Lifestyle Design: My own case study

The Four Hour Work Week has been out for many years now and in fact, the author, Tim Ferriss, has gone on to author the Four Hour Body, Four Hour Chef, etc.  Of course “four hour” is not literal.  It’s about a mentality.

While Ferriss presents a number of interesting assertions in the book, a number of which I disagree with, I accept the central premise on which the entire book is based: lifestyle design.  The upshot of the idea is that you control what kind of life you want to live through your own choices.  So design that life – along with a  means to make income that fits into that lifestyle.  Such a concept doesn’t just turn traditional 9-5 on its head, it throws it out the window after lighting it on fire.  It discards the idea of having a “good job” or “good business” as a priori considerations.

What do you want to do with your life?

How do you want to live it?

Ferriss says that only after you answer these questions have you earned the right to then ask yourself how you’re going to make a living.  Indeed, these questions are deeply revelatory, and I’m always surprised to share this concept with people older than myself who cannot answer these questions (or worse, have never asked themselves anything remotely close).  They’ve just taken to living their life – perhaps very successful lives in many measures – but there’s not an intentionality behind those lives.  Lifestyle Design demands that intentionality (and accountability).

As I said, I reject several of Ferriss’ assertions, such as the idea that the truth of a religion cannot be known or some of the gimmicky advice he gives regarding automating a certain type of internet business.  The meta with Ferriss is what matters.  There are dozens – hundreds – dare I say thousands of ways to make a living.  Be bold and fearless and you will reap the rewards. And even failure will teach you so much more than conventional success will.  Ask for safety and 3-4-5 weeks of vacation a year and you may – or may not – get it.  And even if you get it you may lose it.  The days of 20 years at one company may be gone but there have never been more fun and innovative places to do something you’re passionate about or more cool opportunities to start your own thing.

Ferris encourages, as a starter plan, making a low to median First World income and then living in Second World situations (Thailand, for some reason, is a popular pick, which is odd as I’ve always considered it fitting well within the “nice to visit” oeuvre), using time differences to your advantage and the saved income as arbitrage towards your next venture.

Ferris holds this out to the everyman, just as the excitable Amway dupe does when he draws circles for you on a flip chart in someone’s home. But lifestyle design, much like entrepreneurship, is not for everyone – nor can it be accomplished by everyone.

There are dozens of inspiring case studies (even for my married-with-kids friends who would call this impossible), none of which I can say I’ve ever read – mostly because I didn’t need proof to believe that this would work.

***

In October 2012 I sold a business.  It was not the first I had built or said goodbye to, either at a profit or at a loss, but it was the largest profit I had ever made and after such a long and hard push (6 years) I took some time off.  Starting in November I went to Grand Cayman, London, and then Paris.  In December I arrived in Australia for a 34-day, 5 state, 2 territory trip of a lifetime.

One of the most memorable days of my life

One of the most memorable days of my life

As I stood on top of Mount Wellington in Tasmania, at the very bottom of the world, in the opening days of 2013, I was overcome with emotion at how deeply God has seen fit to bless someone so unworthy.  I resolved to continue to try to be worthy every single day.

Throughout all these trips I had the opportunity to be deeply grateful, to meet amazing new friends, and to think about my life up to this point, and to reflect on what was ahead.

Rather impetuously in January, while still in Oz, I had  settled on a move to Paris.  It had been a city of my dreams for so long.  If not now, when, I mused.

It took one full year (all of 2013) and all of my effort, concentration, and focus to pull it off.  And I submit that had I not bought a one-way ticket in January of that year that I might not have actually done it.  More than once last Summer I thought – if only I could delay this a few more months…  Living in America, as an American citizen, is desperately easy and cheap.  As articles on this blog have pointed out and continue to do so: life in France is “harder” and more expensive in many ways most Americans would find unacceptable and intolerable.

There is also the issue of a built life. It is no accomplishment for the unattached, still-keep-stuff-at-my-parents 20-something to quit a job and see the world.  But someone in his/her 30s, with big boy/girl furniture not self-assembled, with a deep and rich social network, memberships to art museums, subscriptions to the ballet and symphony, etc. would find it hard to leave all these things behind.

This is to say nothing of the fact that you may have young ones in your life, like this cutie, who would miss you.  I’m unmarried and have no children but those nieces and nephews are the closest thing and it’s tough not to be there as they grow up – so much more quickly than you thought they would.

There’s also the perception, for the first few months, that you’re just on some kind of vacation.  People don’t realize you’ve moved and that you have to work in order to pay for your new life.  At times it will be as basic as “What are you doing working – you are in Paris!!”  Other times I laugh myself at what would be outrageous dream material for an American girl: dinner in Paris followed by a walk on the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame.  It’s just a typical weeknight date with a French girl here (I confessed as much the last time such an incident occurred with said French girl.  “I’ll never take this for granted,” I said in French while standing on Pont Neuf.  She made the typical expressive pout-cum-eyebrow-raise that parsed the attitude of “is that cute or just annoying?”).

It’s now over three months into my adventure and I’ve loved every minute – even the alleged “hard days.”  It’s also the first time in my life that I have been out of my home country for a period longer than 90 days (my Rome study abroad semester came with a visa that was good for exactly 90 days and no longer).  I cannot begin to tell you the questions you will ask yourself when you are completely immersed in an alien culture and language – even one you may love and be conversational in.  You find yourself re-examining basic questions, like, “What do I actually like to eat?” or “What do I do for leisure?” or “What do I want out of my life and work?” not because you are unhappy with the answers you’ve always known but because you’re completely out of context here (well, except, happily, for access to the Mass of All Time which will always make you feel at home anywhere in the world).

You also experience this cheek-by-jowl with whatever businesses you are owning and running.  In my case, I have several, but a great deal of time and energy is taken up by Word Works, Inc. and Paris Foot Walks.

The final consideration that an American so used to freedom of movement must keep in mind, no matter where you are thinking of relocating to, is immigration policy.  I managed to obtain a long-term-stay visa which is not at all easy to get.  My renewal is by no means assured and I’m not even allowed to apply for it until 60 days before my current one expires.  I had read and understood, through various sources, before my visit, that it was easier for someone already here to stay, but your own thought process has to tie into the state of the businesses you are running.  Will I get to be in Paris long-term?  Only the immigration authorities know. 🙂

What I do know is that this was one of the 5 most significant choices of my adult life, and I couldn’t be happier that I made it.

In future articles on this theme I’ll talk about what it took to get here in terms of breaking up my life in America.

The Three Changes

This particular move features three major changes for me: a different country, a different language, and a different environment.  I’ll start with the last one first.

The City

I was born into one of the densest cities in the modern world: Singapore.  This tiny nation-state has 5.4 million people packed into 276 square miles (Americans might consider that 8.5 million people inhabit the 5 boroughs that comprise NYC, which sits on 303 square miles).  Singapore taught me at an early age that a city can be a safe place for a kid.  As a six-year-old I excitedly rode the MRT (subway system) by myself on Mondays when I had altarboy duties at our parish across town.  I heard different languages (Malay, Chinese, Tagalog) swirl around me.  I saw every color of person imaginable.  And the food.  Well, let’s just say that in 2009, my first visit back to the island since I was 11, I gained 10 pounds in 3 weeks.  I firmly believe Singapore has the best food in the world, and still do, despite living in the country that literally gave the world the word cuisine.  However, for all my love of cities, most of my life has been spent in suburban settings.

Because America west of the Mississippi was imagined and built around the car, my stints in Texas (Dallas), California (Los Angeles, Orange County), Kansas (Overland Park), and Missouri (St. Louis) all accepted as prima facie access to a vehicle.  The access to this vehicle not only defined your everyday schedule, but by and large, your entire lifestyle.  This lifestyle, the suburban lifestyle, while comfortable, safe, and warm, is a novelty in human affairs, and is premised upon the lie of ongoing, infinite access to cheap and easy oil.

The rural life has some splendid isolation and the city is a collective of the culture of a society but the lukewarm suburbs are no real part of either.  James Howard Kuntsler, in a myriad of jeremiads against the “noplace” that is suburbia, has made this case numerous times far more eloquently than I can.  Take a read through his Home from Nowhere if you want to be confronted with the (un)reality of the modern suburb.

This is all to say that city living is radically different from suburban living, in so many ways.  We can start with one of the costs of living: housing.  It’s almost always more expensive to live in a city.  A 10×10 room in Paris (I’m talking feet, not meters), as in NYC, will cost you at least $1,000USD per month, and that is with no promise of either a shower or toilet ensuite.  Unless you share a home or apartment, you will also be lugging your laundry to a laundromat.

But after you’ve exhaled, realize the disappearance, or the decrease, at least, of another cost of living: transportation.  I save roughly $120USD (accounting for exchange rates) by not owning a car in Paris.  I owned my last car free and clear so I didn’t have a monthly car payment, but I still paid $125/month in car insurance and at least $75/month in gas.  This is to say nothing of car washes, oil changes, tire changes, routine maintenance, and of course, annual registration.  I am now in possession of a monthly Metro pass which allows me to go anywhere that matters in Paris by train, tram, or bus.  For an additional 29 euros per year, I’m also allowed to use the bikes all over the city for the first 30 minutes of my journey for free (the locations can easily be found on Velib, a smartphone app).  I have never waited more than 6 minutes for a metro anywhere in the city, and because Paris is such an old city, it is eminently walkable (for an intact example of a medieval city, visit Assisi in Italy or Toledo in Spain, both of which can be traversed from one end to another in 20 minutes).  Because of its layout you often won’t realize that you’re covering 3-4 miles per day on foot (though, if you’re not used to those distances, don’t worry: your body will inform you very shortly!).

This foot-driven travel forces you to meet your fellow city-dwellers.  Americans prefer the quiet isolation of their cars.  They have their own agendas and itineraries that are subject to no one else.  City living doesn’t allow you that choice (well not without the hassle of traffic and not-free parking).  You have to deal with the homeless, the musicians, the weirdos, the deviants, the children, the elderly, and all the fascinating tapestry of humanity that comprises any big city.

What makes Paris, and some big cities, special, is the architecture and history all around you.  Architecture inspires and uplifts.  It’s difficult to walk by things like the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame, or inside any number of the hundreds of churches in Paris, and not feel inspired (well, unless you’re already dead inside – but even then these can provide powerful return-from-death shots).  The magnificence and beauty in those structures reminds the ordered mind that building things that are worthwhile in this passing world is perhaps the most relevant harbinger of the eternity that is ahead for all of us.

The last opportunity I had to live in a city environment was during the year I finished my MBA in Saint Louis.  I was in the Lou Monday-Friday and in Kansas City on the weekends (I drove the dreadful I-70 stretch twice a week.  I know.  Ugh.).  In Saint Louis I lived in Lafayette Square, near the oldest park west of the Mississippi, in the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country.  I loved it, and have always dreamed of a return to St. Louis since my 2011 departure (on a separate note, while beautiful churches on the mind, I believe that the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is the most beautiful church in the United States.  Check it out sometime).

It is perhaps the parks that are omnipresent in any well-planned city that are the greatest consolation for nature lovers.  There are no shortage of places of quiet contemplation amidst the city that accepts 27 million visitors per year.  Perhaps the reason this change has not been so drastic for me is because I’ve always despised suburban life, despite having existed in it most of my life.  Humans have a remarkable capability to thrive even in the most spiritually impoverished environments.

The Language

The #1 stated reason for my move to France is and always has been to acquire an extremely high level of fluency in the language.  I never thought this could be done outside of an immersive environment.  I took a short holiday in London about 10 days after my move to France and I remember sharing with some friends that my French had advanced more during my 10 days immersed in Paris than in my 4 previous trips to Paris and my 5 previous visits to Montreal (all of which were fewer than 4 days in duration).  French, particularly for English speakers, has the double challenge of masculine/feminine words and unusual sounds.  Too often those of us trying to speak the language fall into the trap of simply trying to mimic a sound we hear instead of accepting that sound on its own terms (my classic example is the word “un,” which means “one” in French.  I don’t hesitate with the pronunciation now but I always did in the past.).

Perhaps even more fun than the disorientation of transitioning from being a native speaker of a language to being the primary school etudiant in another, is the cultural exchange that happens as you explain idioms to new friends.  These expressions don’t just define a way of thinking, but also can, in some ways, define a people.  Speaking another language also helps you realize how grateful you are for the fun you can have as a native speaker with wordplay, puns, and literary illusions.

The Country

It would take too long to talk about all the misconceptions the French have about Americans and vice versa.  That’s something I hope to cover in a future article.  For now, I’ll leave you with two important facts: 1) the first treaty ever signed by the US government was with the France of Louis XVI, without whose naval and military assistance the United States would quite possibly have never come into existence; 2) in the 1990s, Ambassador Walter Curley, perhaps on behalf of all Americans who have taken the time to study history, laid a wreath on the tomb of King Louis XVI in tribute of all he did for America.

While it is true that I love France – it is perhaps more true to say that I love the France of old.  As a monarchist I am drawn to the history of the kings in France while being simultaneously repulsed by the unmitigated horror show that was (and is) the French Revolution, with its disgusting tri-color flag, its monuments to murder, and its national anthem celebrating revolution and all the blood that flowed from it.  Even though France is now on its 5th Republic (apparently the kings weren’t entirely clueless) the French remain a people and a country unable to fully accept the Revolution in all its implications.  Over a million marched here in Paris just last year in protest against homosexual “marriage,” and a law just passed that outlawed “free shipping” of books in France.

Both of these events can help instruct those who are not familiar with the concepts of the two Frances: the two countries created within the minds of the French when Louis XVI’s head was separated from his body on that mournful day in 1793.  There is the notion of the “real” France, which is Catholic and royalist, and the “legal” France, which is anticlerical and republican (this distinction does not exist in Anglo countries, due to Henry VIII’s dramatic unification of the church and state within his person – and the subsequent irrelevancy of the former during the ascendancy of the latter: by the time it came to the founding of America the masonic dream had been realized.  America was a country founded on the absurd notion that God and His laws were a matter of taste, not fact).  While since the 1960s the “legal” country has gained a decisive upper hand, the “real” France still manifests itself in conscious and subconscious ways.  The march on behalf of traditional marriage is an obvious example of a conscious manifestation.  As for the free shipping thing, we have to go further back in history, and we’ll also have to cut through the lies you were told about guilds and protectionism.

“Protectionism” as it might be understood broadly, accepts the fundamental premise that those who are close to you – whether they are family or simply your fellow citizens – are more important than foreigners or strangers.  The subsequent principle that also follows is that money – the most important value in the modern world, can never trump that sensibility.  Guilds were a medieval expression of those principles within the marketplace.  Guilds helped to control prices in a particular trade or craft so that no one newcomer could come and destabilize the entire industry through disruption.  Innovations were shared so that the entire industry moved forward together (we see this in contemporary Japanese patent practice – all patents are published 6 months before the patent is put in place, which means all the competitors can adapt.  The patent filing is hence more an object of pride that makes the entire industry move up together rather than the ossifying force it can be in US markets).  People could come and apprentice in an industry (think internships, except you got paid and actually did work).  They would, after a period of time, produce a “master-piece” (yes, that’s where the word comes from) which, if judged worthy, would launch their own independent career separate from the Master who apprenticed them.  This also provided exit strategies for Masters to retire (there was a stream of capable people you had personal knowledge of who could buy your business or help you expand it).  It also provided protection for those within the guild.  If you became sick, injured, or God forbid, died in an untimely fashion, the guild would take care of your wife and children monetarily.  After hundreds of years of this kind of thinking you can well imagine that the French, despite being a host country of the European Union, find it difficult to shake off the protectionist streak within themselves.  Indeed, that is why Pandora, Netflix, and now Amazon’s free shipping, are outlawed.

France is trying to protect its market from foreign innovations.  But coupled with a largely socialist mentality of the past decades one arrives at a swamp of indifference and inertia.  The EU, a worldwide leader in free trade and open borders, is continuously pushing universalization “in diversity.”  The French fancy themselves part of this as well, but their protectionist practices in the environment of hold-your-hand socialism provides an environment in which the young French are happy to enjoy every American innovation while not having any hunger to start their own copycats, even.  The “anti-amazon law,” as the French newspapers call it, is coming into existence to protect Frances’ many (and lovely) independent bookstores, bookstores which are considered part of the country’s “cultural heritage.”  Free shipping from Amazon, coupled with the legally-mandated 5% maximum discount on book prices, gave Amazon an unfair competitive advantage.  And this was unacceptable (although don’t doubt for a second that there wasn’t some political payback involved).  But the reality of being unable to escape the French subconscious (sustainable and protectionist) traps the French in a self-satisfied dream of the past.

As with all rich and colorful dreams, the memories linger.  Effects of the French domination of culture through its cuisine, language, art, and literature, still linger worldwide.  But as the French celebrate the remnants of their past successes the world moves inexorably forward, led – for better or worse – by the country that France helped birth: les Etats-Unis.

It is these three changes – the city of Paris itself, its language, and its history within France – that will linger with me long after I return to the New World.  For now they are the changes I most celebrate and subsume myself in, because to understand the future we have to know the past.