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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