On Living a Simple Life

Perhaps the ideal life is just a simple one.

Tom Littler
16th May 2021


Perhaps my generation over-complicates life. I don't think we are necessarily to blame for this, life just is more complicated than it was 50 years ago. It's more complicated for a simple reason, we have more options.

When it came to lifestyle design, your options used to pretty limited. The vast majority of people would work a 9-5 for a big corporation (the rational option), they'd work their way up the ladder, they'd settle down somewhere not too far from where they grew up, they'd have a couple of kids. 

Big choices to be made were what company you'd work for, who to marry, where to live. But these choices were fairly constrained. Largely speaking, your choice of work was constrained by your education, your choice of partner by your location, your location by your job. 

Fortunately, progression in technology and culture has opened up a whole slew of new potential lifestyles. Entrepreneurship is easier than ever, jobs are less location-dependent than ever, the internet has even meant that your dating options are wider than ever before. 

While this increase in freedom has the potential to be positive, allowing us to design our lives in ways never before thought possible, it's also a potential downside. Choice can be overwhelming. We see online influencers living in exotic locations, living out alternative lifestyles, and think 'I want a piece of that'. I've definitely been drawn into the narrative of the location-agnostic solopreneur lifestyle, spending time backpacking through exotic islands in the pacific, my only commitment being to deliver some valuable products to sell once in a while. 

This week I went through an exercise of trying to picture what an ideal life would look like. By taking some insight from direct experience, and some from the advice of people who've experienced things I haven't, I've come up with a few guiding principles for how I'd like my life to look in the next 5-10 years. 

If you are a 20-something trying to figure out what you want from life, I'd really recommend going through this exercise, you might discover, like me, that your ideal life is actually quite a simple, boring one. One that you could achieve without sacrificing every morsel of time (and maybe even your soul) for the next 30 years.

My Ideal, Simple Life

Location 

For years I've been attracted to the 4-hour work-week philosophy. The premise is simple, earn money online in dollars, live in a low-cost country and spend in Thai Baht or whatever it may be. You'll be able to live an incredible lifestyle on a fairly modest budget. 

On the surface, it seems appealing, and I've seriously considered it as a lifestyle that I might want. But after speaking at length with a few digital nomad internet friends of mine, the feedback I get on the lifestyle choice is pretty consistent. 'Yeah you can have a cool life out here, but honestly, if money was no object I'd just live in my home country, all my friends are there, and that makes a difference.'

I've had some experience living abroad, and I have to say the lack of deep relationships that comes with it is not too appealing. My vision now has changed from the beaches of Bali to the rolling hills of rural England. Sure, this will mean that financial freedom will require a bit more work, but the payoff of being close to those who you care about most will surely be worth it. 

Financial Freedom 

I have a complicated relationship with the idea of financial freedom. On one hand, I think not having to care about money would be such a freeing, liberating feeling. To be able to pull back on work when your kids are young, to be able to go travelling for a few months without having to worry about financial implications, to pick the work you want to do purely out of curiosity, rather than financial need. These are all great arguments for becoming financially free as early as possible. 

On the other hand, I've definitely put far too much emphasis on becoming financially free at all costs. I have a figure in mind of what I need to achieve, and I'd be lying if I said hitting this target has not come at expense of other areas of my life. Being so motivated by this monetary target has meant I've been unable to relax, every minute of the day was viewed as an opportunity to progress towards my goal. This isn't living. This is just sacrificing the present for the future. A future that may not even exist. 

The thing is, a meaningful, simple life doesn't necessarily require complete financial freedom. Also, financial freedom in itself just isn't a helpful metric to aim towards, it's something that's too much out of your control, especially if, like me, the majority of your income comes from entrepreneurial endeavors. 

That's why I'm no longer really aiming for complete financial freedom. Instead, I have a few guiding principles. Always buy assets, never buy liabilities. value equity in startups with great teams over everything. Have a barbell approach to risk-taking, and most importantly, only work on things you enjoy. 

If acting on these principles gets me to financial freedom, great. If not, who cares, I'm sure I'll still be able to have a great work/life balance when I need it if I follow through on my principles. 

Nature 

One of the simplest things I've noticed I can do for my well-being is to spend as much time as possible in the great outdoors. The narrative I tell myself is that I'm spending so much time looking at a screen so that in a few years I can optimise to spend as little time as possible in front of one. 

My ideal, simple life doesn't involve first-class flights, tonnes of unique experiences, or any fancy possessions, it does however involve a lot of time spent in nature. 

Ideally, I'd want to spend 2-3 hours outdoors, this could be walking with my partners, playing with the kids, or just spending some time alone walking, biking or riding through the local scenery. The best thing. This is an activity that costs nothing. 

Making Time For People 

The reason I value creating wealth highly is that it allows you to be generous. If you are wealthy you can be generous with your cash, but more importantly, you can be generous with your time. If you are working like a slave, out of financial need, you are going to have to be quite stingy with your time for other people. Perhaps this is acceptable when you are young, but as soon as you have others who depend on you I don't think it's any longer acceptable to not give them your most valuable resource - time. 

One interesting insight you can take from reading the classics, the stoics and alike is the amount of time that parents spent teaching their kids about the world. I think it's a real shame that in our current culture we think the educational system will just take care of our kids learning needs. Without going on a rant on the current educational system, my belief is that it's generally pretty flawed. Its main use is one of socialisation and childcare, rather than education. From personal experience, I learned a lot more about business from talking to my dad than I did from any AQA approved qualification at school. 

It seems most parents teach their children through example, and maybe the odd ad-hoc lesson, I'm not denying this kind of schooling isn't important, but why stop there? Why not take an hour a day to work with your children on interesting problems. Why not take a more structured approach to educating them? If you can be generous with your time you could put together a great learning programme, covering topics that schools do a poor job of teaching, whether this is financial planning, risk/reward profiles, critical thinking, or exploring the mechanics of how things work. 

I think this would be an incredibly fulfilling and interesting way to spend an hour a day. Your kid might hate it at the time, but over time I'm sure it would contribute to a great relationship, and help them out massively. 

Simple Pursuits 

One problem with the modern version of what a good life looks like is there is a strong bias towards novel, exotic experiences. Instagramable holidays, fancy restaurants, extreme sports. I don't think enough people stop to question what they actually enjoy doing right now. I know I didn't. When thinking about your ideal life it's easy to imagine your daily routine as one that's fundamentally different to your current one. 

The thing is, there's a reason I do a lot of the stuff I'm doing now, it's because I enjoy it. When thinking about a future life, perhaps it's helpful to just think about doing less of the stuff you don't enjoy, and more of the stuff you do enjoy, rather than feeling the need to add any crazy hobbies or pursuits. 

I love reading.  I love writing (badly). I love working out, and I love having conversations with friends. I love riding my motorbike and cooking (as long as I'm not in a rush). These are all simple things. Simple things are often cheap. One of the benefits of going through this exercise of visualising what a good life would look like to you, is that you start to understand that it's probably not massively different from the life you are living. This lowers your financial expectations and more importantly, helps you appreciate the time you spend on activities you do now, that would be part of your idealised life. 

Wrapping Up

I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel when thinking about what a good life is. There's a reason nearly everyone has kids – they are a reliable way to add value to your life. There's a reason people get married, it's a reliable way to gain satisfaction, knowing you have a partner you can grow with and tackle problems together. There's also a reason you have a load of hobbies and interests, it's something you enjoy, probably in an ideal life, you are just doing these things more. 

Once you have some guiding principles for a good life, you can start to take some steps today to get there. If you don't have guiding principles, you are going to end up aiming at the wrong thing. You'll arrive at 'success' in 10 years time, and realise it wasn't even something you wanted. What a waste. 

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