I’m currently reading the book “Radical Simplicity”, by Jim Merkel, as a part of trying to sort out what is next in my life. There’s no shortage of things striving to get my attention, my energy, and my time, but the greater question is what do I want out of my life? And even more difficult that the what of it all, is the how.
I’m finding myself in a position of burnout. I’ve been burnt out a few times in my career - and written about it publicly a few times as well (although those posts have seem to disappear). Burning out is way too common in the tech industry, in fact it’s why I’m so keen on unionization in tech. You can’t spend more than a few minutes on tech forums without finding stories of people being burnt out and asking what to do about it. Since sabbaticals aren’t really a thing in our industry, it’s left up to us, the employee, to utilize the “UnLImITed PtO” that we have to try and make things work. In my experience, there’s no level of PTO that I can reasonably take, that would add up to the rest I would need to not be burnt out. I truly believe without some level of Union level protection of a sabbatical it will not work.
So where does that leave me? That leaves me assessing if my burnout would be solved with a new job (it wouldn’t). In fact, I’m only six months into my current job, with a lot of opportunity on the table to make a go at another successful IPO, but its hard to get my brain off of the proverbial couch. You see, my burnout isn’t job related, or even job duty related, it’s our entire industry.
I’ve been trying to write a blog post since January (9 months now) about how nearly everything we’re doing in our industry is making the world, and our lives, worse.
“But Wes,” you say, “tech has given us the iPhone, transportation, reliable food sources, and has allowed us to earn great livings for a long time now,” and you would be correct. Tech has given us the iPhone, a device that has sucked us into it’s tentacles so much that we now commend each other as parents when our kids are okay with just a few hours of screen time per day. The iPhone, a device that we can’t help but pick up our phones every spare moment we have. Where we somehow think it’s okay to be looking at our phones rushing down the freeway in 5000lb vehicles at 80mph, because auto-pilot somehow makes that safe. Transportation, which has consumed and destroyed so much of our planet’s resources that it’s very hard to see a way back from the destruction we’ve caused.
And then there’s reliable food sources.
Our planet has roughly 15 billion, with a B, acres of habitable land and 8.1 billion, with a B, humans. That’s not to speak of the billions (and trillions) of other living organisms that need to survive on this planet alongside of us, to ensure that we have a truly functional ecosystem. Radical Simplicity goes into a lot of the math, but the math is fairly outdated since the book was written many years ago. It is fair to say that the numbers do not look better today, in fact they look much worse. In the book, they mention that there should be about 4.7 acres available for each human, but when you look at the increase in our populations, that number shrinks very quickly. It shrinks even more when you consider how much is required not only to sustain the humans, but also the other species. So, that 4.7 acres per human in the 1990’s shrinks down to 1.85 acres per human today, primarily driven by over-population. For those of us that live in cities, 1.85 acres per person seems like a lot of space, right?
That’s 1.85 acres per human to take care of all of our needs, including (but not limited to):
- food production, processing, and storage
- clothing manufacturing
- medical care
- goods manufacturing
- water purification
- electricity generation
- waste disposal and treatment
- so much more…
The list goes on and on. Now revisit that 1.85 acres, how much stuff you own, how much you consume off of Amazon each year, the food and water you consume, and then imagine sharing that 1.85 acres with the needs of 40 other animals (not including non-animal species).
We’ve over-populated our planet to far beyond what it can handle. We’re destroying our soil, yes litterally the dirt, at a rate faster than it can regenerate. We’ve put decades of effort into increasing factory farming without understanding, or without caring about, the consequences of our actions. Mono-culture farming has been proven to not be sustainable, destroying the biodiversity of the fields and the ecosystems that it’s performed in. We’re inheriting the decisions of generations of people who were only thinking of their today and not thinking about what will be left for their children and grandchildren. I’ve had people in the Boomers generation flat out tell me they don’t care about the climate emergency because they’ll be dead. When I’ve brought up the question about their kids or their grandkids, you see a brief flash of concern in their eyes, then a redirection of the conversation.
The rate that we consume, particularly in the United States, is far beyond what is reasonable, often 20-30x what our needs are to be happily sustained - but yet we just don’t stop.
What is to be done?
Well we need to live more simply. Our lives are needlessly complex, in a chase of “the American Dream”. In fact, many in my generation no longer believe that the American Dream is possible or that it should be our goal. I believe that it is the pursuit of the American Dream that has created a country that is constantly at war, far over-consuming our share of the resources our planet has to offer, and inflicting injustice across all sorts of people, including many of our own.
I don’t have all the answers, hell I’m not sure I have even one of the answers, because the problem is far larger than just me. But I know that there are ways that we can begin to live our lives that are more equitable than they are now.
One of the ways that I’m trying to start small and improve on my consumption is related to how often I drive. I live in a moderately walkable area, with few bike paths, but it’s enough where a few of my daily tasks can easily be relegated to the bike or my feet. This starts with my “daily commute”. I work from home, but have begun to use a co-working space about 2 miles from my home recently. Partly because I needed to get out of the house and be around other humans, but primarily because my young son has decided that he’s going to start skipping naps and I want to help more than I actually can, causing a major distraction from my work. So, I’ve decided that I will be walking to my Co-Working space on any day where I don’t have outside appointments requiring me to drive to get there.
This is a three-fold win:
- Less consumption with my vehicle (Electric): tire wear, street wear, electricity usage, parking space usage, etc.
- Less milleage on my vehicle, lower maintenance requirements, value reduction, lease overages, etc.
- Less around my mid-section. This is going to help me bring down my weight into a healthier place, leading to fewer doctors appointments, healthier heart, and driving my body to healthier food consumption.
Obviously this is not enough, in fact it’s a laughably small impact to my consumption. Unfortunately it takes a long time to shift patterns, make adjustments to one’s lifestyle eschewing convenience for sustainability, and doing so with a family adds a few more complications. Rest assured, we will be taking a hard look at a lot of our behaviors and trying to figure out how we can improve.
But this isn’t just about consumption
Radical simplicity isn’t just about reducing the resources you’re consuming, it’s also about improving your quality of life by reducing the noise and constant calls for your attention.
If I look at my monthly outputs, things that require my attention, it gets to be rather interesting. Below is a non-exhaustive list of items that require my attention every month, in no particular order except the order in which they came up in my head.
- Raising a child
- Maintaining a healthy relationship with my spouse and child
- Doing my job, trading brain power for capitalism points
- Navigating my career, bigger than just my current job
- Figuring out what radical simplicity looks like for our family
- Maintaining our home
- Paying bills
- Maintaining our landscaping, yard, and other home improvement projects
- Maintaining friendships, the few that I am able to (I have 4 close friends, that’s seemingly the limit of friendships I can reasonably maintain)
nnumber of personal projects
- Improving my health and personal well-being
- Maintaining California Sobriety
- Doing our taxes
- Being involved in my son’s schooling, the community, and more
- Being politically responsible, educating myself on the issues, the people running for office, etc.
- Constant notifications on my phone, from one app or company to the next
- Social fucking media
I’m sure you have a very similar list. Being busy isn’t the penultimate goal here, because being busy means you’re just not being present. My goal in life is to be truly present wherever I am. I want to feel as though I’m not always late for something, always stealing time from one thing or another. As I’m writing this post, I can feel my brain begin to ruminate on what I should be doing next, instead of giving myself the space to finish my thoughts. I think that we should give ourselves the space and grace to finish our thoughts before racing on to the next thing. I want my days to be structured around my life, rather than my to-do list.
Bringing this around
I’m finding myself disenchanted with tech, if that wasn’t painfully obvious. So much of what we’re building provides little value to the world or just creates more noise and things to maintain. I do believe that technology can be used to solve some problems that we have on this planet, mRNA vaccines are an obvious example of that, but what I’m finding is far more energy and capital is spent on the things that don’t truly matter, most of it being making rich people richer. Oh and don’t get me started on the fallacy of tech start-ups also being here to enrich the lives of the employees, the pittance of stock that most employees receive, when compared to the output given to institutional or large shareholders with big capital to throw around, just cannot compare.
This is why my wife and I are on a path to radically simplify our lives. We’re not sure what the end-goal is, but I do believe the journey will be a rewarding one.There is one thing we both know for certain, tech will play a very very small role in our lives moving forward.
Nature is beauty, nature is life, nature is our provider, but only if we let it be. Life doesn’t have to be a constant series of micro-transactions, a little dopamine hit for a like, a coffee for $5, $200 for half a week’s groceries. Life can be more than that. It can be more than that by being less than that. The more we fight against nature to build society, the more energy it takes, the more money it takes, the more destruction of the planet it takes.
And with a final comment, I’ll leave you with this:
Consider: Bread Labor
The work required to provide for our needs, such as gardening, cooking, cleaning and building projects.
There’s beauty in laboring for the simple things in your life. Things that bring you sustenance, that bring happiness to your family, things that improve your well-being.
How can you divert some of your economic labor to Bread Labor? Whether that is for you or your family, I urge you to find the joy in the simple actions of preparing a meal or cleaning your home.