Essay

Towards a Socially Conscientiousness Lifestyle Design Movement

By Klint Finley on May 20th, 2010

In his “The Lifestyle Design (un)Manifesto” Eric calls for the transformation of lifestyle design “into a collective of people who can influence the greater culture for a sustainable future.” Can lifestyle design be reformed into something more socially valuable? Put to work on the right problems, perhaps it can. But there are a few questions that we have to ask first.

Are the people behind the “lifestyle design movement” – that is to say, the people who are actually profiting from it – serious about solving real-world social, environmental, and economic problems? If all they’re interested in is cash and kicks, then there’s probably no point to this discussion. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, because I think there are at least a few among them who are earnest.

Next, what is “lifestyle design,” and can “lifestyle designers” actually solve social problems?

I’ll submit a tentative definition: lifestyle design is the creation of “lifestyle businesses,” specifically ones that are location-independent, depend only knowledge and skills proprietor already has or can learn very quickly, are “scalable,” cost little to start, have low overhead, and (usually) are sole-proprietorships.

Wikipedia defines lifestyle businesses as “businesses that are set up and run by their founders primarily with the aim of sustaining a particular level of income and no more; or to provide a foundation from which to enjoy a particular lifestyle.”

I’m also going to propose a slightly modified version Nassim Taleb’s definition of “scalable” from The Black Swan. Nassim wrote that a scalable profession is “one in which you are not paid by the hour and thus subject to the limitations of the amount of your labor.” If you write a book or make a DVD, you’re not paid for the time it took you to make it, you’re paid according to how many you sell. I would submit that a profession that is paid hourly, but has no market cap as to how much they can charge per hour (ex, various types of “coaching”), is also “scalable.” (Taleb points out that “scalable” professions are actually a bad bet, because so few people are actually successful.)

By Wikipedia’s definition, being a self-employed residential plumber might count as a lifestyle business (Matthew B. Crawford would seem to be the perfect guru for anyone wanting to go this direction). But lifestyle designers have no interest in this business – it’s location based, it’s paid by the hour subject to market constraints (no matter how good a plumber you are, there’s only so much over the market rate you can charge), it requires years of training, and to strike out on your own you need to invest in your own tools and equipment. The ultimate lifestyle design business is selling “info products” – usually e-books so the proprietor needn’t trouble themselves with inventory.

So to reword an earlier question: can these sorts of minimalist businesses actually address serious world problems? I’m not sure. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I’m sure someone out there can give us a few examples. The lifestyle design gurus themselves would say that they’re helping people live their dreams, have more free time to spend with their families, etc. and that those are worthy goals in and of themselves. There may be some truth in that – if the dreams sold by lifestyle design gurus is actually attainable. More on that later.

I’ll mention here that I certainly don’t blame anyone who’s managed to start any sort of a lifestyle business that basically just makes them a living but isn’t particularly “world changing.” If you can make a living teaching yoga, making craft beer, giving guided tours, or whatever – that’s great. In this economy, just getting by is hard enough. If you can get by doing something you love that doesn’t hurt anyone else, that’s fantastic. That said, I think that if more people were focusing on solving important problems, rather than just getting by, maybe just getting by wouldn’t be so hard. On the other hand, you know what they say about the road to hell and good intentions… But we can talk about picking the right way to solve the right problems some other time.

Lifestyle designers push the sole-proprietorship thing pretty hard. Partners, co-workers, and employees are seen as unnecessary distractions from leading an optimal lifestyle. According to the gurus, any work that can’t be done by oneself should be outsourced to someone who needs little management. It’s hyperindividualistic. I understand the appeal – being free of meetings, bosses, subordinates, etc. and being free to just do what I do best would be great. But tackling big problems can take cooperation at a large scale. I’m not sure sole-proprietorships are going to be up for the task of, say, cleaning up oil spills.

I question the ability of “social innovation” and “green tech” companies to really address these sorts of issues, but they do bring more resources (talent, money, organization) to the table than a typical lifestyle designer is going to be able to. However, for all the hyperindividualism of the lifestyle design movement, it’s really quite a community/network. Few of the really successful people in lifestyle design (the gurus, basically) are really working on their own. They’re constantly collaborating, cross-promoting, etc.

There’s probably good work that competent programmers, engineers, and designers can do working alone or in loose remote networks (check out open_sailing). But can they attach a business model to these projects? Maybe some individual lifestyle designer could invent something like the LifeStraw, but could they build a successful lifestyle business around it? I don’t know. But maybe set loose on small, discrete problems the lifestyle design community could have a large collective impact. One idea that intrigues me is the idea of “low hanging fruit“: problems are relatively small compared to big systemic issues but, are much easier to solve and therefore have more of an immediate impact. The idea was originally articulated in relation to the developing world, but the global North has our share of issues and this line of thinking could be applied here as well. If lifestyle designers were put to work trying to build lifestyle businesses around solving small problems, maybe we’d have something there. Maybe unleashing a network of creative slackers on these issues could lead to some mini-breakthroughs.

I’m guessing a lot of people from the lifestyle design community will argue that the best thing lifestyle design could do is untether passionate people from their bland corporate 9-5 jobs and free them up to spend their time on real world changing stuff. That seems to be at least part of the promise of the lifestyle gurus. The problem is, I’m not sure that dream is attainable for many people.

The idea of a “four hour work week” is attractive – but part of my critique of lifestyle design is that they’re selling empty promises. It’s hard to start a successful business. And getting it to the point where it can be automated and/or outsourced while still generating a decent profit for the owner (all ethical issues aside) is even more difficult. It’s not impossible – Ferris did it with BrainQuicken. The guy who runs Plenty of Fish claims to only work a few hours a week. Guillebeau claims to have supported himself and his wife for four years while volunteering full-time in Sierra Leone by selling info products online part-time. So I suppose someone with the right inclination could start some sort of lifestyle business that enables them to work part time and spend their spare time volunteering or working on world changing problems. It’s possible, but it takes a lot of work, creativity, and luck (not necessarily in that order). The truth is, most people, no matter how pure their positive thoughts, will never actually succeed in this. I don’t want to discourage people from starting businesses, or even from trying to build scalable elements into their businesses (I know I am), but I think people need to be prepared for more.

So what reforms of the lifestyle design movement would be necessary to make it into a truly positive social movement? Here are some ideas:

  • Lifestyle design leaders could emphasize social problems, especially “low hanging fruit” and encourage would-be lifestyle designers to build their lifestyle businesses around these problems. (The issue I’m wrestling with right now is how to fund “difficult journalism“)
  • Leaders can encourage their followers to network to solve problems that can’t be solved by individuals working in isolation, and work together to try to find ways to make their projects financially sustainable.
  • Leaders can encourage followers to dedicate time and money to learning new skills like programming, engineering, and applied sciences instead of merely trying to capitalize on their existing skills. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I see advice like “you can write an info product on something you already know about” far more often than I see “maybe you should learn PHP, or go back to school and get a biology degree.”
  • Leaders should acknowledge that the dream life of easy money and ample free time won’t come to most people and that their time would be better spent learning new skills and trying to solve serious problems rather than selling pointless info products.

That last one is probably the hardest because it flies in the face of the cult of positive thinking and undermines their own business models (selling people info products and coaching to become successful as info product sellers and coaches). But the more honest among the gurus could admit that many businesses are going to be time consuming and that non-scalable businesses are usually a safer bet. They can even encourage mixed models – both providing an hourly service and selling products.

Is there room for a legitimately socially conscientiousness lifestyle design movement? Probably. Can it survive without being co-opted by hucksters, or devolving into smug “green consumerism” (there’s a reason “lifestyle activism” has traditionally been used as a slur)? It’s hard for me not to be cynical, but I’d like to see the community give it a shot.

Klint Finley is a “bearded weirdo” who blogs about cutting edge topics on Technoccult.net and about Media on Mediapunk.net. Klint recently interviewed Duff and Eric  in an article titled “Beyond Growth – Technoccult interviews Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller.”  You can follow him on twitter too.

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21 Responses to “Towards a Socially Conscientiousness Lifestyle Design Movement”

  1. I really enjoyed this response, Klint. You captured many of the most salient points about what is missing from "lifestyle design" in my opinion.

    But the more honest among the gurus could admit that many businesses are going to be time consuming and that non-scalable businesses are usually a safer bet. They can even encourage mixed models – both providing an hourly service and selling products.

    I've seen this from one or two "gurus" that I respect. Scott H. Young for instance emphasizes keeping your day job while working on side projects like blogging and eBook writing. The #1 most important thing to me is to avoid selling (and buying!) products that are primarily about acquiring a lifestyle of the rich and location-independent.

    The promise of upward mobility sold in expensive "information products" on Lifestyle Design is to me a problematic ideology precisely because it reinforces hyper-individualism, thus preventing any meaningful collective action to change unjust social structures. As long as we think that very soon we are going to be rich/location-independent/etc., we have little motivation to band together to change things such that all of us collectively can have better lives. For those who actually win at the pyramid game, they of course will promote that "anybody can do it, just like me" which happens to nicely serve to justify one's privilege.

    • Nicholas says:

      The thing this forgets is that there are those of us out there- like me- to whom "community" is a dirty word. Some of us want to be individuals and try to fight our way up the pyramid. I don't want to create a better "collective" life- I wanna get mine. In my opinion, the best way to collectively improve is through "darwinian" competition, not collective action- we all strengthen each other by competing, and the weaker competitors die off. That's all the justice I want.

      • Yes, there will always be psychopaths. And we will deal with them the way we've always dealt with them–put half of them in jail and the other half in high positions in government and industry!

        • Nicholas says:

          I've noticed you tend to use a lot of language that seems to be pre-loaded for a negative response- "psychopath", "sociopath", "corporate", "patriarchy", etc…. without consciously recognizing why these exist, and why they might not be so negative- or, at least, a required part of life.

          As I'm always remind people- we can't live unless other creatures die, even if those creatures are "only" plants and bacteria. Oh, wait, isn't that "hierarchical" or "patriarchal" thinking, to think that we are more important than plants or bacteria? Hmm…

          • Is arguing for social darwinism not "pre-loaded for a negative response"?

            There are certainly ways to disagree with communitarianism that are not so extreme.

          • Nicholas says:

            What's wrong with individualism, social darwinism, etc?

            In fact, what's wrong with evil? Isn't destruction as necessary as creation? Why don't we promote bald-faced evil.

            Here's the world I want to live in: I want to live in a world where two people talking about their aspirations could get together, and when one says "I want to be the next Stalin!" and the other says "I want to be the next Gandhi!", they could look at each other and both say "Awesome!" It's all a GAME, guys! We rip off our masks at the end of time and all is forgiven!

          • In fact, what's wrong with evil?

            If you have to ask, you'll never know.

            I think we all can agree that some degree of healthy competition can be enjoyable and bring out the best in people—the GOOD in people. But promoting outright evil is, well, evil. And yes, psychopathic.

          • TheOtherHobbes says:

            Actually we can't live without other creatures. Period.

            One of the big lies – or more generously, misunderstandings – of Darwinism is its unscientific emphasis on individual organisms.

            In ecosystems, individual organisms barely exist. An ecosystem is symbiotic and interdependent, by definition. It is impossible for any complex organism to survive without a viable support network.

            You can only pretend to be an individual because – like all multicellular life on Earth – you're a communitarian collection of transient self-sacrificing cells.

            If evolution hadn't evolved cooperation, the Earth would still be populated by competing single-celled organisms each frantically trying to gain advantage over the rest, to no great effect.

            Do you want to have the social intelligence of an amoeba? Because that's all that libertarian individualism can give you.

  2. Uriah Zebadiah says:

    I like where you're going here, though I'll be honest– though it's certainly designing a lifestyle, I'm not sure it's 'lifestyle design' in the sense guys like Tim Ferris talk about. But yes, the fact is that we as a people desperately need to be figuring out how to live a true 21st century lifestyle in a practical, personal way, and envision a sustainable, desirable sense of culture for people to buy into. I think the beginnings of that have already started taking root in Portland here, and should be expanded on and packaged attractively to really push things forward in the world. Simultaneously, we absolutely need to teach people to efficiently run the small businesses that can economically power such a culture, as well as start financing the larger operations that are needed to accomplish larger goals. There is clearly a need to teach people the skills necessary to help build the sustainable future and make it thrive.

    As far as guys like Tim Ferris go, it's really not all that hard build a lifestyle business if you're a sociopathic obsessive-compulsive autodidact overachiever with an MBA from Cornell. 'Anyone can do this!' is an awful lie, and it's a fairly obvious one. I do think 4HWW is sort of a classic self-help book, though obviously that largely means that it's hugely misleading. I like that lifestyle design gurus talk about building efficient, lean businesses that require minimal managerial oversight. But I wish they would talk more about building real, meaningful value for people. It's good marketing, it's improves our world, and it feels less like work not just for you, but for your employees. But would that really still be 'lifestyle design' or shouldn't it just be its own thing? Culture Building or some such.

  3. Evan says:

    Well there are authors and teachers. These fit the definition pretty well and sometimes play a part in changing the world.
    My recent post Coming Soon: Habits for Authenticity

  4. Great article, Klint – I really appreciate the perspective.

    I may come back later when I have something more useful to say besides that, but I like the groundwork you've laid here. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this.

    Duff and Eric: Thanks for hosting this conversation.

  5. klintron says:

    “I don’t want to cretate a better ‘collective’ life- I wanna get mine.” Yeah? How’s that working out for you?

    Dhb

  6. klintron says:

    Ah woops, commenting from a mobile device is a little suboptimal. Thanks Duff, Uriah, and Charlie!

  7. Carl Nelson says:

    One of the most insightful pieces here.

    Great work Klint. This is something that I've had discussion with both Eric and Duff about, as well as one of the reasons I stepped back so vigorously from the lifestyle design community in the fall.

  8. @ericnormand says:

    I think we have the possibility of doing some good ourselves. We shouldn't worry if the movement will devolve into something lesser. We should show people what is possible and invite them to join us.
    My recent post Malinke Peanut Sauce

  9. John Merryman says:

    Surfing over from technoccult:

    This discussion reminds me of the old African saying that if you want to travel fast, go alone, but if you want to travel far, go with a group. As valid today as it was ten thousand years ago, when the first version was probably originally expressed.

    The point being that at this point in human history, the efficacy of traveling alone has been about used up for the time being and it's time to start making sense of what being a group entails. In that regard, I think there are two primary social constructs that need to be revisited; God and money.

    The concept of god originated as a plural. Polytheistic deities were what we would currently describe as memes. Basic concepts to which the larger group accepted, such as the singularity and status of the group one is immersed in. Geographic and astronomical features. Seasons of the year. Group and cultural activities, such as celebrations, war, death, sex, sleep, illness, etc. All the myriad connections between these concepts naturally lead to a pantheistic network with a mythology of allegorical relationships. This pantheistic unity was difficult to describe conceptually, so it was natural to have this state defined as a unit and then to give it some form, the adult human male being the logical default option.

    As we understand today, unity and unit are two profoundly different concepts. Unity is a state of connectedness, while a unit is a set. Effectively it is the difference between zero and one. While we think of zero as nothing, as an equilibrium state, the absolute, it is also everything. A potential spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. The problem is that human knowledge originates from the focal point of the individual and after attempting to peel away all the details and complexities of life, we have settled on this idealized conscious knowledge as our God and in a fit of megalomania, projected it onto the entire universe. To the extent there is a spiritual absolute, no matter how far into the abyss it extends, it is this raw consciousness to which we give form, while knowledge is a feedback loop with physical reality.

    Top down theology assumes a moral theory of good and bad as a metaphysical duel between the forces of light and darkness. Actually they are the basic biological binary code, the attraction of the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. This elemental relationship is a polarity out of which exponentially complex relationships develop. What is good for the fox is bad for the chicken, yet there is no clear line where the chicken ends and the fox ends. Life is a process of creation and consumption as it bootstraps itself upward. We may all be branches of the same tree, but the result is we all point in different directions. Morality is a complex code, similar to language, which groups of people develop in order to coexist and obviously differ in detail from one group to another, but serve the same basic function. Between black and white are not just shades of grey, but all the colors of the spectrum.

    It should also be noted that polytheists invented democracy, possibly because a pantheon requires a process of negotiation and resolution seeking. Monotheism has often been a logical bulkhead for validating monarchy and other forms of top down rule.

  10. John Merryman says:

    The problem with money is that a debt based currency is an archaic construct that is breaking down, due to exploitation of inherent flaws. Three hundred years ago it was a pretty smart idea, since there were few economic measures to determine the money supply and debt grows at roughly the same rate as productivity. Now the financial system has been allowed and encouraged to turn the entire economy into a debt production machine to create the illusion of wealth far exceeding the productive capacity of the economy and often subverting actual production in the process. Which is to say that it was not deregulation that caused our current mess, so much as that deregulation was the presumed solution to the disconnect between production and debt. A lot of the money has been borrowed into existence for the purpose of speculation and the powers that be are more concerned with maintaining its value, at the expense of society, the productive economy and the environment.

    Since money is drawing rights to productivity, the question is how to formulate a viable and healthy production based currency system. Money serves as a store of value and a medium of exchange. As a store of value, it is private property, but as a medium of exchange, it is a public utility. As property, there is the desire to accumulate as much as possible, but as a medium of exchange, more money than productivity degrades the value of the money. Money should only be treated as a public utility. In that way, it would be similar to a road system. You own your car, house, business, etc. but not the roads connecting them and no one seriously cries socialism over that. Treating money as form of public commons would make people very careful what value they would take from social relations and environmental resources to convert into currency in the first place. This would be healthy for society, the environment and the monetary system. Of course, it would create a slower, but more sustainable economy. We all like having roads, but there is little inclination to pave more than we need. If we applied the same principle to money, life would be in better shape. Instead of valuing ourselves by how big our bank accounts are, our sense of worth would be on how strong our community is and how healthy our environment is. A smaller money supply would go a long way to limiting the size of the government and the banking system.

    The function of the central bank is to make maintaining the value of the currency a public responsibility, while leaving private banks to profit from managing it Political power started as private enterprise and eventually became monarchy. When monarchs lost sight of the fact that their purpose was to guide their people, as opposed to simply exploiting them, they tended to be overthrown and eventually the whole system of hierarchal power was replaced by political power as a public trust. Democracy works by pushing power down to the level it is responsive. If we were to make banking a public function, it would also be bottom up. Local credit unions would use local deposits to loan to local enterprises and use the profits to fund local needs. They would then form regional banks for broader investments.

  11. John Merryman says:

    With a debt based currency, there is an overwhelming need to create debt. A good example is government spending. The current system is designed to overspend by buying votes for enormous bills that can only be passed or vetoed. This serves to create debt in order to store capital, as government debt is the primary investment vehicle. In the spirit of actual budgeting, a possible solution would be to break the spending bills down to their constituent items and have every legislator assign a percentage value to each item and then re-assemble them in order of preference. The president would draw the line at what would be funded. This would divide responsibility, allowing the legislature to prioritize, while giving the president final authority over total spending. Since making the cut would be graded on a curve, there would be much less incentive to trade favors and the percentage system would allow legislators to fine tune their granting of favors to other legislators and lobbyists. Since this would likely reduce funding for local projects, a system of local public banks would fill this need.

    Then there is the question of how to introduce it into the economy. Currently it is by loaning it out at low enough interest rates to allow sufficient productive returns to pay interest back. This has proven to lead to speculative booms, when interest rates are lower than assets are appreciating, creating feedback loops that increase appreciation and thus more speculation.

    A viable system needs to recognize excess money is inflationary and by the Fed's logic of selling bonds to reduce the money supply, excess currency is in the hands of those with an excess of wealth. So, since the stability of the currency is a public responsibility, it should be taxed, not borrowed. If we tax out excess currency to contain inflation, then how about tax credits to introduce money into the system, when prices seem to be deflating? That's what they are doing now, with all these rebates and it does serve to support productivity. Another method is for the government to spend it into the economy. This has been tried with various levels of success over the ages, but needs prudential management to not get out of hand. In the governmental budgeting process mentioned above, this might entail some degree over spending to control deflation and under spending for inflation.

    Another issue would be the variability of needs by different communities from their currencies, so possibly a system of various currencies could be developed, of different exchanges rates, inflationary expectations, etc. Then countries/banking collectives could join what most suits their needs and if necessary, switch from one to another, or start new ones. Obviously somewhat chaotic, but it would be an evolving system and would engender a deeper understanding of economics among the larger population, thus making them less vulnerable to financial predation.

    I think that on a metabiological scale, humanity is a nascent central nervous system for the planetary organism, but we are still at a fairly juvenile stage, since the function of a mature and healthy nervous system is to protect, preserve and advance the entire organism, not just obsess over its own compulsions and make large messes in the process.

  12. [...] 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 [...]

  13. [...] or about something new altogether: Terms like “Community Design” or, as proposed in the comments to Klint Finley’s post by Uriah Zebadiah, “Culture Building” seem to be more appropriate. If we want to [...]

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