Driving gives you plenty of time to think. Somewhere in that thinking I decided I needed to clarify my basic approach to life. To know what I was doing and why. I hesitate to call these rules because it’s not like I know what I’m doing and I modify these all the time as I learn and adapt. Anyway, this is mostly for me, but I mentioned them in a post once and someone asked me to write them down. So here they are.
1. Everything is a Practice
There is no finish line. There’s no winning, no losing. Not in human terms anyway. Individual projects may come to an end, but the practices that made them possible do not. Most things worth doing do not have a stopping point. There is no point where you’ve written enough, you’ve worked out enough. Everything is a practice. Embrace it. The practice is never done, which means you get to keep improving. Full essay, Everything is a Practice
2. Safety Third
We saw sticker on the sign to the Henry Miller library that said, “Safety Third”. This became our antidote to the endless rules of public spaces. It was a good family joke. Whenever we do something other people might frown on, one of us will invariably shout, “safety third!” before plunging ahead. But safetyism is a real problem that we all struggle with. I think you beat the safety game by playing a different one. You play the personal responsibility and risk management game. You go slow, you learn your limits, but then you keep playing. You push your limits. You do things that scare you because they also call to you. You keep expanding and growing. You can read more in the essay Safety Third.
3. Do It Yourself
It’s probably cheaper and easier to buy most things, but when I can I’d rather make things myself. What else are you going to do with your life if you aren’t making stuff? Watch TV? Stop buying stuff and hiring people for everything. Give yourself a chance to solve the problem first. Contrary to what it says on the label, professionals and experts aren’t necessary. They’ll do it faster and better than you will, but you’ll learn and improve every time you do it yourself.
4. Adapt to Your Surroundings
No matter where you go you will not fit in when you get there. The climate will be different, the people will be different, the food will be different. Don’t expect the place to adapt to you and don’t get bent out of shape when it doesn’t.
One great way to do this is to simplify your life. Depending on a lot of stuff makes it hard to adapt. My favorite practical example is air conditioning. If you depend on air conditioning you aren’t able to adapt to climate changes as well as someone who doesn’t. As Jakob Lund Fisker succinctly puts it “Comfort is having the sweat glands and metabolic tolerance to deal with heat and cold. It is not central heating or air conditioning which may fail or be unavailable.”
5. Make Something You Like Everyday
In the world as it once was I think this need to create was fulfilled by hunting and to some extent farming. With those gone we’re left with kind of a void1. I have found that filling that void with creative endeavors is very satisfying. Other people find that studying something in detail fills that void. For me it’s making stuff.
Digital stuff (like this site) is okay, but I prefer to make tangible stuff most of the time. Could be a delicious meal, could be some little thing around the bus, could be a paper airplane for the kids. What doesn’t matter so much as the practice of making things. See also, rule 1.
6. Retain Agency
Retaining agency means rejecting the passive. In some ways this is what you get when you practice rules 2, 3, and 4. You are the driving force behind your thoughts and actions, do not outsource them to others without carefully considering what you’re giving up.
Agency is not control though, it is not bending the world to your will (see rule 3), it is merely ensuring that one’s ideas and tools are one’s own2.
7. Avoid Waste
The only thing in short supply on this planet is time, do not waste it. Fuck entertainment, it is a waste of time. You are not on earth to be entertained.
Similarly, fuck stuff. Make good financial decisions and get by with as little stuff as you can because money takes time to earn, and that is time you will never get back.
Waste is not natural (read up on ecology if this idea is new to you), avoid it in all things.
8. Prefer the Analog
I find that the digital world isn’t very satisfying. I have a rather outlandish theory about why. I think it lacks the rhythm of the natural world. I believe your body and spirit know the difference between the rhythms of the world they evolved in and the more recent additions. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rhythm of a piston-driven engine, but I also think that the truly great engines are the ones that manage to mimic natural rhythms.
9. Don’t Report Stories, Live Them
I have no training as a journalist. I studied religion, photography, and literature, but somehow I ended up writing for journalism outlets. I have no real problem with journalists — the few left who actually do journalism, almost none of whom are published by major publishers — but I also have no desire to be one.
The stories I tell are ultimately about me because that is what I know. The idea that you can tell other people’s stories seems fundamentally wrong to me. They are not your stories, let other people tell their own stories.
10. Novelty Wears Off, Routines Carry You Through
The novelty of new places, new people, new food, new whatever doesn’t last long and ultimately isn’t that exciting. It has an addictive nature too. If you always need the new something has gone astray I think. I think the novelty of travel lasts about two years, and then you look around and start thinking, well, now what?
My experience has been that the answer to now what means reaching back to your old life and finding the things that made you happiest there and bringing them on the road with you. Doing your thing becomes your routine that you bring to a new place, and now you have something to offer that place: you. You’re no longer just traveling to see the sights, you become, in a small way, for a short time, a part of that place.
11. Live Small, Venture Wide
I stole this line from Pat Schulte of Bumfuzzle. The basic idea is that I am happiest owning very little and living in small spaces, which makes it easier to move through the world.
12. Try Everything Twice.
As the Aussies would say, “have a crack at it.” There are two parts here though. The first is a call to experience. Try it. But recognize that some things suck the first time you try them, so you might want to have a second crack at it.
To borrow some ideas from Jacques Ellul et al, humans need goals, they need to put forth some effort in pursuit of those goals and they need to at least occasionally attain them. Ellul, and later Ted Kaczynski, have fun splitting hairs about what should fulfill these needs. I don’t see much point in that, but I am going off personal experience here and, again, you might find otherwise. ↩
Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft very much influenced my thinking on this subject. Crawford digs into why people like to repair things and concludes that this need to be capable of repair is part of a desire to escape the feeling of dependence, to reassert their agency over their stuff. He calls the individual who prizes his own agency the Spirited Man. This becomes a kind of archetype of the antidote to passive consumption. Passive consumption displaces agency, argues Crawford. One is no longer master of one’s stuff because one does not truly understand how stuff works. “Spiritedness, then,” writes Crawford, “may be allied with a spirit of inquiry, through a desire to be master of one’s own stuff. It is the prideful basis of self-reliance.” Exactly. ↩