Essay

The Herd Mentality of Individualism & Lifestyle Design

By Wille Faler on October 15th, 2010
the herd

Individuality is a funny thing, quite often the people who seek it the most end up having the least. As humans, we have been endowed with free will, yet we bypass it with surprising frequency to follow the herd. You can see it everywhere: high school kids who want to stand out and be different do it by joining a group of Goth kids all dressed in black who are subsequently indistinguishable from each other. College kids wanting to rebel and show their independence and individuality do it by getting the exact same tribal tattoo of the year as 15 of their friends.

Nowhere is this herd mentality as apparent as in the Lifestyle Design community. After reading The Four Hour Workweek, the kids must have figured that apparently the way to show your individuality was to move to some piss poor, tropical country and make a living selling e-books about moving to some piss poor tropical country to sell e-books. Soon enough, hundreds of kids in their early twenties gather like lemmings to live on the beach in some piss poor tropical country, trying to sell e-books about writing e-books about selling e-books about living in a tropical country selling e-books. Nice work if you can pull it off, though I suspect there’s a limited market for selling e-books filled with truisms, old platitudes and other profound wisdoms amassed over a long life of.. eh.. 23 years?

There is nothing inherently wrong with being part of a herd, if you made an informed decision based on what you wanted, that’s great. But it gets a bit ridiculous when people criticize the “status-quo” while espousing the virtues of their own supposedly unique life choices when they proudly share a label describing their lifestyle with an industry and thousands of others doing exactly the same thing.

Rebelling Against That Other Herd

If you followed in the steps of others to rebel against the status-quo and assert your individuality in exactly the same way as hundreds, possibly thousands of others, are you really doing something very unique? This is where I think a lot of Lifestyle Designers, as well as their critics go horribly wrong. I just don’t get the obsession people have with other peoples life choices. To me, the obsession with others is the worst kind of herd behavior there is. At what point do you even need to compare yourself to others to feel good about yourself? If that is what you need, then I’m pretty sure you either took a wrong turn somewhere or simply suffer from low self esteem.

When you start criticizing other peoples life choices because they are different to yours, you are criticizing someone for the simple reason that they are not part of your herd. If you want to live on a beach and sell e-books, then good luck to you, but choosing to live in the community where you grew up, in the house of your late grandparents, having 2.5 kids and driving a Volvo to the office is a perfectly valid life choice as well. In fact, I hear having a settled home- and family life isn’t all bad for your health either.

The same goes the other way around too: If you want 2.5 kids, white picket fence and a Volvo, that’s all good and well, but if someone else wants to have a look around the world instead of doing what you have done, that too is a perfectly valid choice. Do whatever makes you happy, if someone else chooses another path, why should it be any of your concern?

Lifestyle Design: It’s Just The 80/20 Rule Repackaged, Dummy!

You have to give it to Tim Ferriss, he is a marketing genius: he basically took the hundred year old Pareto Principle, repackaged it with some examples of practical applications for your personal- and business life and made a fortune out of it. But in repackaging it he created an unfortunate unintended consequence: a lot of people missed out entirely on the scientific and philosophical implications and insights of realizing that a minority of causes create a majority of outcomes.

Instead many young men and women (well, mostly young men) interpreted Ferriss’ illustrative anecdotes literally as a checklist or quick-fix formula on what to do and how to live. In doing so, they missed out on the whole point. The pursuit of non-conformity has simply turned into conformity with a different herd, and we’re right back to the Goth kids in your old High School.

Being Part of the Herd Is Fine (You Can’t Avoid It)

Being part of a herd is okay. As humans, we are social animals, we need interaction, we need a herd. It is inevitable that we will identify with- and be part of many herds throughout our lifetimes, we will change herds as we move through different phases of our lives, we might even be part of multiple herds at once (I’ve heard of soccer-mom bikers).

However, choosing a herd should be a conscious choice based on what you want to do with your life at that point in your life, not a choice based on some quick-fix formula or trying to rebel or wanting to hang with the cool kids. And for God’s sakes, stop being so obsessed with the herds other people choose, as long as it’s not something like NAMBLA, I’m pretty sure their lifestyle is just as valid as yours, even if it is a bit different.

Wille is a wannabe-entrepreneur with multiple failures under his belt, over the years he has forged a close friendship Jack Daniel’s and been known to resort to various acts of immaturity in a desperate bid to hang on to what little youth he has left in him. You can read his blog musings here or follow him on twitter here.

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15 Responses to “The Herd Mentality of Individualism & Lifestyle Design”

  1. viv66 says:

    We need to be Wild Sheep and escape the herd….and make sure we never end up as shepherd's pie.
    Seriously. That's where sheep end up. They might start out as fluffy white lambs bouncing around a field in the spring sunshine but they end up somewhere quite different. Leaving aside the whole Hannibal Lecter possibilities, there are analogies: we cease to be individuals and we become…a hunk of walking meat, fodder for the profitteers who sell us what they have convinced us we need.
    Give Jack Daniels my regards and tell him he and I have a date sometime real soon.
    My recent post Woodland Stream

  2. At what point do you even need to compare yourself to others to feel good about yourself? If that is what you need, then I’m pretty sure you either took a wrong turn somewhere or simply suffer from low self esteem.

    I'd say that setting one's self-esteem based on comparison is itself a recipe for low self-esteem. There is always someone better than you at the thing you think is unique about yourself. It's not that low self-esteem drives comparison, it's that comparison leads to low self-esteem. If one can make the switch, it's much better to base one's self esteem on congruence with one's self-concept, which includes one's own values, and to have a self-concept that is both accurate and empowering.

    As far as practical techniques to make that change, Steve Andreas' book Transforming Your Self is the best book I've ever read on the subject by far. (Note: I work for Steve, but am not paid to promote his work and I do not receive commissions.)

    if someone else chooses another path, why should it be any of your concern?

    Most of the time, Other People's Lifestyles (OPL) are none of my concern, let alone my interest. But I do think it is important to distinguish between a hands-off tolerance for diversity of lifestyle choices and a critique of culture, a discussion of ethics, or even a conversation about values. In addition, this sentence contains it's own paradox, for in telling others what they shouldn't be concerned about, it violates it's own injunction to not be concerned with others beliefs, values, and actions. While ideally we can all do our thing without affecting others, the truth is that we are interconnected beings, and our individual lifestyle choices do have an effect—sometimes big, sometimes small—on other people.

    I'd say that the critique of lifestyle design is not necessarily a concern with the neutral life choices of another person, it is an ethical and cultural critique. I think we should definitely talk about ethics and culture, even if it sometimes offends those living the values being questioned. In addition, lifestyle design is in many ways a mutation of the get-rich-quick scheme, and thus worth warning others about. That said, I do think we should allow for a variety of different ways of living in the world, and acknowledge that what makes one person happy would make another miserable, and vice versa. For instance, I hate traveling and thus just can't see the appeal other people have of living in foreign countries, or of being constantly mobile. But traveling by itself isn't an ethical issue to me, so I'm not too concerned about that aspect of lifestyle design for instance.

    Being part of a herd is okay.

    Totally agreed. Hence the irony of the explicitly "unconventional," anti-status-quo crowd that can't see it's own group membership for what it is.

    • Wille says:

      "While ideally we can all do our thing without affecting others, the truth is that we are interconnected beings, and our individual lifestyle choices do have an effect—sometimes big, sometimes small—on other people."
      I tend to oversimplify this into a simple ethical rule: as long as force, fraud, coercion or any derivative of it is used, I mostly don't care what people do. I might not agree with it on a personal level, but if I don't I steer clear.
      Of course it's not quite that simple: for instance a parent abandoning a child morally abhorrable, as are any number of other cases where people do not take responsibility for their actions which leads to negative consequences for others.

      However, I think the general argument of "interconnectedness" and affecting others through your lifestyle choices is a dubious one if there isn't an actual victim of a crime around: to me it smells too much of the exact same arguments religious fundamentalists use to argue against gay marriages/partnerships when they claim their marriage "feels devalued".
      My take on it is: if some far off stranger whose life you've at most read about supposedly affects you, suck it up and move on. :)

      But traveling by itself isn't an ethical issue to me
      Oh how I wish I could get my eco-warrior kid sister to agree with you on this one. :D
      My recent post The Dangers of Ideology &amp Likeminded People

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Willie, This gets tricky. This post is like others on this blog. Does this mean it is not uniquely yours?

    I'm saying that uniqueness has more to do with process than outcome.

    I don't think all lifestyle choices are equally valid. There are consequences to our choices for ourselves, others and the environment. I think it is possible to assess consequences. (Eg. "Do whatever makes you happy" means the assessment is based on degree of happiness.)

    Lots of us re-package stuff. Eg. it is good to love others, compassion has a skill component and so on. Or rebelling against conformity is another form of conformity – as this post says so well.

    I think you are inconsistent. If it is OK to be part of herd as long as you freely choose it (you given no reasoning for why this should be the criterion) but are scathing about those in Lifestyle Design – eg. criticising Tim Ferris for just re-packaging stuff. If he freely chose to do this I don't see why you are criticising him. The freely chosen criterion doesn't seem (to me) to be able to take account of unintended consequences.

    • This post is like others on this blog. Does this mean it is not uniquely yours?

      This is a great question, I think, which brings the discussion back to Evan and I's favorite topic—authenticity! :)

      I think you are inconsistent.

      Honestly, I agree with Evan on this one. I think it's OK to be a part of a herd, and OK to criticize other herds too based on the consequences of said herd.

    • Wille says:

      Let me make one thing clear: I'm not scathing about Lifestyle Design in particular – I am critical of those who chose a given lifestyle without thinking about their reasons of WHY they chose it or what the consequences of it will be.
      The reason I take the example of lifestyle design is that I think a lot of people (not all) have chosen the path simply because it "seemed the cool thing to do" rather than what they might have done had they stopped and thought for a while.

      If you knowingly and willingly make a choice, that to me is better than just blindly walking into something, be it the white picket-fence apple-pie family life, or bum around the world for 30 years.
      My recent post The Dangers of Ideology &amp Likeminded People

  4. Jacq says:

    I think you guys have been a little too harsh on the lifestyle design movement. I don't see anything wrong at all with moving to a foreign country and working for awhile – hell, I encouraged my own 22 y.o. son to do it. But he doesn't like change sadly – and wants to cure cancer. ;-)

    Where I think the danger is – and I'm just speaking from personal experience in entrepreneurial ventures (just 5 years, not a lifetime or anything) – is that it is very, very hard to go back and say "I have failed" when your whole identity becomes wrapped up in this certain way of living. At the time I was doing it, I didn't have a "group" to conform to or put pressure on me. In hindsight, I'm grateful that I didn't have a herd and had kids to make me think of the future. The worst that will happen is that these people will have to go get a normal J-O-B. And Ferriss will get a little richer by writing a diet book. Not the end of the world. A few LD leaders will be pigeon-holed with their ladder's leaning up against the wrong wall and will fade into obscurity.

    I envision the lifestyle design movement going the way of the Beatniks – the glamor of Jack Kerouac's On The Road was replaced by a conservative Kerouac, broke and barefoot, bumming drinks from strangers. It will burn itself out, like that roman candle. At least there was talent and original thought there, more than I can say for most LD'ers today. Reminds me of Marx: History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

    • I would distinguish moving to a foreign country and working for awhile from the lifestyle design movement. In my mind, they have little if nothing to do with each other, even though the surface features are very similar.

      Lifestyle Design is much more about creating a lifestyle that other people will envy that you can then leverage to make money. It's about "personal branding," about attempting to create a "4-hour workweek," and more than anything else, it's about selling the promise of get-rich-or-lifestyle-quick.

      I'm hugely in support of kids traveling or taking time to explore themselves and the world before creating a fixed identity and career path. And the worst that can happen? One can spend years and 10's of 1000's of dollars on personal development, self-help, and get-rich-quick or internet marketing schemes (it's happened to many, many followers of gurus like Ferriss).

      Hence why I think it's worth writing about.

      • Carlon says:

        I agree. I moved to a foreign country and work there now. That's why part of Ferriss' book made sense to me because I have lived as an expat off and on for 10 years. When I read 4HWW, I liked the parts he ripped off from Potts' vagabonding book.

        Though I don't endorse everything Ferriss said, I would encourage anyone to go live and work abroad..not just travel; actually work…it's an eye-opening experience. And for full disclosure, after reading 4HWW, I did decide to move abroad again.
        My recent post My 5 Days as a Vegan

  5. Jacq says:

    You're right Duff, I asked my son what he thought about "lifestyle design" (as touted) and he laughed and said it was insane. He's amazingly sensible considering his mom. ;-)

    And yes, I spent the thousands of dollars that I couldn't afford at the time on personal development too. It wasn't until I let go of personal development that I actually made those six figures. Also lost thousands that I could have earned and saved had I come to my senses earlier – but don't the kids just have to pee on the electric fence themselves? Bottom line – they do not want to listen – and they won't. They have to make their own mistakes. It's freaking hard to let your kid make those kind of mistakes – I certainly know that from experience. But there is no learning except from experience – in my experience.

    What I find interesting is that they claim to not want – or need – money, yet there's a whole lot of stuff out there about making six figures. I don't really understand that part.

    Here's one you might find interesting – or something: http://www.freepursuits.com/18-months-2-blogs-six…

    • What I find interesting is that they claim to not want – or need – money, yet there's a whole lot of stuff out there about making six figures. I don't really understand that part.

      The psychopaths featured in The Secret love to say things like that too–"it's not about the money, but if you drop all concern about money the money will follow." Say what?!? It's either about the money or it isn't, and the actions of these folks prove time and time again that is ALWAYS about the money.

      As to that link, another ridiculous get-lifestyle/rich-quick scheme, complete with obligatory "manifesto." Bleh.

  6. Milt says:

    Intresting post,
    I'm feeling the same things about the whole lifestyle design game. I've been working online for years and have only just a few months ago started blogging as myself. (previously in affiliate marketing under various personas) I have jumped on the lifestyle design tag for now because I sorta come into that catogry. I've been travelling and living in piss poor tropical countries whilst developing my online businesses for years and I love it.
    I haven't blogged about it until recently, but I'm heading down the road of coming out with an ebook about Lifestyle design/digital nomading. I sorta don't want to but I read so many of these kids starting blogs about lifestyle design and they are still sat at home not creating any businesses and I feel I wanna tell them exactly how it is but I don't really wanna be labled as a 'lifestyle designer'. How messed up is that ?

    My recent post Friday Photo- Mountain Ghost Busters Thailand

  7. I think 4HWW is a great book for those dissatisfied with the 9-5 and I recommend it to lots of people to give them the motivation to get out of the rut their in. The problem I have with many lifestyle designers is that they’re fake! Snake oil merchants too! Selling crap that nobody wants so they can continue to live the good life. Well, if you want to live the good life, I think you need to have a better idea than selling ebooks.

    I dont blame them for giving it a crack, though.

  8. Jacob/ERE says:

    When I was in my early 20s (in the 1990s), traveling the world with a backpack for a few years wasn't called minimalism, lifestyle design, or being unconventional. It was called "backpacking" and a great many people did it. It's a huge market … traveling and rebelling as an old adolescent—it's practically in our genes. Of course in the 1990s, there weren't any blogs. A writing backpacker would be called a journalist or a travel writer. Naturally, there aren't room in the market for very many of those. This was true then and it's true today.

    I've kinda made it my business to criticize the dominant herd of sheep: The go to college, get a car loan, start a career, get a mortgage, get married, have a nervous break down, get divorced, have a midlife crises, etc. herd.

    I think the problem with herds is a) that they are often sold as the only solution either by our culture as a whole like above or by some smart internet marketeer; b) those who don't join up don't do so deliberately.

    I've seen my blog name develop and acronym and now it's referred to as the "acronym"-lifestyle. UGH! Even trying intentionally, it's hard to avoid this. People find other people they can identify with. I find that people are remarkably similar inside such a herd.

    The only semantic conflict is when a herd markets itself as being unconventional or remarkable. It may be so relative to other herds, but it is never so relative to itself, by definition.

    • Personally, your blog is the only one I can recommend in the minimalist/backpacking/frugal-living genre precisely for the reasons you've stated. While most are content to speak the rhetoric of independence while amassing an unthinking cult-like following (without irony even!), you are actually living your philosophy and values consistently and sincerely.

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