choose without the imminent thread of hunger. One class of these is the college students and 20 somethings who are driven into the “safe” jobs with a salary and benefits.

I state all of this with more than a little irony. Here’s the preceding paragraph to those above from Harari:

…How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

The ultimate luxury is the ability to be inefficient, and to not have to slave away to keep up with all these other luxuries.

I am that young college graduate motivated to earn enough money to pursue my real interests one day in the misty future. And the idea that this might be a brass ring, constantly just out of my reach, has been a frightening skeletal vision in the back of my brain for years. I’m now 37, still working hard for the life we’ve built and that we’re continuing to create for our family. But our time has quickly become our scarcest resource. The beach, and the slower daily rhythm of life here, has crystallized that vision. It’s made me ask if my ideas and dreams and goals are real, or whether they’re content to remain out of reach.

It’s taken the financial successes and burden of owning two homes to realize fully what a charade the middle class drive actually is. Since I grew up, I’ve been continuing to live in the middle class mindset, and the ultimate luxury - the ability to live slowly - is wildly out of reach from the middle class. Not because it’s unachievable, but because the historical drive of the middle class is completely focused on daily, rigorous work. It requires a mindset shift away from the dreams of “one day” to the presence and timelessness of today.

Maureen and I think and come at things in completely different ways, but I think we’ve each been circling some of these thoughts ever since we bought our beach house. Slowly, very slowly, we keep having little conversations and thoughts around how we want our life to change, and what that might mean. We’ve talked a little about what it would be like to live here full time and when that might happen.

I don’t want the idea of “one day” to be a brass ring. Sometimes I’m scared to find out what I would do if I had a lot of time as a resource, but I still want to find out. We have a lot of work to do as a family to be able to live in chunks of time weeks and months long; to be able to take advantage of the ultimate luxury. But we’re driving towards it. I think that’s really what this little hunk of internet real estate is actually about.

There’s a growing amount of talk around FIRE principals: Financially Independent and Retire Early. The focus always seems to be around money and frugality. I never liked the early retirement craze because it always seems like there’s a hanging question: “and then what?” What I’d like to know is, if you can answer the “and then what?” now, can you start building that life right away?

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