"Voluntary simplicity means singleness of purpose, sincerity, and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter . . . an ordering and guiding of energy and our desires . . . a deliberate organization of life for a purpose."
— Richard Gregg
Simplifying Our Lives: This Time Will We Make It Last?
Minimalism. Downshifting. Cashing out. Degrowth. Living simply.
Pundits such as Faith Popcorn tell us these trends are “hot.”
Fetzer Institute researcher Paul Ray estimates that twenty-four percent of US adults—forty million people, sixty percent of whom are women—are already “Cultural Creatives,” strong advocates of self-creation, spirituality, ecology, and simpler lifestyles.
“The transformation,” claims Ray, “is happening right in front of our eyes.”
Haven’t we heard such predictions before?
Yes. In the seventies, Harris polls claimed that most Americans wanted to consume less and preferred non-material pleasures.
As well, a 1976 Stanford Research Institute (SRI) report speculated there could be ninety million individuals practicing “voluntary simplicity” by the year 2000.
“(A) major transformation,” the authors suggested, could occur “in the coming decades.”
But, instead of the predicted transformation, interest in simple living quietly ebbed away.
In its place, we got the eighties, that decade of unbridled greed, competitive consumption, and “looking out for #1.”
Although such oscillating behaviour confuses both pundits and simplicity seekers, it shouldn’t surprise us.
“Again and again,” says David Shi in The Simple Life, “Americans have espoused the merits of simple living only to become enmeshed in its opposite.”
Now, simplicity, especially as “minimalism,” is hot again.
And it will likely get hotter as political and economic uncertainty grows.
However, we’d do well to ask, will it last? This time, will we turn vision into reality?
A Personal Odyssey
I started living simply intentionally in the mid-seventies.
A disgruntled high-school teacher, back then, I quit, and lucked into a job developing an environmental education program for a new outdoor center in the Rockies. That led to me creating a summer, wilderness-based camp for teens.
Earthways: Experiences In Personal and Environmental Exploration combined my interest in personal mastery education, ecological understanding and action, and wilderness adventure.
Inspired by SRI’s Voluntary Simplicity report, and eager to participate in the coming “transformation,” I was happy to live in teepees and camp trailers, and make do with few possessions.
I lived simply because it was the most direct way to live my new earth-friendly values.
I agreed with Theodore Roszak, when he wrote, “What people must see is that ecologically sane, socially responsible living is good living; that simplicity makes for an existence that is free.”
I’d come to believe that living simply was not a contraction of my freedom, but, rather, a kind of liberation, an expansion of the freedom to do what mattered most to me.
But, when I took a job in the Faculty of Education at a west coast university, I found it much harder to walk my talk.
Cutbacks eliminated the experiential education part of my job before I even started. I was stuck, instead, supervising student teachers in the conventional classrooms that I despised. Almost daily, I came home from work tired, frustrated and angry.
As joy and meaning in my work went down, my spending went up.
Going to a restaurant or sending out for pizza was easier than cooking. Buying a bottle of wine, a record, a book, or a new shirt would ease my bad feelings for a few days, or hours.
No longer forced to make do, do without, or do something else, as I’d done on a low income, I purchased pleasures rather than creating them myself.
While I espoused the value of simplicity, the arc of my life swung away from consistently acting on it.
Why, I wondered, did I seem to have so little control over my own actions?
After two years, I left the university, moved to a little island off Vancouver Island, and spent the winter teaching myself to write. I traded half-time handyman work for a tiny cabin in oceanside resort that needed refurbishing, and lived on $500 a month to show myself that I could live simply.
It was a great winter. I learned a lot about writing. And my confidence that simple living was a path with heart grew. But the job only lasted until spring.
So I trundled back across the mountains and became an associate of the Action Studies Institute, a small think tank that researched and created programs to high-level action skills for individuals, business, education, and government.
Over the years that followed, although I lived a simpler life than most of my contemporaries, I swung back and forth between my desire to live simply and my desire to craft a successful career.
Sometimes my life was simple and uncluttered. Sometimes it was complicated and stressful.
Oscillating between the two states confused me.
So did the behaviour of all those I knew who abandoned the simple life in the eighties to join the orgy of upscale consumption that characterized that “decade of greed.”
To counteract the despair I felt as I watched the simplicity trend ebb away, I read and re-read the classics of the simplicity and self-help literature. They inspired me. They motivated me. They validated my ideal of a simple life.
However, they didn’t help me build momentum toward the kind and quality of life I truly wanted—a simple, yet rich, engaging and satisfying life doing what truly mattered.
I’d try, make progress, and then slip back. I used willpower, guilt, and positive thinking to force myself to practice what I preached, but I felt as if I was swimming upstream.
Why, I added to my list of questions, can I not consistently walk my talk?
How, I wondered, do people create real and lasting change in their lives and world?
Throughout the late eighties and nineties, I devoted myself to exploring these questions.
One of my Action Studies projects involved researching the higher order, generic skills that underlaid to all kinds of practical creativity.
What skills and structure, I wondered, are basic to the ability to create?
Many experts described “creativity” as an inborn attribute, a gift from God to a special few.
Others believed it was a breakthrough process to higher consciousness. Some associated it with mental illness.
Still others suggested that well-placed kicks or whacks to vulnerable body parts led to creativity.
None of these explanations satisfied me.
My understanding of generic skills convinced me there must be basic skills and principles that applied to any act of creation.
In 1985, when I discovered The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz, the title put me off.
However, the subtitle, Principles for Creating What You Most Want to Create, intrigued me.
Reading the book, I was delighted to find that Fritz’s approach was not about taking the easy way out.
Nor was it about “creative thinking” or “creative problem-solving.”
It was about the act of creating—bringing into being results that mattered.
Fritz showed how, by using a common form—an organizing framework and set of generic skills—creators bring into being real and lasting results, in spite of the problems and circumstances they face.
Structure: The Key to Real and Lasting Simplicity
Just as water follows the path of least resistance laid down by the structure of a stream bed, Fritz argued that our own energy and action follow a path laid down by the structures underlying our lives.
Our life structures result from the way we arrange the relationships between our perceptions, ideas, values, beliefs, desires, fears, and external reality itself.
Either/or structures, for example, give rise to oscillating patterns of behaviour.
Both/and structures are more likely to advance toward desired results.
If we’re not aware of these relationships, it’s easy to get stuck in structures that don’t support our most important values and desires.
In some structures, the path of least resistance leads to what we want; in others, it does not. In some, we advance toward desired results; in others, we oscillate.
I was beginning to get clearer about why I oscillated between simplicity and success.
Moreover, Fritz argued, there is a fundamental difference between the structure of problem-solving and the structure of creating—and between the kind and quality of results those structures produce.
Most problem-solving focuses on the intensity of a problem. Often, it merely relieves the bad feelings associated with the problem.
Taking aspirin provides relief from the pain of a stress headache, for example, but does nothing to change the behaviour that caused the stress in the first place. Nor does it alter or the structure that caused the stress-producing behaviour.
Relief gives us the illusion that the problem is “solved.” It allows us to keep doing what caused the stress and the pain.
But, when the aspirin wears off, the pain returns.
We’re back where we started or worse, well on our way to ulcers.
So, “why not just solve the stress?”
Because this kind of problem-solving also focuses on the intensity of the problem, the same pattern unfolds.
If we relieve the stress but don’t change the structure that gives rise to it, we keep doing what caused that stress in the first place.
In fact, some research shows that stress management programs can turn chronic burnout into acute breakdown by teaching people to cope with ever-increasing amounts of stress until they break.
By shifting our focus from solving problems to creating desired results, Fritz shows how to set up structures that guide energy and action toward what we most want.
Instead of taking aspirin or solving stress, we can create structures that lead to stress free lives and work.
From Problem-Solving to Creating
Grasping the impact of structure on my behaviour changed much for me.
Recognizing the difference between problem-solving and creating made a huge difference in my approach to simple living and self-creation.
I saw that a rich and simple life was not a solution to a problem, but rather a creation that—with passion, practice and perseverance—I could bring into being.
Over the next nine years, I studied and worked with Robert Fritz. I taught his approach to thousands of participants and hundreds of organizations.
Using the principles of creating, I found it easier to transcend the either/or, problem-driven strategies that underlie so many quick-fix self-help and simple living approaches.
Using his approach, I wondered, “Could I integrate simplicity and success?
Could I create a simple yet rich, engaging, and successful life—and sustain it?”
Embracing Complexity; Creating What Matters
As my understanding of structure grew, I saw more clearly why I’d oscillated between simplicity and success.
I valued a simple, healthy, and sustainable life.
I also valued “a good life” complete with challenging work, financial security, comfort, convenience, and respect.
Unconsciously, I’d arranged my values into a dichotomy of desires, an “either/or” structure in which I pitted a simple, sustainable life against a rich, engaging and successful one.
In this simplicity vs success framework, my values competed.
Satisfying one value increased the pull of the other. Attending to that value increased the pull of the first.
Back and forth I swung, caught in an oscillating pattern generated by the unseen structure.
Then, when I focussed on getting rid of the frustration associated with that oscillation and fought against the complexity it generated, I lost sight of the results I most wanted to create.
Eventually, I realized that just as there were two kinds of simplicity: voluntary (freely chosen) and involuntary simplicity (poverty), there were also two types of complexity.
Driven by unwanted problems, involuntary complexity leads to distracted effort and stress.
Merely getting rid of (or relief from) what we don’t like and don’t want wastes precious life energy.
Clearing the clutter out of our lives and homes can brings relief, but, it is usually temporary. And, by itself, it does not bring the results we long for.
Too often, it results in the reactive, temporary simplicity on this side of complexity.
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes. “But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Voluntary complexity is freely chosen and focused, if we embrace and transcend that complexity by focusing on creating what matters, life can become simpler and more successful.
A potter throwing a thin-sided pot, a writer crafting a poem, or an entrepreneur growing a socially responsible business all experience complexity.
However, because they embrace that complexity, it brings a focussed simplicity to their tasks and to their lives.
Similarly, simplicity seekers who embrace life’s complexity as raw material for creating can more easily bring into being the deep, lasting, and satisfying simplicity on the other side of complexity.
If, for example, clutter clearing is driven by a vision of a well designed space such as a meditation corner—because you’d love to have such a space in your life—the space you create will be more likely to be—and stay—clutter free.
Although creating a meditation space is more complex than clearing clutter, that complexity is also more engaging. A clear, compelling vision of the space you’d love to create not only motivates you, it helps build the momentum you need to follow through to completion.
But it’s not just the vision that helps you.
It’s simultaneously grounding that vision in current reality, so you know where you’re starting, and what you have to work with, that helps.
Out of the gap between your vision and reality, a useful, creative tension emerges.
Tension means “a tendency to move.”
Creative tension is thus the engine of the creative process. You can use the energy it generates to take action that supports your result—even when motivation fades, even when you don’t feel like it.
By focussing on a vision of what you want while embracing reality as it is, you set up a framework that contains, energizes and guides the resolution of creative tension.
You also avoid the stress that comes with fighting against what you don’t want.
By working with the path of least resistance that arises between vision and reality, your actions more naturally and easily flow toward what you want.
Understanding this, I better understood what Henry David Thoreau meant when he wrote, “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Creating Makes the Complicated Simple
As I shifted my focus to creating what matters, something remarkable happened.
Not only was I able to create what I wanted, but my problems began to fade away.
Carl Jung explained this phenomena when he said, “All the greatest and important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”
Real change, Jung saw, resulted from a shift to a new level of consciousness. When patients embraced a more powerful interest, he explained, “the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”
By adopting a creating stance—simultaneously focussing on a vision of what matters and embracing current reality—simplicity seekers can shift to a new level of consciousness and tap into one of life’s most persistent urges: the urge to create.
Creating, said jazz great Charlie Mingus, makes the complicated simple.
The creative process, freely chosen, is simpler yet more powerful organizing system than problem-solving.
The structure—the framework—of creating includes and transcends problem-solving
Thus, creating is a more reliable and effective structure in which to create results that matter.
The enduring results on which civilization rests (art, music, literature, science, etc…) were not solutions to problems. They were creations that someone loved enough to bring into being, for their own sake.
“All the great things,” said Robert Frost, “are done for their own sake.”
A Timely Offering
Simplicity And Success comes at a critical time. [Back in 2003. And, now, again.]
Many of us hunger for a way to transcend the complexity that comes from coping with jobs, careers, children, ambitions, fears about retirement, and the desire to leave a lasting legacy.
Tired of seesawing between competing values, we are ready for a new approach, one that integrates potential conflicting values into a simple, easy-to-manage whole.
This book will help those who want to integrate personal freedom with intimate relationships, career achievement with healthy families, and personal fulfillment with work that provides meaning, challenge, and grace.
It also speaks to those seeking to integrate spirit and soul into their everyday lives and work.
Many of us are intuitively moving in this direction.
For example, while browsing my local bookstore, I was surprised to find books on money displayed beside bestsellers on simplifying life and enriching the spirit.
“What kinds of people,” I asked my bookseller, “buy these different books?”
“The same people,” she said, smiling sweetly.
I must have looked perplexed because she touched me gently on the arm and said, “There’s a convergence of interests, dear, a kind of shared vision emerging.”
It’s my hope that Simplicity to Success will help you realize your part in this shared vision.
I hope it will help reinvigorate the simplicity movement, support minimalism, and elevate both to a new level of mainstream interest.
I hope it will provide critical next steps for the millions who have downshifted and decluttered and the millions more who contemplate doing so. I hope it will provide us all with a way to align our vision, values, and actions so we more naturally and organically walk our talk.
Finally, I hope it will show you how to create results that honour who you are even as you strive to become the bigger person you imagine yourself to be. And to enjoy the process.
The road to lasting simplicity and authentic success leads through new territory. It will require new skills.
We must master the higher-order, generic skills to learn from our experience and better apply the skills we already have. And we must learn new skills that allow us to embrace and transcend a changing experience, as the world around us changes.
To do so, we need to:
• Understand and be able to apply the structure and dynamics of the results-creating process.
• Master the generic skills and practices common to all creators.
• Develop a life-long practice, a discipline if you will, of daily creating.
Together, these skills can empower and enable us to create—and sustain— the lives we most want.
Simplicity And Success is about mastering these skills, integrating simplicity and success, and creating what matters most.
In Chapter 1, we’ll examine the differences between solving problems and creating desired results. We’ll see how one couple learned to transcend their “dichotomies of desire” in favour of an integrated approach to creating what matters.
In Chapter 2, we’ll examine overly-simplistic approaches to life-creation that merely produce the temporary relief that is found on this side of complexity.
In Chapter 3, we’ll explore the deeper, more authentic and long lasting simplicity found on the other side of complexity. We’ll see how creators embrace and transcend life’s messy complexity and use it’s energy to produce results that matter.
In Chapter 4, we’ll explore the question “Simple Enough for What?” and see how two long-time simple-livers embraced complexity and created deep and lasting simplicity.
In Chapter 5, we’ll explore the reasons why problem-solving is not a solid foundation on which to build a simple, yet rich and successful life. We’ll examine six flaws in the problem-solving approach that make it a shaky foundation on which to create any life.
In Chapter 6, we’ll shift our focus from solving problems to creating results that matter. We will examine the differences between creativity and creating and see that there is much more to creating what matters than just creativity, or merely being creative.
In Chapter 7, we will explore the form of the creative process. We’ll examine the basic structure—the organizing framework—with which creators bring into being the creations they most care about.
I’ll outline the ten basic skills for creating almost anything and show you how they fit into the overall framework of the creative framework.
I’ll also show you how the core components of creating—vision, current reality, and action—interact with each other to make up the container for creating that is the creative process.
In Chapter 8, we’ll explore Vision. I’ll give you guidelines for getting clear about what matters, specifying the results you want to create, and crafting clear, compelling visions for those results.
In Chapter 9, I’ll show you how to assess Current Reality objectively and accurately. I’ll explain why (and how) by holding Vision and Current Reality in mind at the same time, you can set up and tap the gentle but consistent power of creative tension.
In Chapter 10, I’ll show how to use the dynamic, Creative Tension formed by the creating framework to orchestrate results through the choices you make and actions you take. You’ll see how creative tension works as the engine of creating and sets up a container for exploration, experimentation and invention.
In Chapter11, we’ll examine Choice in the creative process. We’ll see how creators set up hierarchies of choices in which smaller, less important choices support larger, more important choices. We’ll see how commitment leads to action and to results no one could have imagined.
In Chapter 12, we’ll look at Action Steps, and the art and craft of everyday creating. We’ll see how practice and planning interact. We’ll see how creating is a learning process and how creators invent the processes that move them from where they are to where they want to be.
In Chapter 13, we’ll see how to build momentum and follow through to final results.
In Chapter 14, we’ll conclude with a word on commitment and completion.