"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Exclusive to STR
November 25, 2008
A few years ago, I worked for a company in the semiconductor business. The company had a development cycle that typically lasted a year from the initial tests to the product release and an environment filled with pressure and energy. At the time, strong sales and rapidly increasing market share made the company incredibly profitable. The work paid well and I enjoyed the company of my coworkers. Then one day, I quit.
I had considered leaving for a long time. For months, I had repetitive work absent of challenge. Twice I had negotiated with my management for changes that they later reneged. The third time this happened, I had already ceased to care and resigned.
As a kid, I had developed a taste for frugal living, and with my savings, I didn't view my unemployment as a serious problem. My parents had little skill at handling their finances and I decided early on not to struggle like them. My great-grandfather, an Iowan farmer whose company I enjoyed enormously, told me how: focus on quality and never take on debt.
He had died many years earlier, but his advice only seemed to get better the older I got. Naturally, then, I earned money much faster than I spent it. I rented my house and had no car payments or debt. I still owned and used much that I had bought over the years. I didn't have much desire for things that become obsolete or thrown away, and my accumulation of stuff had slowed even as my income increased.
I felt fortunate to have the gift of life and I wanted to live it with as much quality as possible'quality stuff, and quality friendships, experiences, and thinking. I worked about 2,500 hours per year, which left me little time for the things I cared about more. I realized that working just a thousand hours per year would still cover my expenses, leave me with a financial buffer, and a lot more time to boot. Spending so much time working for money had to end.
We live in a time of great production of goods, but also of wants. Few among us have taken Thoreau's advice to 'Simplify, simplify' to heart. Quality of life has become synonymous with consumption, almost in direct proportion. A little observation reveals a slightly more complex relationship because ownership has overhead expenses.
Stuff not only uses space, it requires maintenance, needs protection from unsavory individuals, and needs an inventory system. When it takes little effort to accomplish this, having stuff enhances our happiness. For every person, though, there comes a level of accumulation where the responsibilities of ownership become an outright burden.
Many people, if not most, become curators of their own landfills when they reach this level. The accumulation of stuff in garages visible in any neighborhood makes the law of diminishing returns visible. How many hours did these people work to buy all this stuff that they no longer want yet will not discard?
Money presents another set of issues. People who don't have as much as they want oftentimes believe it will give them a feeling of security, or that it will afford them things they believe will give them happiness. I have heard these beliefs among people with very little in the bank and also from two very rich people. For those who have saved a substantial sum, they spend many hours focused on its growth, or at least its preservation'for them, the fear of not having money gets replaced with the fear of its loss.
To find balance and perspective on these issues, I start with this: increasing productivity has created the trend toward higher real wages for the past 200 years. Any one of us can stay alive and support a decent lifestyle working fewer hours than ever before. Real median wages have increased by a factor of roughly two since the late 1940s. Skilled people, of course, tend to do better than that.
Simply recognizing this offers opportunities.
In the pursuit of a quality life, money provides but one means for getting tangible goods. I can work for money and exchange it for quality'in other words, get it indirectly. Barter provides another. Alternatively, I can get it directly by working on achieving quality myself. Economists obsess over the increasing division of labor, efficiency, and opportunity costs, not considering the inverse correlation between happiness and specialization.
Unimpeded curiosity leads us to learn to do what interests us, and since our lives have many dimensions, we naturally develop proficiency in several areas. Only modern schooling has obscured this fact. You may recognize that self-reliance and quality oftentimes go hand-in-hand. For instance, no grocery sells chicken noodle soup that tastes as good as what you can easily make at home. What you buy usually only approximates what you want, but you can tailor what you make exactly to your wishes. Time presents the main limitation.
If one works many hours each week as a specialist, then one has but little choice to depend on others for most needs. A man in this environment literally becomes a component of a machine that creates products by dividing a project into typological fragments. Specialists for each fragment solve the various problems, but they usually do not see the bigger picture and ultimately, this degrades the quality of the product. No great sense of accomplishment results from this sort of work, especially when the fungibility of one's specialty means that many other people could have done the work just as well. Quality work results from unification, not fragmentation'we know that a collaboration of specialists can create great work only when each individual sees his place in the bigger picture and cares mightily about the outcome. Since one may view society as an aggregation of individuals, this working model that so often emphasizes fragmentation lends a clue to understanding our own society's unbalanced character.
I have found one simple way out, though I did not see it for many years. I cannot produce electronics, cars, running shoes, and most of the high-technology products that I enjoy at home because their manufacture involves lots of machinery and cost. What I consume of these products, though, I can purchase with reasonably few hours of paid work. High-technology products don't form the basis for my life, however. For me, the short-list of stuff in a quality life begins with some decidedly low-tech things: a garden, well-prepared meals, a decent home, and some beautifully-crafted objects. None of these require much money or many hours on the job.
We have the good fortune to live when high productivity has made living well possible with little work. Taking my example from earlier, a median-income person can consume as someone from the late 1940s by working about half-time today. This leaves much more time to create the quality stuff and experiences you want. It lets you focus on living as an individual, not a consumer. You don't pay tax on things you make for yourself, your family, or your friends. Your income and sales taxes diminish, too, while the intangible benefits grow.
Last year when I learned that I would soon become a father, I decided to build a rocking chair for mother and baby to create sort of a physical milestone that would always mark the moment for me, and eventually become something passed on through the generations. I wanted this chair to result from my work, not the work of machines, and after making some sketches and selecting the rough boards, I planed the wood, sawed the parts, and cut every mortise and tenon by hand, taking the time to fit them perfectly and bring an object of considerable beauty into my home after one or two hundred hours of work. No one can purchase this sort of satisfaction. More time affords experiences like this.
In describing the process of good work, Robert Pirsig once wrote,
I think that when a concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, a fusion of classic and romantic quality can take place at a basic level within a practical working context. I've said that you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do . . . They have patience, care and attentiveness to what they are doing, but more than this'there's a kind of inner peace of mind that isn't contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there's no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right.
Professionals have no monopoly on these experiences, either. Amateurs, in fact, often do the best work since they do not deal with the financial facts of running a business. James Krenov, the famous Swedish furniture maker, when asked about making a living once said, 'The better work you do, the more chance that you'll starve.' Amateurs, unbothered with concerns like this, have the time to make everything right.
Making time for what you value should come first. Making enough money to live comfortably takes a small fraction of the 40-hour workweek that our culture assumes. By never examining that assumption, most people dedicate the best hours of their days to achieving someone else's goals instead of their own.
My advice? Homebrew your own quality life, and work for others in your spare time. It works for me.