Essay

Lifestyle Design and the Freedom to Change the World

By Eric Normand on May 25th, 2010

I was asked by Eric Schiller to write a response to his recent post calling for a more socially responsible Lifestyle Design. Klint Finley also responded, defined many useful terms, and made some suggestions for how Lifestyle Design could be put to socially conscientious use. I am going to start on a different tack–a personal one–and try to explore what I feel is missing from Lifestyle Design and how it could change.

I have always been looking for a way out of the rat race. My whole life. So when The Four Hour Workweek was launched, I gave it a shot. It promised a lot but was somehow different from most self-development and business books. I have been asking myself two related questions. What drew me to Lifestyle Design in the first place? And what is it that I want from an online business movement?I had not asked myself the second question until Eric started this discussion. The answer turned out to be a little weird. I wanted a rational and practical leftist radical agenda. By that I mean, roughly, people using the Internet and other technologies to build and support development efforts and a new economy.

Imagine one talented Internet marketer supporting a small community of ten living in West Africa who buy a community house. Cost of living is much cheaper, so it is entirely possible. Once the house is paid for, the community has a near-free place to live. They then work with local cooperatives to begin to export handmade goods to the US, taking a small cut. A new business, which supports eleven Americans and many West Africans, has been bootstrapped. Or what about a group of ten lifestyle designers pooling their money to buy themselves houses one at a time?

What I wanted from Lifestyle Design has never been to make an easy living and goof off all day. My idea has been to solve my problems of survival financially, so I can help others do the same. Maybe that is too much to ask of others. Are people that generous? Am I that generous, for that matter? I do not know. It was only a dream I had, not a reality.

I have always seen the idea of passive income as a means of reducing the risk of other, more socially valuable yet less profitable ventures. Why take out a loan when you can sell an ebook? A small group pooling their efforts could solve the housing problem for the members very quickly.And removing a house from the cycle of debt is a good thing. I am going to go out on a limb here with a little theory and appeal to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is cliché, I know. But I have a point. The simplified version of the Hierarchy of Needs is that once you solve the basic survival needs, you get bored and you start thinking about other things like helping others and being a better person. We have not solved the basic survival needs for most Americans.In a sense, we have solved them because we do not starve or go without shelter if we can get a job. But in another sense, we have not solved them because we cannot move on.

Our psychologies tell us to move up the hierarchy and start working on social issues. But we cannot. We are stuck in our job almost half of our waking lives. And our jobs are not helping us self-actualize. An ennui develops. It is this ennui that Lifestyle Design promises to eliminate by reducing working hours to a minimum. It is an appealing alternative to the corporate job.

Imagine a team of seven crack Internet marketers building seed funding for a microfinance organization in Ecador. What about a group of Lifestyle Designers who fund their own yoga/community center. They can worry about making it self-sustaining after they have gotten established because of their passive income. The point is that there are a lot of great things that can be done once you do not have to worry about survival. And if you have a little more cash, you can start riskier ventures. And not just financial ventures. Imagine 1023 lifetyle designers (1 mentors/funds 2 who mentor/fund two each who mentor/fund two each . . .) who pool their resources and fund lobbyists to pass laws to reform corn subsidies. The possibilities are endless. I would propose two drastic changes to the movement.

  1. Lifestyle Design is no longer about the rockstar lifestyle. It is about being a development rockstar. Saving babies, building capacity, disaster relief, etc.
  2. Lifestyle Designers stop selling programs about how to sell ebooks and just mentor a few people at a time until they are on their own feet.

These are drastic changes because they totally change the business model of successful LD bloggers. Instead of selling the dream, you give it as a gift with the hope that the receiver will pass it on, too. Of course, there is a limit to how many people can live off of information products. But the idea is not that everyone does it. The idea is that enough people do it to develop something that can get more people out of the mire that our current economic system offers. What that something is anybody’s guess. This something is what I mean by “new economy”.

If people are freed from concern about their survival and have money to spare, what kind of economy would develop? A gift-based economy? An economy of patronage? I certainly cannot say. But I think it would be better than what we have. With basic necessities solved, where does the mind turn to?

The current, most visible model of Lifestyle Design is to sell access to Lifestyle Design itself. I suggest that we turn that around. In theory, Lifestyle Design frees the Designer from day-to-day concern about his own survival. With that new freedom and a little generosity, the Designer could turn to other people’s issues of survival and apply themselves to solve it. Is this too radical to expect? Maybe. But would somebody do it? And could it work?

Eric Normand can be found dreaming up schemes to get himself out of corporate wage-slavery. He currently blogs at Renegade Yogi about self-transformation and his upcoming travels. He might be visiting your neck of the woods soon. Drop him a line or follow him on Twitter here. He would be honored and delighted to meet you in person.

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27 Responses to “Lifestyle Design and the Freedom to Change the World”

  1. Frank Schoenburg says:

    Lifestyle design sounds a lot like working at a non-profit organization or cooperative business environment.

    I'm basically unemployed (working for the census) and would like to get into the corporate rat race. I'm sure if I get in I'll immediately want to get out.

    If I thought or could see a realistic way of making a little passive money, I'd jump on that. I just don't see anything realistic.

  2. Evan says:

    I think consumerism is a symptom rather than the disease, which is lack of meaning and relationships.

    Yep, I think taking LD seriously can lead to less consumerism.

    Once people are doing the work the love they don't worry so much about being paid lots or being able to buy lots of toys. Once they have satisfying relationships they don't need retail therapy.

    If I become very wealthy I'd use the surplus to solve Australia's housing problem. Long-term rental for the cost of maintaining the property plus a margin to expand the stock. I would also ask those who will die childless to donate their home to the cause. In this way there would be an expanding stock of affordable housing. This could be done through a foundation I think (I'm not sure about the legalities) I'd like to call it the Kill the Market Foundation (because markets for necessities create poverty and kill people).

    These things are not hard to do.
    My recent post Weird Connections

    • "If I become very wealthy I'd use the surplus to…"—that's the chorus of a million lottery ticket purchasers, or a million Lifestyle Design me-too bloggers.

    • @ericnormand says:

      I know what you're saying: that there's something underlying society that makes people need to fill their lives with needless things.

      I think this is an arguable point. Anthropologist in many societies with various levels of consumerism have documented hording behavior. Is it due to a lack of meaning in their relationships? How would you solve this lack of meaning? Through education?

      Can everyone do "the work they love?" It seems like just another dream the marketing folks are dangling in front of our eyes.

      The media-industrial complex loves to make you feel like your life doesn't have to suck so much. They did not invent that idea. But I am certain they take advantage of it. I don't think satisfying relationships nor the job you love are the panacea of our troubles.
      My recent post The uncommon exercise to eliminate stress

      • Mark says:

        I so agree, Eric. It's one of the reasons I cling to my spiritual practices- they are an anti-consumerist antidote to those feelings of emptyness and disconnection that drive our culture and keep us so low with Maslow.
        My recent post When the Speed of Business Has Left You In the Dust

        • Where's @mrteacup when we need him? :)

          There's a critique of this notion of "spirituality as anti-consumerist" I imagine him giving here, which goes something like this (I'm not sure I totally agree however):

          –Begin argument–

          Spirituality is, in our culture, a consumer choice and is primarily about signaling social status. You have your Sufi stuff, I have my Core Transformation and Vipassana, others have their yoga classes (and mats and bags and water bottles and DVDs and…). We engage in spiritual practice primarily as a means of signaling our social status and group membership. Poor people in the U.S. are religious, but not spiritual. A poor individual may be Baptist, or Evangelical, or perhaps an immigrating Hindu, or a Hispanic Catholic, but is unlikely to be a white Sufi or Buddhist.

          In fact, you and I and people like us are perhaps the worst offenders of this spiritual consumerism. While we critique those who buy yoga paraphernalia as spiritual materialism and not "authentic" spirituality, we ourselves use our spirituality as part of our personal brand, part of our sales pitch to get clients and sell more products for our small businesses.

          Religion isn't consumerist in the same way because religion is about what is right, not what preference you have that is different from my preference. In fact this is why "spirituality" is hip but "religion" isn't. Religion signals intolerance to the middle to upper class who are hip to spirituality and it's esoteric practices, expensive workshops, and general exclusivity.

          –end argument–

          Now I don't necessarily disagree with this critique, but I also think that spirituality is potentially accessible to all, that poor religious people (including Christians!) exhibit and experience spirituality in very ordinary experiences like praying to God that they get a job or that someone in their family has their health improve. It's just that "spiritual" circles don't generally recognize Christianity and Christians as spiritual, and usually portray spirituality as something unusual, and worse yet something that requires large sums of money to experience and realize.

          • Mark Silver says:

            Hmmm… I think that spirituality -can- be a consumer choice, but it is not necessarily one. It hasn't been for me. My path of converting from Judaism to Islam is not one any sane marketer would ever have advised me to make. It was an inner experience.

            And when I say that my experience of spirituality is anti-materialist… what can anyone say to that? If I say that taking refuge in my practices has kept me from spending money unnecessarily, or has helped me find love in my heart instead of searching for it in the market place? What about that is a consumer choice?

            One of my biggest personal heroes is Mother Teresa- I have deep respect for Christianity, as I do for all paths.

            If someone is going to call spirituality a consumer choice, it makes me wonder what their own relationship to spirituality is. None of my friends or community have that consumer relationship to spirituality. Not my friend the Buddhist priest, nor my friend the Christian pastor, nor my other friend the rabbi, nor the other US-born Muslims in my Sufi community. Nor the other seekers in my life who are sincerely following their heart in an attempt to find love, connection and a deeper sense of truth in this dysfunctional culture we find ourselves in.

            I have to admit that I'm very much attracted to religion for many of the reasons you state- that it's not about my preferences, instead it's about surrender to limits and boundaries, about being in service.

            I cling to it because without it, it's all too easy to be swept away in the fears and adrenalin in this consumer culture. Too painful for my heart to bear.

            Now, this is me responding personally to your comment. That said, there is a sincere sense of seeking in the eclectic spiritual community, people that aren't grounded in a religion. It easy to push all of that aside as mere "consumerism" and seeking some kind of high from workshops, and that is there.

            But I think much of it fueled by a sincere desire to know love, to be part of something greater, and the pain people have experienced from the religions-of-birth make it hard to find a home there.

            Yes, there is undoubtedly a class issue at work here as well. I just wouldn't want to reduce it to such a one-dimensional critique when talking about such important issues of the heart.
            My recent post When the Speed of Business Has Left You In the Dust

  3. Courtney says:

    This blog has been one of my favorite finds this week. and this post is terrific, as well as the last on LD. I read the 4 hour work week like most of my fellow web workers, and something didn't sit right with me. There's got to be more to it. I'm all for finding a passion and seeing if it's profitable, but doing so on the backs of workers in the Phillipines because you want to make more money to buy more stuff is just wrong.

    I think the current corporate climate is evil, and there's got to be a better way, but currently LD is not the way. It's only available to a few and it's not productive. You've outlined two ways that it could be different.

    • Thanks for coming by, Courtney! I hope you'll stick around. We've also got lots of great articles in the archives for your reading enjoyment.

      And yes, there's got to be a better way, a way that is available to more people and doesn't continue the corporate ethos of exploitation.

    • @ericnormand says:

      The current LD is definitely not productive.

      I don't mean this as an insult, but Tim Ferriss' blog posts are only popular because he gamed the system, like he usually does with anything he's working on. That's his thing, but taking advantage of loopholes does not add value.

      I think the same thing is true of "information products". They either flat-out suck or they are sold entirely on the basis of marketing rhetoric. How many times have you read that the information is freely available but the convenience of reading it in one place is worth the price?

      I hope there is a better way, but I am skeptical of finding it myself. I'm not that smart.
      My recent post The uncommon exercise to eliminate stress

  4. [...] Eric Normand makes a somewhat similar point concerning the money question in a new post over at Beyond Growth. Please go over and have a [...]

  5. Mark says:

    This is brilliant:

    "Our psychologies tell us to move up the hierarchy and start working on social issues. But we cannot. We are stuck in our job almost half of our waking lives. And our jobs are not helping us self-actualize. An ennui develops. It is this ennui that Lifestyle Design promises to eliminate by reducing working hours to a minimum. It is an appealing alternative to the corporate job."

    Fantastic insight- thank you for that. That alone rocked my world. I can't really take in the rest of the post because I'm taking that in.

    It's one of those super-obvious "duh" things that I just never grokked before.

    Gratitude-
    Mark
    My recent post When the Speed of Business Has Left You In the Dust

  6. @mrteacup says:

    That's not exactly what my argument is. There's probably some validity to the status-seeking theory of consumerism, but I don't think its a great explanation all by itself. A much more useful definition of consumerism is "modern autonomous imaginative hedonism", which Colin Campbell coined.

    One way to understand what is meant by this is to not ask why we buy things, but why we get rid of them, why they're stuffed into closets, garages and rented storage units. They're not being used, nor are they put on display for neighbors to admire. The reason this happens is because the cycle of consumption: buying something new feels exciting, but eventually it loses its appeal and we get bored of it, so we get rid of it and move on to something new. Notice how closely this pattern matches the most common forms of non-religious spirituality, where the dominant mode is "seeking", which really means finding something for a while before moving on to the next thing. Cafeteria spirituality is another related term, to describe an approach to spirituality where traditions are metaphorically represented as food, and the spiritual person as a literal consumer of them.

    The cycle of boredom and excitement points to stimulation as important motivation for consumption, but what is stimulated? Obviously the senses in some cases, but more importantly, it's the imagination. When you go out to a restaurant, the raw materials make up a very small part of the total cost. Most of what you're paying for is to have your imagination stimulated, in a way that's very close to reading a book or watching a movie. A large part of the reason for buying a pair of expensive running shoes is that it helps you sustain a pleasurable daydream of yourself as an athlete. You can escape from the mundane ordinariness of everyday life, and imagine yourself in a much more thrilling role, powerful, at the peak of human performance and so on. It's a way to play pretend: today you're an athlete, tomorrow you're an entrepreneur, the next day your a mystic unlocking the secrets of the universe. If you think of these projects as making a movie, consumerism is like set decoration. We need the right props, costumes and locations to make it seem a little more lifelike and believable, but eventually we get bored of the same old story and the costumes go into a box at the back of the closet, and the cycle starts all over again. So the most important fact about our so-called materialistic culture is that we don't care about the physical material at all. What's important to us is imagination, our inner life, having passion and blissful, transcendent subjective experiences. These ideals are at heart of consumerism, which is most obvious when you look at common critiques of consumerism, which claim that the problem with contemporary consumer goods is that they are empty and unsatisfying, unable to properly stimulate us. What's really being said is that consumerism is not consumeristic enough, which confirms that this perception of the problem is part of the problem, so that the most clearest articulation of the consumerist ethic is found in those who loudly claim to oppose it. The most conservative members of society are those who are eagerly awaiting the next big paradigm shift.

    Humans have probably always had the capacity to imaginatively project themselves into an alternate world, to imagine what it would be like if things were different. The problems begin when this behavior becomes a cultural imperative, that life isn't worth living without this. Past cultures have emphasized dying on a battlefield with honor as life's goal, or obeying the dictates of your role in society. Our culture emphasizes re-inventing and re-imaginging your identity, becoming something new, finding out who you really are, a journey of self-discovery, all of which are pursued through consumption. In a culture where this is the most important thing in life, it's impossible to confront the problems created by the economic system which sustains that way of life. When spiritual traditions are used to legitimize this idea of living, that means we are digging our heels in even deeper.

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