I discovered the simple living network thanks to a blog by Fred Ecks(*). As far as I have been able to understand he decided to quit his job as a programmer at age 35 and adopt a simple lifestyle. He now spends time renovating a sail boat and doing ultra-marathons.

Sounds eerily familiar. Here’s another programmer that decided to take a break and run ultra-marathons. A large part of my job iswas in programming and whaddya know I have been drawn to long distance myself. Nothing like these guys, my records are a half-marathon and a half-century on my bicycle which weren’t so hard to do. I imagine I could easily get into longer distances if I had 2-3 hours to dedicate to it every day.

In retrospect. No, not that easy.

(*) Much thanks goes to Beany for suggesting this blog.

The interesting question is always “why?” Why are programmers drawn to endurance events? I think a good part of the reason is that programming (which is often done in marathon sessions with a few hours of daily “training” or maintenance) tends to create a sense of technological and mental isolation. It is something that is happening within the artificial world of the computer. The body is wholly disconnected from the process. Eventually once the program is finished one does not even get the satisfaction of creating the output. Just press enter and the computer does it all.

I read a very interesting example over at AllFinancialMatters about how people have been come disconnected from the products they create. I think programmers become disconnected in an extreme and particular way. One way to bring balance is to go equally extremely in the opposite direction.

Running (and training for) ultra-marathons is similar to programming efforts in their duration but this is where the similarity ends. Marathon running is executed not by the computer but by the person. Also it is felt deeply in the body while the mind is left free to wander e.g. no headaches from overworking the parietal lobes (area of the brain located over the ears behind the temples responsible for reading and mathematics) but rather a dull ache from the low level pounding followed by the endorphins of a runner’s high. Also compared to road marathons, ultras are friendly and not cut-throat competitive like road-marathons or career building.

So what has this to do with voluntary simplicity?

I occasionally get the impression that people think we live in squalor because we spend so little (because of a general belief that that’s how people who earn little live). I think the point I would like to make is that we spend “differently”. It just happens that “differently” translates into “little”. Here’s a quote from the main page of the simple living network:

Simple living is not about living in poverty or self-inflicted deprivation. Rather, it is about living an examined life — one in which you have determined what is important, or “enough,” for you, discarding the rest.

… and I think this is exactly the point. What is important to many people is

  • A house with several bedrooms and bathrooms.
  • One of more fully loaded full-size cars.
  • A college degree with some pedigree.
  • Demonstrating success (dressing well, going out, buying things).

These things can be very expensive. Here’s what is important to me

  • Financial independence (roughly the same cost as a (pre-bubble) middle class house in whatever area you live in).
  • Being sufficiently strong to routinely walk 8 miles, cycle for hours, scale an 8 feet wall, and basically being physically capable.
  • Being widely read, and basically intellectually competent. I hold the renaissance ideal that one “should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible” in high regard.

So maybe we live in material squalor(*), but on the other hand I can not really imagine only knowing what I’ve been trained (educated) to do and having to show up for work every day to afford all my possessions. That would be squalor in my value system that favors independence and competence.

(*) Our living like students would be a fair assessment. However, we have lived like students for quite a while now. And instead of buying cheap stuff and replacing it when it breaks every couple of years like students do when they can’t afford quality, we have eventually gathered a collection of nice stuff.


Other links of interest:
Musings on UltraRunning and Finances