Posts Tagged ‘Simplicity’
The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your home, and your whole life.
According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground.
To this day, the Japanese revere Rikyu as one who understood to his very core a deep cultural thread known as wabi-sabi. Emerging in the 15th century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all. In Japan, the concept is now so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to explain to Westerners; no direct translation exists.
Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.
Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.
Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are—without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.
You might ignite your appreciation of wabi-sabi with a single item from the back of a closet: a chipped vase, a faded piece of cloth. Look deeply for the minute details that give it character; explore it with your hands. You don’t have to understand why you’re drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.
Rough textures, minimally processed goods, natural materials, and subtle hues are all wabi-sabi. Consider the musty-oily scene that lingers around an ancient wooden bowl, the mystery behind a tarnished goblet. This patina draws us with a power that the shine of the new doesn’t possess. Our universal longing for wisdom, for genuineness, for shared history manifests in these things.
There’s no right or wrong to creating a wabi-sabi home. It can be as simple as using an old bowl as a receptacle for the day’s mail, letting the paint on an old chair chip, or encouraging the garden to go to seed. Whatever it is, it can’t be bought. Wabi-sabi is a state of mind, a way of being. It’s the subtle art of being at peace with yourself and your surroundings.
–Robyn Griggs Lawrence
“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.
I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.
So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.
~ Pico Iyer
Delivered to the 19th Session of the Conference of the Parties, (Warsaw, November 2013)
This week – even as the world mourns the tragic loss of life in the unprecedented Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippine Islands – political leaders have converged on Warsaw, Poland, in yet another anticipated meeting on climate change. Concerned citizens throughout the world are hoping and praying for prompt and practical results.
The conference follows on the heels of an important report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns of the urgency of immediately addressing the alarming escalation of climate change in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.
Scientists talk of “tipping points” and “abrupt climate change.” Political leaders talk of the “challenges” that lie ahead. Scripture speaks of human crisis and God’s forgiving grace. All three make it clear that the time will come when we must face consequences; the time will come when it is simply too late.
At first glance, it may appear strange for the leader of a religious institution concerned with “sacred” values to be so profoundly involved in “worldly” issues. After all, what does preserving the planet have to do with saving the soul? It is commonly assumed that global climate change and the exploitation of our nature’s resources are matters that primarily concern politicians, scientists and technocrats. At best, perhaps they are considered the preoccupation of interest groups, naturalists or activists.
Nevertheless, there are no two ways of looking at either the world or God. There is no distinction between concern for human welfare and concern for ecological preservation. The way we relate to nature as creation directly reflects the way we believe in God as Creator of all things. The sensitivity with which we handle the natural environment clearly mirrors the sacredness that we reserve for the divine.
Moreover, scientists estimate that those most hurt by global warming in the years to come, are those who can least afford it. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, the questions that will be asked of us all at the final moment of accountability will not be about our religious observance but on whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, comforted the sick, and cared for captives.
Our reckless consumption of the earth’s resources – energy, water, and forests – threatens us with irreversible climate change. Burning more fuel than we need in an overpopulated city, we may contribute to droughts or floods thousands of miles away.
To restore the planet we need a spiritual worldview, which brings frugality and simplicity, humility and respect. We must constantly be aware of the impact of our actions on all of creation. We must direct our focus away from what we want to what the planet needs. We must choose to care for creation; otherwise, we do not really care about anything at all.
In our efforts, to contain global warming, we are ultimately admitting just how prepared we are to sacrifice some of our selfish and greedy lifestyles. When will we learn to say: “Enough!”? When will we understand how important it is to leave as light a footprint as possible on this planet for the sake of future generations?
After all, we are all in this together. Our planet unites us in a unique way. While we may differ in our conception of the origins or purpose of our world, and while we may disagree on social or political ideology, surely we can all agree on our responsibility and obligation to protect its natural resources – which are neither limitless nor negotiable – for future generations.
It is not too late to respond – as a people and as a planet. We could steer the earth toward our children’s future. Yet we can no longer afford to wait; we can no longer afford to be idle. The world has clearly expressed its opinion; our political leaders must accordingly act with urgency. Deadlines can no longer be postponed; indecision and inaction are not options. We have a choice to make. The time to choose is now.
We remain optimistic about the results at Warsaw; quite simply because we are optimistic about humanity’s potential. Let us work together; let us offer the earth an opportunity to heal and continue to nurture us.
~ Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide
Wendell Berry may not quite be a household name. But I, for one, mention his name on a regular basis in my house, while traveling around the country, and when talking with neighborhood friends about produce, local happenings, or politics.
Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, and preservationist from Kentucky. He splits his time between three quiet activities: 1) writing fiction, poetry, and essays, putting pen to paper (quite literally) in a tiny hut on the Kentucky river; 2) working his farm; and 3) engaging in non-violent civil disobedience supporting various humanitarian or agrarian causes. He has spoken out in his 76 years against wars, corporate corruption, nuclear power plants, the death penalty and abortion, coal mining practices, mountain top removal, and other issues of land and life. Although he doesn’t fit squarely into any one political category, just last month, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities medal. Berry is a truth-teller of the storytelling variety, an everyday man with the character of a great king, and he has profoundly stirred up my own spirit to be brave, careful, and rebellious in ways that seem rather contrary to the norm. He reminds me of the Lorax, somewhere in the middle of Dr. Suess’s children’s story, just before all the Truffula trees are gone, balancing there on a stump pleading for the Barbaloots and the Hummingfish.
Over the years, I have started several unfinished thank you letters to him in my head, or scribbled them on the pages of a journal or in the margins of his books. I’ve had a growing sense that I somehow needed to communicate to him how much his work has shaped and enlightened me. So last fall I took out some construction paper and a pen and finally made it happen. It went something like this:
Dear Mr. Berry,
I have begun this letter so many times over the years. Why is it that the most significant things we do are often the things left undone? I should have written it years ago, but here it is now . . . Your writing enables me to crave and long for the country while I live in the city. It urges me to slow down when the pace around me is whirring. And it hushes my spirit when my world is full of noise. I wanted you to know that I am one of many who has been profoundly affected by your mentoring. God speaks through your narratives. His beauty is in your poetry, your disruptive encouragement, and your written voice. May God cause your work and art to take deep root, springing up new beauties in my heart, in the hearts of my children, and in the hearts of many others.
I also told him that his writing made me wish I’d been born in a small town circa 1950, learning the ways of survival from the land and from dependence on neighbors. Though the particulars are not the same, even now while I decidedly raise my family in the city of East Nashville, Berry’s principles of interdependence and sustainability are my daily teachers. My husband and I, both singers and songwriters by trade, think of our careers and our family life as though they were a small farm. We don’t produce heirloom tomatoes, but we aim to produce melodies that go out into culture like agents of nourishment. We teach our children about the craft and economy of self-employment as we write, record, and tour. And we have much yet to learn.
The exercise of writing my letter to Wendell Berry was, after my procrastination, a very gratifying experience. Just knowing that my official “thank you” was sealed, stamped, and on its way to Port William — I mean, Port Royal — gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction and joy. This would have been enough, but then a few months later, he wrote me a reply. I read his words of appreciation on a simple note, typed on simple stationery. I was thrilled.
Around that same time, just one mile north of my house, my friend Alice had also been writing letters to Berry. She had also had a steady diet of his poetry and writings for the past few years, and she, with another mutual friend Flo, was now plotting a visit on our behalf to celebrate the birth of our friend Katy’s first baby. She thoughtfully planned the meeting as the perfect occasion for the baby’s first road trip and our shared joy as four friends. Although we have been friends for years, we rarely get this kind of uninterrupted time together. Having confirmed our visit by letter, Alice, Katy, Flo, and I loaded up in one car together on a chilly March morning for a trip to Kentucky — books, hopes, a basket of homemade things, and one celebrated baby girl in tow.
On the drive, we read excerpts of our favorite Wendell Berry books out loud to each other and chatted about what we most wanted to ask him. Of course, our journey wouldn’t have been complete without a healthy dose of girl-talk — inevitable on a road trip without husbands. Before long, we rolled into a sleepy Port Royal that Sunday afternoon. Although it was on the map, we couldn’t believe it was actually a real place. Port Royal is a patchwork strip of storefronts, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of spot made up of a local bank, a post office, a general store with a built-in diner (with little printed signs about their town’s famous author, Wendell Berry), and an old Baptist church. I am sad to report that, like most small towns in our country, Port Royal looks as though it is dying.
We then passed through the town and down a short way toward the river. We found our way to Wendell and Tanya’s address by narrative instinct. Not knowing the house number, we found their home based on his writings, our observations, and reports from friends who had made this same pilgrimage. The solar panels out in the field, the sheep, the tiny writing hut on the river, and the sloped property like the one where his famous character, Jayber Crow, lived. Even the border collie who ran out to greet us reminded me of the one in his novel Hannah Coulter. As our wheels turned over the gravel driveway, we looked up at a modest, white farmhouse set right on the hill, and we knew it was Lanes Landing Farm. I expected Disney music to burst out with glorious, warbled violins over our heads.
Tanya Berry opened the door and, without any fanfare, welcomed us into the house. We, four girls and one baby, crowded into the entryway. Wendell and Tanya both wore their church clothes. Wendell stood slightly behind the door, wearing a three-piece tweed suit. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the light. He was taller than I expected, and he shook my hand as I came in; I, in turn, introduced myself. The overhead lights and lamps were off. The room was lit only by natural light from the windows, which seemed just enough at first, and more than plenty once you got used to it. I was surprised at how nervous I suddenly felt, wondering what to say upon first meeting someone you feel like you know but have never actually met.
Their home was beautiful in an ordinary way, with well-used furniture and tasteful modern-folk artwork adorning the mantle and walls. At one point later in our conversation, we learned that they have the same electric stove and washer they purchased in 1965. There were wood-burning stoves in each main room, producing steady warmth. The main wall in the living room was covered entirely with neat rows of books. After our introductions, we circled up to find seats around the stove and stumbled rather clumsily into conversation. Wendell didn’t seem to enjoy being the attention of our admiration but was gracious as we began to establish some common ground of conversation.
Wendell is witty and well-spoken. I have rarely experienced such rich, wide-ranging discourse within such a short time of meeting someone. He and Tanya seemed to dig in more as we shared our experience of living life together (literally within a mile or two of each other) in the city. Katy talked about her front yard garden and how the neighborhood kids thought she was magic because she could pull up carrots from dirt. We also discussed our hopes for our children’s futures and the challenges of public education where we live. Wendell and Tanya have both spent time educating their now-grown children and grandchildren, and Wendell said, “You can’t think up a future for your grandchildren. You can’t even think up a future for yourself. You’re gonna be surprised.” Somehow this comment both sobered and heartened me in the same breath.
There were many more moments like this as we talked; I couldn’t begin to convey them in one sitting. But Wendell is very quotable — he just seemed to toss out pearls of wisdom left and right. The overriding theme we discussed was neighborliness. You might not always like your neighbor, but being able to depend on one another instead of a government or corporation gives you genuine independence. Tanya chimed in with vigor, “Trade instead of buy whenever you can.” As we talked, you could see that they were of one mind in having true, good, change-making conversations about depending on community rather than corporations. “Serve your place, and allow your place to serve you.”
We talked further about the dangers of religion, the business of war, and how words like “public education,” “environment,” and “free market” have been hollowed out. We talked about the death of small towns in America, the importance of local banks, and the value of decent pleasure and joy in the midst of some potentially depressing times.
During every minute of our conversation, the Berrys were committed to saying exactly what they meant, leaving nothing to chance or nebulous romanticism. Wendell is both an idealist and pragmatist in his writing, and he is very much this way in person. At one moment he would surprise us with a gentle reprimand of our casual use of the word “love,” commenting “Love is not a feeling, it’s a recipe. None of it gets interesting until it gets down to practicality.” But the next moment he would persuade us with the warmth of a benevolent teacher, reminding us of the importance of tangibility. In this increasingly connected and virtual world, he reminded us, “If it’s baby versus internet, you’re never gonna smile that way over the internet.”
One of my favorite moments was when Wendell said that he is a member of two organizations: 1) The Slow Communication Movement and 2) The Preservation of Tangibility. He noted that anyone can join these and added with a grin, “Actually, I think I founded them.”
At one point in our conversation, I had the opportunity to tell Wendell how much his phrase “the joy of sales resistance” has meant to me over the years. How this phrase has shaped my habits of buying and selling and made me more aware of what it feels like to be “bought and sold” by the pressures of consumerism. Berry said, “I try not to obey … to buy what I don’t need.” Singer-songwriter Joe Pug says it this way in his song “Hymn #101”:
The more I buy, the more I’m bought. And the more I’m bought, the less I cost.
I realized at one point while thanking Berry for his insight that I was nearly quoting the lyrics to one of my own songs, quite by accident (how embarrassing). But then again, in my song, I was only paraphrasing him. It was a funny moment in my head of how art makes circles around us and within us, taking us to new places of discovery and then bringing us back where we started.
I took copious notes while we sat on that well-loved sofa in their living room. As I am not well-versed in journalism, and it felt silly at the time, I will treasure that little field notebook for years to come. After our visit, the Berrys were heading to a family birthday celebration and Wendell had to go out to bring in the sheep for the evening. He pulled a “Fred Rogers,” swapping his dress shoes for Wellingtons and pulling his coveralls over his dress clothes, charmingly teasing us about having waited to take a picture until he was dressed for chores.
As we drove home that evening across the Kentucky and Tennessee countrysides, we discussed the implications of Wendell’s ideas on our daily lives. The connection between four friends living just a mile or two away from each other is actually the most significant thing he could give us in his life work. He had already given us the seed of “neighborliness” by way of his writings. Indeed, good things have taken root in our front and backyard city vegetable gardens, our children’s educations, our concern about the health of the Cumberland River, and our concern over the flourishing of Tennessee farms.
Somewhere on Highway 65, it occurred to me that ideas are only seeds until they find places to take root. It is in community that ideas become reality — fruit-bearing trees and shelter-giving plants. Our two hours with Wendell Berry himself would not have mattered were his words and writings not woven into each of us as we live life together. By reading his writings on our drive and sharing how his words have intersected with our own narratives, something full-circle happened.
This is my great hope and belief about art: it is culture-making. Do with it what you will. Poetry can change people. Story can change the world. Global good starts as tiny as a Truffula seed. And if the sun and the bees and the rain and the birds give us their graces, we could have ourselves a harvest of renewal by summer’s end.
~ Sandra McCracken
A key assumption in consumer societies has been the idea that “money buys happiness.” Historically, there is a good reason for this assumption—until the last few generations, a majority of people have lived close to subsistence, so an increase in income brought genuine increases in material well-being (e.g., food, shelter, health care) and this has produced more happiness. However, in a number of developed nations, levels of material well-being have moved beyond subsistence to unprecedented abundance. Developed nations have had several generations of unparalleled material prosperity, and a clear understanding is emerging: More money does bring more happiness when we are living on a very low income. However, as a global average, when per capita income reaches the range of $13,000 per year, additional income adds relatively little to our happiness, while other factors such as personal freedom, meaningful work, and social tolerance add much more. Often, a doubling or tripling of income in developed nations has not led to an increase in perceived well-being.
In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser assembles considerable research showing “the more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished.” He found that people who placed a relatively high importance on consumer goals such as financial success and material acquisition “reported lower levels of happiness and self-actualization and higher levels of depression, anxiety, narcissism, antisocial behavior, and physical problems such as headaches.”
The bottom line is that there is a weak connection between income and happiness once a basic level of economic well-being is reached—roughly $13,000 per year per person. To illustrate this point, the World Values Survey of 2007 revealed that people in Vietnam, with a per capita income of less than $5,000, are just as happy as people in France, with its per capita income of about $22,000. The cattle-herding Masai of Kenya and the Inuit of northern Greenland expressed levels of happiness equal to that of American multimillionaires.
Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness:
- GOOD HEALTH Physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
- PERSONAL GROWTH Opportunities for learning, both inner and outer, and giving creative expression to one’s true gifts.
- STRONG SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS Close personal relationships with family, friends, and community in the context of a tolerant and democratic society that values freedom.
- SERVICE TO OTHERS Feeling that our lives contribute to the well-being of others.
- CONNECTION WITH NATURE Communion with the wildness of nature brings perspective, freshness, and gratitude into our lives.
When we look over this list, it is clear that happiness does not have to cost a lot of money. A tolerant society does not cost a lot in material terms, but the rewards to the social atmosphere in civility, congeniality, and happiness are enormous. Feelings of communion with nature and the cosmos come free with being alive. The quality of relationships with family and community grow from the quality of the time and attention we give to them. Personal growth requires nothing more than paying attention to the experience of moving through life. Feelings of gratitude for life are free.
Happiness is a nonmaterial gift that can spread like a contagion among family, friends, and neighbors—rippling out to touch people who do not even know one another. This is the striking conclusion of a study of more than forty-seven hundred people over a twenty-year period. The study found that one person’s happiness can affect another’s for as much as a year. Researchers also found that, while unhappiness can spread from person to person like an infection, that emotion appears to be far weaker, and does not spread as far or as powerfully, as happiness. The study also explored the importance of friends and social networks as a source of happiness as compared with the importance of money. The study’s coauthor states, “Our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise.” In the face of economic difficulties, his message is “You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy.” Happiness is a social network phenomenon and can reach up to three degrees of separation (the friend of a friend of a friend), which means that your happiness can involve persons you have not even met.
Happiness is largely a networked social phenomenon once a sustaining level of material well-being is reached. If we worried less about material appearances and thought more about soulful connections with others, we could put our life-energy into creating robust, healthy, and rewarding relationships. The more we learn about the “science of happiness,” the more we see that focusing on material acquisition and status is not serving us well and that it would be enormously helpful to redefine progress.
~ Duane Elgin
‘A few strong instincts and a few plain rules suffice us.’ ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Life can be ridiculously complicated, if you let it. I suggest we simplify.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote… is the shortest guide to life you’ll ever need:
“Smile, breath, and go slowly.”
If you live your life by those five words, you’ll do pretty well. For those who need a little more guidance, I’ve distilled the lessons I’ve learned (so far) into a few guidelines, or reminders, really.
And as always, these rules are meant to be broken. Life wouldn’t be any fun if they weren’t.
the brief guide
less TV, more reading
less shopping, more outdoors
less clutter, more space
less rush, more slowness
less consuming, more creating
less junk, more real food
less busywork, more impact
less driving, more walking
less noise, more solitude
less focus on the future, more on the present
less work, more play
less worry, more smiles
~ Leo Babauta
It’s well known that the secret to Apple’s meteoric success in the world of consumer technology was the vision, leadership and creativity of Steve Jobs, the company’s celebrity founder.
“Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that — it is in our DNA,” Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor, wrote in a staff memo after Jobs resigned from his post as Apple’s CEO in August.
What’s less talked about is what drove Jobs, who died Wednesday at 56.
As with anyone, Jobs’ values were shaped by his upbringing and life experiences. He was born in 1955 in San Francisco and grew up amid the rise of hippie counterculture. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were his two favorite musical acts, and he shared their political leanings, antiestablishment views and, reportedly, youthful experimentation with psychedelic drug usage.
The name of Jobs’ company is said to be inspired by the Beatles’ Apple Corps, which repeatedly sued the electronics maker for trademark infringement until signing an exclusive digital distribution deal with iTunes. Like the Beatles, Jobs took a spiritual retreat to India and regularly walked around his neighborhood and the office barefoot.
Traversing India sparked Jobs’ conversion to Buddhism. Kobun Chino, a monk, presided over his wedding to Laurene Powell, a Stanford University MBA.
‘Life is an intelligent thing’
Rebirth is a precept of Buddhism, and Apple experienced rebirth of sorts when Jobs returned, after he was fired, to remake a company that had fallen the verge of bankruptcy.
“I believe life is an intelligent thing, that things aren’t random,” Jobs said in a 1997 interview with Time, providing a glimpse into his complicated belief system that extends well beyond the Buddhist teachings.
Karma is another principle of the religion, but it didn’t appear to be a system Jobs lived by. If he feared karma coming back to bite him, the sentiment wasn’t evident in his public statements about competitors and former colleagues, calling them “bozos” lacking taste. Those who worked for Jobs described him as a tyrant they feared meeting in an elevator.
“You’d be surprised how hard people work around here,” Jobs said in a 2004 interview with Businessweek. “They work nights and weekends, sometimes not seeing their families for a while. Sometimes people work through Christmas to make sure the tooling is just right at some factory in some corner of the world so our product comes out the best it can be.”
Some engineers who worked tirelessly on the original Mac emerged from the project estranged from their spouses and children. Jobs’ relentless work ethic may have been shaped by some of his dysfunctional family affairs as well.
‘I’ve done things I’m not proud of’
Jobs was adopted by Clara and Paul Jobs, who promised his birth mother, Joanne Simpson (whom Jobs later tracked down with the help of a private investigator), that they would send him to a university. He dropped out of Reed College after one semester, and he reportedly never was willing to talk to his birth father.
Jobs had a daughter, Lisa, out of wedlock with Chrisann Brennan. He denied paternity for many years, swearing in a court document that he was sterile. Later, he had three more kids with Laurene Powell.
“I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was 23 and the way I handled that,” Jobs said in a statement in 2011 to promote his authorized biography.
That youthful indiscretion came before Jobs turned to Buddhism and karma.
‘The core values are the same’
The Buddhist scriptures, according to tradition, were transmitted in secret, as were many of Apple’s business dealings and Jobs’ personal struggles. Like the paranoid secrecy that surrounded product development at Apple, Jobs spurned most reporters’ interview requests, misled them in statements he did give, refused to disclose details of his cancer to investors until undergoing an operation and became shrouded in a scandal involving backdating stock options.
By all accounts, he played by his own rules.
Those who disclosed his secrets or whispered about his company were punished or threatened. Apple sued, and eventually settled with, the anonymous young blogger behind Think Secret, which accurately reported on Apple rumors in the early 2000s.
And then there’s the story of a lost iPhone 4 prototype, which was purchased and publicized by the blog Gizmodo.
“When this whole thing with Gizmodo happened, I got a lot of advice from people that said, ‘You’ve got to just let it slide,’ ” Jobs said onstage at a technology convention in 2010. “I thought deeply about this, and I ended up concluding that the worst thing that could possibly happen as we get big and we get a little more influence in the world is if we change our core values and start letting it slide. I can’t do that. I’d rather quit.”
That stance was repeated this year, with Jobs still as CEO though on medical leave, when another employee left a prototype iPhone 5 in a bar. Apple enlisted the help of San Francisco police to investigate.
“We have the same values now as we had then,” Jobs said at the AllThingsD conference. “We’re a little more experienced, certainly beat-up, but the core values are the same.”
‘We’re here to put a dent in the universe’
Perhaps the most salient of those values is, simply, to make an outsize impact on society. Or, as Jobs put it, “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” However, Apple and Jobs didn’t make much of a dent with philanthropy.
“We do things where we feel we can make a significant contribution,” Jobs told Businessweek in 2004. “And our primary goal here is … not to be the biggest or the richest.”
To achieve that goal, Jobs was an obsessive micromanager. Part of the reason Jobs’ DNA is so ingrained in Apple is because he forced his hand onto so many parts of it. He personally fielded some customer-service requests sent to him via e-mail; he was active in product design, co-authoring more than 300 patents; and he had a hand in the marketing efforts, including the famous Think Different and Mac vs. PC campaigns.
“What is Apple, after all?” Jobs mused to Time. “Apple is about people who think ‘outside the box,’ people who want to use computers to help them change the world, to help them create things that make a difference, and not just to get a job done.”
‘Focus and simplicity’
Jobs famously lured John Sculley, the PepsiCo president, to run Apple by saying: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” (They had a permanent falling out when Jobs was booted from Apple.)
“What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do, but the things you decide not to do,” Sculley said in a 2010 interview with Businessweek. “He’s a minimalist. I remember going into Steve’s house, and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around, but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.”
Restraint, at least in gadget design and interior decorating, was a primary principle for Jobs. Shortly after his return to Apple, he shuttered several divisions and turned his attention to a few key initiatives. Even today, Apple’s product lines and revenue are zeroed in on just a few industries in which the company can dominate.
“That’s been one of my mantras: focus and simplicity,” Jobs told Businessweek in 1998. “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
He elaborated in the interview with the publication six years later: “It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”
‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish.’
Apple’s management team members have each adopted parts of this code.
Jonathan Ive, the industrial-design executive, echoes Jobs’ simplicity ethic.
Scott Forstall, the mobile software lead, has apparently inherited some of Jobs’ enthusiasm and showmanship.
And Cook, the former operations chief and, by some accounts, current workaholic micromanager, runs the company like he manages his private life: shrouded in secrecy.
However, Cook comes out of his shell in order to impart the ethical standards onto new recruits. He, along with other execs, teaches at Apple University.
Apple University ensures that employees are thoroughly educated on the company’s principles and that Jobs’ ideals live on. Jobs believed people never stop learning and should voraciously open their minds to new ideas.
Put another way, like in his closing statement to Stanford’s graduating class in 2005, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
~ Mark Milan, CNN