This year, I’ve been spending a lot more time at the local elementary school, as our boy has rejoined his friends in fifth grade after two years of homeschooling. Through the daily bike rides to and from school, and my weekly gig as a volunteer math/engineering teacher for a small group of boisterous advanced learners, I get to meet a lot more new people from the community than I had in the preceding two years.
As a not-all-that-normal person, it is always a delicate challenge to spark up casual relationships with brand new people. For one thing, there’s the whole issue of being 11 years into semi-retirement, which makes any discussion of work schedules, mortgages and debt, or even overall goals in life a challenge: you either make up a superficial cover story or you open up a huge can of worms that will take an hour to explain.
Unless you are lucky enough to be conversing with another highly abnormal person, this conversation can quickly turn to a blank stare – those “normal” people don’t quite understand the idea of deliberately working hard even if you don’t have to, or not buying stuff even when you can afford to buy it. When you get the blank stare, it’s time for a quick, cheery wrap-up with a reference to the weather or how great the school staff is this year.
So the superficial story usually wins:
Random other parent in the schoolyard: “So what do you do?”
Me, when trying to keep it simple: “Well, these days I’m mostly a Dad, and I do some carpentry while he’s in school.”
But an even bigger disconnect comes during my travels around town. Strangers don’t seem to know quite what to make of the slightly imposing flannel-shirt man in his 40s who is always zooming around on a bike at the highest speed his legs can manage at any given moment. Usually with a slightly overstuffed backpack that might be filled with cucumbers, 10-packs of electrical outlets, beer, or even smooth rocks from the creek for use in ornamental gardens. On special occasions, maybe even a trailer with some lumber.
“Is he homeless? A hooligan? He’s definitely not as well-off as me, as I hold my mobile phone like a tray in one hand and use the other to operate the steering wheel of my GMC Envoy.”
At Home Depot I sometimes slip up and start discussing my unorthodox plans for the materials I am buying – perhaps an off-grid charger for an electric car, or a collection of heavy scrap metal pieces to weld into a homemade barbell set. But that blank stare comes back to remind you that this is not the place to open up such a can of ideas.
Personally, I enjoy this little disconnect between me and most people. There are enough friends around here (and Mustachians out there) for all of us to find plenty of community as well as plenty of time to dabble in our own little science labs.
But what I don’t enjoy, is how the rest of our society is missing out on the beauty of this endeavor.
It bugs me to see people standing on the airport escalators when they could be sprinting up the adjacent stairs with a suitcase in each hand. I’m annoyed that people still trundle around in cars they can’t afford, wasting fuel and asphalt that wrecks all of our living spaces, just because they can’t be bothered to swing their leg over a 25 pound aluminum sculpture with wheels that makes most of our fattening 20-trillion-dollar urban infrastructure unnecessary. Then they fight, with lobbying groups and misinformation, if anybody dares to tell them there’s a better way.
It also bugs me that high spending is still considered a desirable thing, and that living on less money is assumed to come with a reduction in happiness. When really, measuring life by your spending level is like judging a town by the size of its parking lots. Is your goal to maximize the amount of asphalt and SUVs you can spread out across the land, or would you rather just get into that damned grocery store so you can get yourself some nice stuff for dinner?
Spending is a skill: a Mustachian can buy the same lifestyle with $25,000 that might cost a Consumer Sucka $100,000 per year. If you can cultivate this skill, the Art of the 75% reduction, at any income level, you can go from a lifetime of being in debt, to being rich enough to retire in less than 10 years.
Similarly, a company that can operate with this level of skill will quickly become the most successful company in history, and a similarly efficient government would find the world sitting peacefully in its palm.
The reason I pursue and love the idea of finding new ways to live life in an industrialized world, is the same reason I love music, and art, and writing and all of the beautiful, advanced, inspiring things that people do. It’s because Efficiency is Beauty.
Think about it. What is it that has allowed humans, despite our soft and weak bodies, dull noses and eyes, inability to swim or fly, and mostly-hairless skin that is only really comfortable unprotected in the tropics? Tigers, Owls, and Sharks would mock us ceaselessly if they were smart enough to open Twitter accounts. But of course they cannot, because we are the only ones with these kickass brains that have allowed us to overcome all obstacles to take over this entire planet – with more planets eventually to come.
This domination has been entirely the fruit of our efficiency. I mean, sure, monkeys will seek out straight sticks and use them as tools to harvest bugs from a nest, but early humans sought out even more specialized sticks, arranged them into better shelters, weapons and animal traps. We caught animals and used every part for ingenious purposes, to create even more advanced tools, weapons, and methods of preserving information.
On and on through the generations, our survival and advancements have been won only as we became more efficient with our resources. Even our ability to create art, music, literature, and the social structures like laws and governments that allowed us to stop killing each other so often, was only made possible by buying ourselves free time – by efficiently securing food, which gave us time to play at night.
This uncontroversial history lesson could have come straight out of the pages of the Duhh Journal or Obvious Magazine. But yet, the idea of efficiency has been consistently ignored in our more recent society, and this is the source of most of our current problems.
For example, the accepted norm is that as we get richer, we spend more, borrow more, and work harder than ever to beat each other in the highly-competitive economy. The richest people earn the right to consume the largest share of natural resources.
However if we still valued our efficiency, the very thing that got us here and the biggest gift of being a human, the opposite would be true: The wealthiest people could afford to be the most efficient.
These wealthy people (you and me among them) would find ways to have the largest amount of fun, but with the added dimension of seeing nothing going to waste. We could live with a zero or negative environmental footprint, and enjoy this incredibly prosperous, engaged lifestyle without even needing to step on anybody else’s head to enjoy it.
The added dimension of knowing we were accomplishing this rich life on two dimensions would take the satisfaction level to a new level as well.
While the beginner rich person is a corpulent businessman who buys himself thrones and treats to emulate the life of ancient kings, the advanced rich person is measured by how much better they left the world, after subtracting any value they destroyed along the way.
In a more efficient, rational world, the rich people would be the ones least concerned about advancing or preserving their own personal wealth, because that is obviously not an efficient use of time when you’re already rich.
Yeah, But How Could We Actually Create Such a World?
I can see you nodding there, but you don’t really think this is possible. If you’re a scientist and into evolutionary motivations, you will remind me that efficiency is only a human priority in times of scarcity. After that, we branch out because it is actually more efficient to chill out, and in fact making a show of waste is a show of genetic superiority.
“Look at me! I can afford to grow all these impractical colorful feathers! Or dump water on this big green lawn and pay servants to water it, and I’m not even here because I’m in Monaco this month. Now, come have sex with me because you know you want some of these superior genes!”
This is indeed a problem, and it’s what drives most of the ugliest problems in the world. The world wars and the cold war. Dictators and politicians who seek personal power over society’s advancement. Certain CEOs and their followers who teach themselves not to understand climate change because they fear it would hurt their superficial profits.
It’s all the byproduct of when we throw our energy into our simpler ape-like instincts, instead of the more beautiful instinct of Efficiency that got us out of those tree branches and into this much richer life in the first place.
But rather than surrendering our world to the simple dictators who cater to their own ape-like instincts, we can actually hijack their weakness for our own benefit. Because in a world where our material needs are met, the ultimate competition is for status. And status means emulating the richest, most powerful beings of your particular species. If you happen to be one of the richest and most powerful beings, this means everybody else will emulate you.
I hereby suggest that you, the self-selected curious and generally very wealthy people that happen to be reading this article, represent a significant portion of the world’s most powerful people – the ones with the status. People are watching you, wondering how you got all that money, maybe how you manage to run such a successful company, and why you seem to have your life together, with free time to spend with your kids or the motivation to stay in such good shape. They want what you have, and thus they will do what you do.
If you happen to agree with me that efficiency is beauty, the world would be a better place if we became more efficient, and that most of our biggest problems come from too many people missing that obvious fact, you can fix the whole problem by doing just one thing: demonstrating and celebrating efficiency in your own life.
As your peers and the more junior members of your tribe see you riding your bike to work, not moving to an even bigger house, playing with your own kids in the public park and raking your own leaves, and packing up your hiking boots and a tent instead of getting picked up by an airport limousine to begin every vacation, that’s the life they will want for themselves.
You’ll note the obvious similarities to the Tesla Motors master plan here, which the company has used to go from a 3-person garage experiment to the world’s most sought-after luxury automaker, while simultaneously ditching the 150-year tradition of the gasoline engine all in only 10 years: Start by attracting the top of society, allow them to demonstrate that your idea is desirable, then watch the rest of the world follow.
However, as a collection of the world’s highest-status trend setters, we can outdo even Elon Musk. Rather than just upgrading our existing infrastructure to be more efficient, we can upgrade the entire culture.
Instead of just building a billion autonomous electric cars to drive (or fly) us through our trillion dollar sprawling networks of concrete, we can choose to live closer together in the first place in beautiful, verdant neighborhoods that can be traversed in bare feet. Instead of just building solar arrays and storage batteries to cleanly power our gluttonous yet slovenly and unsatisfying lifestyles, we can upgrade to badass, muscular outdoor lifestyles of deep human and natural connection – while also putting up as many solar panels and batteries as it takes to keep the good music playing all night long.
And as we dance in this utopian environment, we’ll note that efficiency has again proven its beauty. Because while it is brilliant and noble to strive towards advancing the efficiency of our technology, it’s even more efficient to directly to change our culture.
I can’t do that all by myself just by riding my bike around town. But you can.