Like millions of other Americans, some Stanford alumni are finding solace by slowing down. Can life really be that simple?
By Nina Schuyler
Magda MacMillan has a new life.
She wears old clothes, drives an aging car and recycles so thoroughly she can fit a week’s worth of garbage into a shoebox. A buyer in Stanford’s procurement department, she gave up a high-stress job at Lockheed Martin, where she was a contract administrator on the Hubble Space Telescope Project. And MacMillan, ’61, couldn’t be happier. “I’m having a lovely time,” she says. “Life is a constant delight.”
Across town, Hilary Hug, ’91, lives with eight other adults—including two fellow Stanford graduates, Robin Bayer, ’89, and David Muffly, ’88—and 2-year-old twins. Hug and her housemates do not own cars; they bike everywhere, and grow organic food. Her clothes are secondhand. “There are times I have to sit down and ask whether I’m living the way I want to be living,” Hug says. “I come back to the fact that I love my life.”
Four hundred miles south, in Venice, Calif., Jeff Carson is doing pretty much whatever he wants, whenever he wants. A self-employed mortgage broker, Carson, ’86, who rents an apartment and watches expenses closely, chooses when and how much to work. He is taking night classes in landscape architecture and working on a documentary about the gentrification of a Venice neighborhood. “The autonomy I have is hard to match in the dominant culture,” he says.
The dominant culture? You know the one—the 8-to-whenever work world, commute attached; the gadgety, always-on, 500-channel, 36-button, “can you explain how I work this remote?” world. Lately, more and more folks, like MacMillan, Hug and Carson, are choosing to step off the treadmill.
Throughout the United States, people are wondering whether what they have is what they want. On the heels of an unprecedented economic boom—now sinking, it seems, into a prolonged downturn exacerbated by the recent terrorist attack—there are signs that disillusionment is widespread, and that many people with the skills and options to do so are choosing lives outside the mainstream. Taking back their “free” time, buying less, emphasizing relationships over career trajectories, they may constitute a new group enforcing an ancient value—simplicity. In the end, though, this trend may be defined less by its community than by one simple, guiding principle: to each his or her own.
However it is defined, the notion of making conscious choices about consumption, lifestyle and career to reduce stress and promote fulfillment has been gaining momentum for the past decade. According to Gerald Celente, director and founder of the Trends Research Institute in New York, an estimated 20 million people say they are fashioning lives based on this notion.
What does it mean to lead a simpler life? Can anybody do it? And, once achieved, is it truly fulfilling?
Cecile Andrews has been trying to answer those questions for almost 20 years. Her book, The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life (HarperCollins, 1997), placed her near the center of the “voluntary simplicity” movement, and she remains one of its leading advocates. Since 1998, in conjunction with the Glendale, Calif.-based nonprofit Seeds of Simplicity, Andrews, EdD ’84, has helped set up more than 100 “simplicity circles” around the country in which people gather to discuss how they live and how they would like to live. The groups are seedpods for a movement that means different things to different people. On one end of the spectrum, says Andrews, are the extreme simplifiers who wear only secondhand clothes, don’t own cars, recycle everything and either raise their own food or cart off the bruised leftovers from the grocery store. Near the center are people who have switched to less stressful jobs or cut back their work schedules to have more time for other things. And then there are those who merely seek to be more deliberate about their choices, trivial and otherwise—everything from whether they can do without that latte every morning to whether they should live closer to their children’s grandparents. Ultimately, says Andrews, it’s about taking control of one’s life.
“Some people think simplicity is about self-deprivation or moving to the woods, but what I’m talking about is how to enjoy life more right where you are,” says Andrews.
Simplicity begins by asking some questions. How much is enough? What do I care about? What gives me joy? Do I really need this?
On a warm, sunny Saturday morning in August, about 20 people have risen early to gather at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention. Outside the door to the drab meeting room is an unobtrusive sign: “A Simpler Life: Less Stress, More Joy & Balance in Your Personal and Professional Life.”
Andrews stands in the front of the room wearing a cream-colored skirt and vest, a cheap black sports watch and a water bottle slung in a hiker’s carrier. Before anyone spends too much time nervously glancing around, Andrews asks the participants to turn to a neighbor and say what brought them here.
“I feel like I’m running a marathon all the time,” says one woman.
“I’m tired of all the stuff,” says another, adding that her house is jammed with 15 computers (her husband is a programmer) and an entertainment center bristling with equipment. “I don’t want eight remote controls anymore.”
Andrews is used to these complaints. In fact, many people come to her workshops hoping she’ll help them clear up a cluttered closet. “What do I know about that?” she asks rhetorically, then smiles. “Little do they know what this movement is really about.”
Clutter is only a catalyst to profound questioning about one’s life, she says. “Each of us is at a different point in perceiving what is desirable versus necessary; what is complex versus simple. The necessary thing is to begin to examine your life.”
And so, she tells the simplicity seekers in the room, “this movement asks you to consider the consequences of your actions on your well-being and the environment.” Before long, those small, annoying pinpricks of disenchantment become a huge discussion about nearly everything that can touch a life: how overwork leads to overconsumption, to health problems, to the fracturing of human relations and community and to the destruction of the environment. As the meeting breaks up, everyone agrees to implement some small change and report back the following week.
“The circles are helpful because you are trying to live differently from the majority culture,” says Magda MacMillan, who has been part of a monthly circle in Palo Alto since 1999. “The others live like you do. You can be weird together.”
Jeff Carson, on the other hand, has never been to a simplicity circle and doesn’t even identify himself as a simplifier. But he acknowledges that he’s drawn to like-minded people. “Most of my friends are quasi-bohemians,” he says.
Some simplicity advocates are dubious that these meetings accomplish much. “If you want society to move toward simplicity, you need to change the socioeconomic environment,” says Jerome Segal, author of Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living (Holt, 1999) and philosopher at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. The barriers to simplicity are structural and fundamental, he says. For example, he notes, at the beginning of the 20th century, households devoted 1 to 2 percent of their spending after taxes to transportation; now it’s 19 percent. “It wasn’t that people suddenly developed an insatiable appetite for cars, but the distance between home and work changed. Women entered the workforce in significant numbers, and families needed two cars. The conditions of cities changed, and people moved to the suburbs to escape crime and find better schools,” Segal says. “I could do the same analysis with housing. We need to ask the question, ‘What is the economy for?’"
Segal is correct to focus on the big picture, says Andrews, but she insists that a movement can’t be built from the top down. “It is important to get people together and talk about the way we are living,” she says. “In these conversations, we are addressing not only the personal but the societal. Remember what John Dewey said: ‘Democracy is born in conversation.’”
Andrews’s interest in the simplicity movement traces back to the late 1970s when she worked with the Quaker-run Voluntary International Service Assignment. For two years in Winston-Salem, N.C., Andrews set up after-school programs for low-income African-American neighborhoods. “I got to see firsthand that although the poor didn’t have a lot, they had so much more sense of community than I had growing up in the suburbs of Washington state,” she says.
When Andrews first hit on the idea of teaching others how to live simply, the public response was tepid. After earning her doctorate at the School of Education, she returned to Seattle as an administrator at North Seattle Community College. In 1989, she offered a class on voluntary simplicity. “Only four people showed up, and we had to cancel it,” she says. In 1992, when she offered it again, 175 signed up. The next quarter, 200. Esquire magazine did a story in 1993 about simplicity, quoting Andrews. Soon she received a call from an editor at HarperCollins asking if she had ever thought of doing a book on the topic. That led to the publication of The Circle of Simplicity.
Now an affiliated scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Andrews is researching the connection between the simplicity movement and the women’s movement; she’s teaching classes in Stanford’s Health Improvement Program; she’s working with Continuing Studies and speaking to a plethora of campus groups. At Stanford, she believes she’s found the ideal audience, people who are well-versed in critical thinking and can effect profound change. It’s also an audience that she thinks is ripe to rethink its definition of success.
If Jeff Carson had emulated most of his Stanford friends, he’d have augmented his economics degree with an mba and ended up at a management consulting job or at a bank, flipping bonds. But at some point early in his working life, the well-trodden path lost its appeal. “It didn’t seem it would set me up for what I wanted from life,” he says. What he wanted was time.
In 1992, he left his commercial real estate job in Washington, D.C., visited South America, and moved to Venice, Calif., where he now works for himself. It hasn’t been easy to change the mindset that suggests worth is related to career achievement. “After I come back from a job in New York, some of the majority culture’s values creep in,” he says. “You tend to turn your critical faculties on your life and lose your momentum. You find yourself attacking yourself.”
Most of Hilary Hug’s peers went on to business or law school or are earning doctorates. Hug, who majored in human biology, works at Magic, a nonprofit in Palo Alto that teaches people to apply ecology to live better. “For the first 20 years of my life, I was an approval junkie,” she says. “I got the teacher’s attention, the awards, the accolades. But when I stepped outside of the mainstream path, I had to let go of that. It was really hard.”
“For people graduating from top institutions like Stanford, there is something akin to a schizophrenic pull,” Andrews says. “On the one hand, you learn to think critically, to examine the unintended consequences of your actions and policies. You learn the immense pleasure of the life of the mind. And yet there is an expectation, sometimes not so implicit, that you graduate, secure an important, influential job with an enviable income and acquire the accoutrements of material success. Which necessarily means less time for self-reflection, community involvement and relationships.”
The problem with the simplicity movement, critics say, is that not everybody can afford it. “You’ll always have a small group of people who have made it, who can sell their houses that have appreciated wildly, and trade down,” says futurist Roger Selbert, editor and publisher of Growth Strategies in Santa Monica and a principal at the Growth Strategies Group. “This does not make a movement of any consequence. Our big problem is that we have an overwhelming amount of choices.”
He notes that recently launched glossy magazines like Real Simple and SIMPLYCITY are chock-full of advertisements for pricey clothes, handheld computers, cars and cosmetics. Clearly, he says, a well-moneyed market has been identified among members of the simplicity crowd.
And not all those who simplify stick with it. “They make a lot of money, retire early and eventually get bored,” says Selbert. “They find the simple life—baking your own bread, growing your food, biking everywhere—is nasty, brutish and short. They like the thrill of the fast pace, and they jump back into the game.”
“Sure, it’s a middle-class movement,” Andrews says. “That doesn’t invalidate it. Those in the middle class do the most consuming and work the longest hours, and they have found that affluence is not what they expected.”
Regardless of whether simplifiers become a full-fledged movement capable of exerting societal change, Andrews says, dwindling natural resources may one day force everyone to cut back.
Carson, for one, doesn’t need a push. “I couldn’t go back,” he says. “Mine is not a perfect existence. I still haven’t landed on the path that is right for me, but I know I’m a lot closer than if I’d stayed mainstream and refused to ask questions about the way I was living.
Nina Schuyler,’86, is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
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