Less But Better

I am reading an insightful book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and its main point is that “less but better” is an idea whose time has come. The author touches on what has widely come to be known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Rule, which I blogged about earlier in my post titled Living the Edited Life. As he reminds readers, our focus needs to be on the 20% of our efforts that produce 80% of our results.

McKeown also shares how uber-investor Warren Buffett—who famously said “Our investment philosophy borders on lethargy”—owes 90% of his wealth to only 10 investments, which got me thinking about what I’ll call the Tithe Principle. As anyone remotely familiar with the scriptural concept of tithing knows, a tithe represents a tenth, or 10%, of one’s wealth. And as a believer myself, I can attest to a higher standard of living with the 90% left after tithing than the alternative of not tithing.

The book even delves into what is called the power law theory, whereby certain efforts actually produce exponentially more results than others, as in 10X, or 100X or even 1000X. The thinking here is that it pays to leverage our assets in such a way as to optimize our endeavors; in other words, work smarter not harder, or exercise what I call the Eagle Ethic. While eagles are powerful birds of prey they conserve their energy by being very strategic in their hunting, to the point that some may consider them lazy. Their motto could easily be: minimum effort, maximum effect. Less but better: what a concept.

The Simple Lifestyle

Henry David Thoreau’s timeless tome Walden speaks to us today at least as much it did to the readers of Thoreau’s time. While some of its language could understandably use an update the book’s principles are as timely as ever. In fact, author Robert Sullivan writes in The Thoreau You Don’t Know that Thoreau’s message was written during a time very similar to our own.

“It’s important to think about the economic climate. As the country reeled from market forces, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as people strained to make a living and saw their social and family life begin to change as a result, Thoreau was about to give a very practical answer to the question that Emerson asked, the question that was not just on the mind of philosophers past and present but on the mind of the country: ‘How shall I live?’”

For readers past and present Thoreau answered the question himself in Walden. “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles…I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Elsewhere Thoreau wrote of “sucking the marrow out of life” rather than having the life sucked out of him…or living a life that sucks! But he was quick to state he wasn’t necessarily suggesting that others copy his lifestyle by retreating to the woods as he had. Rather it was an overall philosophy of simple living that he espoused and encouraged others to emulate.

As Sullivan reminds us: “Walden takes the long way around on purpose, making it in itself representative of Thoreau’s life. With the book, he was not suggesting everyone live as he did at the pond, or as he ever did at Concord: ‘I would not have any one adopt MY mode of living on any account.’” As with so much of life, simplicity is as much caught as taught. And what Thoreau was trying to communicate was the need for all of us to consider simplifying our lives, whatever that looks like for each of us.

Simpler Is Better

I remember hearing someone suggest that people should craft a personal philosophy of life if they desired to live wisely and since it made sense to me I thought about it and came up with one of my own. My philosophy of life is: “Simpler is better.”

If that sounds too simple to be a life philosophy, then so be it. But over the course of my forty-something years of living I’ve come to experience the beauty of simplicity in too many ways to think otherwise. I am convinced that simple living beats the alternative.

Fortunately for me, my wife and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to designing how to live our lives. Whenever we are faced with competing demands on our time, much more often than not the simpler alternative is the one we opt to adopt.

Both of us have suffered the consequences of not listening to that still, small voice inside of us reminding us to simplify. In my case, it was a life-threatening illness that caused me to trade stressful practices for simpler ones that enhance the overall quality of my life.

We have learned to live our lives at a sustainable pace rather than succumb to the pressures of daily living that threaten to overwhelm us if allowed. And we purposely concentrate more on celebrating experiences than collecting possessions that clutter.

Hamlet's Blackberry

Hamlet’s Blackberry is a quirky title for a compelling book that causes readers to think of today’s technology in light of timeless principles such as personal distance, space, inwardness, and others. It is an elegant and eloquent treatise on tech tools and how we as humans can better navigate and negotiate their usage in daily life, both personally and professionally.

Written by former Washington Post technology writer William Powers, the book’s title is an allusion to the erasable writing tablet—the Blackberry of its time—used by Shakespeare’s character Hamlet. The underlying theme of the book is that we are more capable of coping with our digital devices than we give ourselves credit for but we must exercise self-restraint with them, including declaring “Internet Sabbaths,” as Powers and his wife do each weekend.

Alluding to the book’s subtitle, “A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” Powers writes: “Technology and philosophy are both tools for living, and the best tools endure and remain useful over long periods of time.” To that end, the author explores the lives of luminaries like Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Thoreau to uncover their respective philosophies for coping with the technology of their times.

Speaking of philosophy, Powers explains in his introduction that “We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time.” As readers of Hamlet’s Blackberry are reminded, more is not necessarily better, and minimalism is quickly becoming the method for keeping tech in check.