For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived as an expat in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in (pause for effect) … south-central China… on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way from my small hometown located in (pause for effect) … south-central Missouri… on the Little Dry Fork Creek. How long? How about 13 time zones-long?
CQ is one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead to “simplify, simplify” (as Hank Thoreau beautifully stated it).
I am currently working on a new book, The Expat Life. It will deal with expat experiences, lifestyle, and mindset. Welcome to come along for the ride. If you find this invitation intriguing, become a subscriber to my free weekly newsletter at http:/theexpatlife.substack.com. Yes, it’s free and yes, it’s in the form of a weekly email sent directly to your Inbox. Substack also provides an opportunity to leave your comments if you wish. Welcome!
The Expat Life is my next book to be published as an ebook and, as planned, as an audiobook soon afterward. This week’s article, however, is an excerpt from a previously published book, The 18th Floor Homestead, which is also slated to become an audiobook in the future. Enjoy!
Work With Your Hands
Our modern era has been called the Knowledge Age, the Information Age, the Digital Age, and many other phrases. Implicit in these terms is the tacit understanding that you make your contributions while sitting in a chair. Many people – perhaps a majority in urban areas – spend most of their day in sedentary activities. It is indisputable that thinking is more valuable – and more rewarded – than mere lifting and carrying. Likewise, knowledge workers whose efforts are supplemented by modern technology can be vastly more productive than workers of previous generations. This ascendency of knowledge over manual strength has resulted in a world that is richer, more comfortable, safer, and offers much more discretionary time to individuals than ever before. We should acknowledge this with gratitude.
However, there is a downside to this knowledge worker lifestyle. If your life has become too complicated and too stressful and you wish to reinvent a simple life, a first step is to review the balance between working with your brain and working with your hands. To gain perspective, we can compare our modern lifestyle with how previous generations lived, then choose the best aspects from each.
Some authorities have claimed the modern knowledge worker is three times as productive as his low-technology predecessors. Sadly, if he produces as much as three workers in the past, he is also subjected to probably three times as much stimulation and stress. The cumulative effects on our mental health are increasing. That means more and more people are getting more and more crazy.
Civilization with its domesticated animals and crops, permanent cities, division of labor, written languages, and laws, is only a few thousand years old. The majority of our present genetic and social drives still come from our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Those nomadic tribes established survival behaviors over many thousands of years – much, much longer than our relatively short civilized period. Many of our modern social rules are derived directly from those tribal patterns, some of them virtually unchanged. What they did in their tribes for countless thousands of years allowed the human species to survive. Often, their life was not comfortable… but it was simple. Simple – that is the part we want to emulate.
I would not want to go back to those primitive times of our ancestors but they can give us some clues as we seek to reinvent a simple life. Primarily, those nomadic hunter/gatherers worked with their hands. They did most things for themselves rather than outsourcing their work to a specialist. Division of labor is a much more efficient way of completing work but it carries with it the complications of dependency, social hierarchy, and miscommunications –frequent sources of stress and frustration. Until fairly recent times, our predecessors’ day was mostly spent merely surviving – obtaining sufficient food, clothing, and shelter for the immediate future. This was often hard, physical labor.
For our ancestors, “work” mostly meant doing things with their hands, with being physically active.Except for a few vestiges, we have largely eliminated this fundamental characteristic of primitive life. In our modern era, physical labor is not so essential. Compared to our prehistoric ancestors, our life is wonderfully effortless. You can even get someone to walk your dog while you stay seated at your desk, staring at a screen, waiting for someone to deliver a meal to your door.
Take an example from the kitchen. Let’s compare making a cup of coffee in a modern kitchen with the process of making coffee in the kitchen of great-grandmother. Today, preparing a cup of coffee is quite simple. The process is very quick and easy, even if you don’t resort to the expedient of instant coffee powder. You walk into your kitchen, switch on the electric lights, and turn to your source of purified water. You can heat water in an electric kettle that will produce boiling water almost faster than you can get the cup and coffee pot ready. You measure the proper amount of coffee grounds and rapidly complete the process of producing hot, delicious coffee. In only a minute or two, you are ready to take your cup back to your desk, sit down in your chair, and resume your knowledge work in front of a screen.
For our great-grandparents, it wasn’t quite so slick. Entering a dark kitchen without the benefit of electric lights, the first step was some form of illumination – candles, perhaps, or some form of burning oil. Not so quick and easy as flipping a switch. Next, coffee requires boiling water. Great-grandmother had to start a fire or revive last night’s coals. Building a fire would take a few minutes, even if she didn’t have to split firewood first and carry it indoors. Then she would take a few more minutes to fetch some water from their source – rain barrel, well, nearby spring or creek, or cistern that had to be refilled periodically. While she was waiting for the water to slowly come to a boil, she could measure and prepare the coffee grounds, which involved grinding beans by hand. Finally, she had everything ready to make her coffee.
Now, take a moment to compare these two extremes of coffee-making – our modern, very brief interruption of our knowledge work, and the much longer, labor-intensive, low-tech process of great-grandmother. If you look at mere efficiency, the modern kitchen cannot be beaten. Not even close. But, if you accept the premise that working with your hands is a highly beneficial, even therapeutic, break from the stress of our over-stimulated, sedentary lifestyle, then great-grandma’s slower method contains some strong points. Gordon MacQuarrie called these primal activities “chores that please the hands and rest the brain.”
Am I advocating a return to the technology and lifestyle of those earlier days? Absolutely not. Highly inefficient and requiring lots of time to produce the simplest things like a cup of coffee, great-grandmother’s kitchen was where she spent much of her day for the obvious reason that everything took much longer. Continuing the kitchen analogy, try making your meals without running water, electric light, refrigerators, and gas or electric stoves. Great-grandma would have instantly and without a second’s hesitation traded her kitchen for our modern version.
Do you see where this is going? In your process of reinventing a simple life, choose more activities that keep your hands busy but calm your brain. I propose that you incorporate some of the best parts of great-grandma’s life into your modern lifestyle. There is great value in working with your own hands, of doing something yourself instead of paying someone to do it for you – or buying a machine to do it. The benefits of consciously adopting a slower method come from resting your brain from the headlong pace of knowledge work or simply from too much stimulation. Think of working with your hands as a brief escape from the sedentary yet hectic lifestyle that has trapped so many modern desk warriors.
If you wish to reinvent a simple life, you must restore the proper balance in your life. For most of us, that means spending more time working with our hands.
Action Step:Make a list of ways to interspace some physical tasks among your knowledge work which usually involves mostly sitting and thinking. Which of your routines could you change to spend slightly more time working with your hands? What can you do to insert some physical activities between sessions at your desk? Do some of them today.