Principle 8: Nature vs. Artifice



Stay close to who and what you really are.


Every tool invented by mankind is essentially an extension of man’s hand or mind.

  • A pneumatic hammer, which drives a nail into wood or masonry, is basically a claw hammer on steroids. The claw hammer itself is just a fancy rock. And a rock is what a primitive human used to bash things that he couldn’t bash with his hand.
  • A jet plane is a horse and wagon, crossed with a ship, only really fast. Any vehicle does exactly what the human body can do—travel distances over land or water—only faster, farther, and loaded with cargo.
  • A computer does exactly what the human mind can do: store and retrieve information, perform mathematical computations, and manipulate data, only more quickly, more accurately, and at greater volume. These days a computer also frequently takes the place of paper and pen, and can even replace a drawer full of art supplies.

So, simplicity means doing only what you can do with your bare hands, traveling only as far as your own feet will take you, and doing all mathematics and information management in your head.

Just kidding!!

Tools and technology improve our lot in life by protecting us from the elements, enabling us to procure and prepare better food, allowing us to prevent and treat diseases and injuries, and making it possible to do things beyond the tasks essential for sheer survival.[1]

Modern modes of travel are wonderful, allowing us to connect quickly with all points of the globe for purposes of commerce, education and cultural enrichment. On a more local level, technological transportation, such as automobiles and mass transit, increases a person’s employment options, allows greater autonomy and personal liberty, and makes available a wider range of goods and services. (Even a person who doesn’t own an automobile can get around by taxi, bus, or train.)

But too much reliance on tools and technology has negative effects on us:

  • Technological advances in high-speed transportation and communication have indeed shrunk the world and made it easier than ever to “connect” with other people. Nevertheless, modern men and women in technologically advanced countries typically report a prevalence of loneliness, psychological disorders, stress, and dissatisfaction with life.[2]
  • Despite advances in agriculture and the availability of more and more options for healthy food and more and more leisure time that could be used to stay active, modern men and women in technological societies are fat and unhealthy like never before in history.[3]
  • The stay-at-home mom may be one of the loneliest occupations in America. Where did everybody go?[4] They’re all at work, doing everything they can to earn enough money to pay for their numerous cars, their spacious homes, their cable or satellite TV subscription and the several flat screen plasma TVs to watch, their internet service providers, their handheld smart phones, tablet, laptop, and desktop computers, their ready-made, pre-packaged boxes, cans, bags, and jars of food.

The 8th and final principle of simplicity is about preserving at least some of the essentially human touches in our lives and keeping at least some things immediate and scaled to human proportions. Examples of this principle in action:

  • If the weather is nice and the distance is reasonable, walk.
  • Instead of listening to prerecorded music on an mp3 player, grab a guitar, some friends, and sit around a bonfire making music.
  • For entertainment, when was the last time you attended a live theatre production? Or got together with a bunch of people and played board games?
  • Do we really need to buy pre-packaged cheese and crackers? How hard is it to put a handful of crackers in one Ziploc bag, a few slices of cheese in another? Instead of buying chili powder for seasoning your taco meat, did you know that you can make your own from salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper?
  • Connect to living food by growing at least some of what you eat. Even an apartment dweller can enjoy fresh summer tomatoes from a container on the balcony or grown in a rented plot at the community center. If you have a sunny window you could grow fresh herbs year-round.[5]

A review of the previous Principles of Simplicity:

Principle 7: Collaboration

Principle 6: Vigilance

Principle 5: Empty Space

Principle 4: Freely Chosen Constraints

Principle 3: Pruning

Principle 2: Detachment

Principle 1: Needs versus Wants


[1] See Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture for much more on this last subject. Men and women who do nothing but work degrade their humanity and actually begin to lose their cultural refinement.







Principle 7: Collaboration

Balance prudent self-reliance with healthy, interdependent relationships.

Some time ago, I came across a book called The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century[1](written by two psychiatrists). A quote from the book:

“Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbor means not bothering them.”

I think this anti-social attitude has infected much of the technologically advanced world, not just America. We leave people alone because we think that’s what they want, yet loneliness has become a hallmark complaint of modern men and women. We dare not show our faces on our neighbors’ front porches…

…yet we scrawl updates on the walls of their facebook pages, we tweet until our smart phones are hoarse, we forward emails to all our contacts. It’s paradoxical. We have an explosion of online social networks, endless opportunities to “connect,” but how many of us scroll through our computer screens, feverishly hitting the delete button, just looking for something—anything—from someone we actually know or that we actually want to spend time reading?[2]

It’s good lift up our eyes, away from our screens, and be really physically present to other human beings.

illustration from the front cover of O Come Ye Back to Ireland, painted by Christine Breen

Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God, discusses at length Sarah Lanier’s[3] comparison of “hot-climate” and “cold-climate” cultures:

“Hot-climate cultures are communal, group-oriented, inclusive and spontaneous. Cold-climate cultures are more individualistic, privacy-oriented and interested in structure and productivity.”

My parents grew up in England—which has elements of both hot- and cold-climate cultures—but cultures definitely collided when she encountered the true hot-climate culture of southern California in the 1960s. She and my dad had just moved to America with their infant daughter (me). After several months of dealing with the apparently certifiably insane population of La Mesa on the odd side of town, they moved into a new place. My mom, expecting the worst, battened down the hatches, unwilling to interact with more of these crazy Americans.

To no avail: one morning there was a knock on the sliding door of the kitchen. In walked her new neighbors with freshly baked goods and coffee. Long story short—these two or three families spent the next five years raising their small children together, and even though they now live across the continent from one another, they are friends to this day.

What does any of this have to do with simplicity?

Living and working in close proximity to other people, and building intentional community with them, simplifies things because you can pool resources of time and energy, tools and materials, emotional strength and physical skills.

“Many hands make light work.” (John Heywood, 1546)

Cocooning with just our nuclear family on the back deck while the front porch remains unused isolates and limits us. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you can ask your neighbor if you can borrow his wheel. And, even though we are sturdy, self-reliant Americans, we don’t have to do everything alone in this increasingly cold-climate culture:

  • The Amish and other “plain living” subcultures excel at the principle of collaboration, with their barn-raisings and other community activities.[4] [5]
  • Busy yuppies Niall Williams and Christine Breen experience the beauty of community and collaboration when they move from Manhattan to rural Ireland and work side-by-side with their neighbors on their farm.[6]
  • In The Way (2010, Directed by Emilio Estevez), a man grieves the death of his son, and also honors his son’s memory, by walking the historic “el camino de Santiago” (“the way of St. James) in France and Spain. On the journey he discovers the beauty of community and collaboration.

I’ll finish with a little anecdote from my own neighborhood. A friend who lives nearby was over at my house putting the finishing touches on some electrical work he had very kindly done for me.

As he was leaving, he said, “I think I’ll take my ladder home with me today, because I’ll need it for a project I have to do at my house.”

“Okay,” I said.

Then, after a moment’s thought, I said, “I think that ladder might be mine.”

“Hm,” he said, furrowing his brow. “Are you sure?”

We went to look at the ladder. It had been back and forth between his house and my house so often in recent months that neither of us could remember whose ladder it actually was!

He took it and used it for whatever it was he was working on, and I think it’s in my garage at the moment.

“Any culture emphasizing productivity cannot allow us to spend much time socializing.” (Susan K. Rowland Make Room for God)

[1] The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz (2009).

[2] Social Clear Cutting: Can Our Social Media Behaviors Destroy Our Social Environment?” This is a very good post by author Kristen Lamb. She writes passionately about the need to forge real connections with other people. Her target audience is other authors attempting to construct social platforms to promote their creative work, but her articles and books (We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer) still speak to anyone disillusioned by online social media and searching for rewarding interactions online.

[3] Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures by Sarah Lanier (2000)

[4] Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989)

[6] O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen (1987)

Update to “How to live comfortably in a tiny little apartment”

Now I remember where I read all those statistics on house size and family size from my previous post: it was in Tsh Oxenreider’s book Organized Simplicity.[1] Here are the numbers:

In 1950 the average square footage of a new single-family home was 983.

In 2004 it was 2349 square feet.[2]

In 1950 the average family size was 3.67 persons.

In 2002 the average family size was 2.62 persons.[3]

This means that in 1950,  average-sized single-family home had 268 square feet per person.

By 2002 / 2004, the average single-family home had ballooned to 896 square feet per person—the amount of square footage that 50 years ago housed an entire family of 3 to 4 people.

[1] Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living2010 Betterway Home Books / F + W Media

[2] “Housing Facts, Figures and Trends for March 2006” National Association of Home Builders

[3] Here Oxenreider cites U.S. Census Bureau figures found in an article by Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland “Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment.” July 12, 2005. Currently available at

Principle 5: Empty Space

Pursue quality, not quantity.

If you type “simplicity” into your internet browser, you will discover that simplicity is all about having a stack of rocks…

…a handful of fruit…

…or a single drop of water on a leaf…

I’m obviously being facetious: we all know that artfully arranging a handful of smooth stones on your coffee table does not simplify your life.

To simplify deeply requires artfully arranging all the details of life.

The spare, Zen-like, aesthetic points to something real, though. For example, ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. It is a true art form, with certain conventions that all practitioners follow. The most important convention of ikebana is Empty Space:[1]

 In an ikebana design, space is just as important as the flowers and branches themselves. An ikebana practitioner seeks to create space rather than fill it.[2]

In a piece of music, the rests—the silence between notes—are just as important as the notes themselves. A page of text without any white space is indecipherable.

Modern life becomes complicated when we try to fill space: in our homes, in our closets, on our shelves, on our calendars, in our minds. He who dies with the most toys, wins.[3] We know in our deepest hearts that this is false, and we respond to the images of simplicity because they mirror what we long for, both inside and outside. Like all the principles of simplicity, you can practice Empty Space both exteriorly and interiorly.

Exterior empty space:

  • Simple, spare furnishings and décor
  • few possessions
  • solitude (space between yourself and other people)
  • silence
  • limited commitments and activities

Interior empty space:

  • Silence
  • limited input (TV, radio, music, internet, books, news)

The lists above certainly aren’t exhaustive. Can you think of more ways to create Empty Space?

Go deeper: why do the practices on the list simplify things? Where does the empty space form?

Exercise: consider creating empty space by going on a “media fast.” [4]

Top photo credit:

Other photo credits:

[1] Ikebana International, Chicago Chapter

[2] Ikebana by Diane Norman and Michelle Cornell.

[3] Contrast this sentiment with this quote attributed to Andrew Carnegie: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”

[4] “I took a complete 10-day media fast and felt like I’d had a two-year vacation from computers…Once you realize that you can turn off the noise without the world ending, you’re liberated in a way that few people ever know.” Tim Ferris, from his blog Experiments in Lifestyle Design.

Two Ways of Being Happy

There are two ways of being happy: we may either diminish our wants or augment our means — either will do — the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest. If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means. If you are active and prosperous or young or in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.

–Benjamin Franklin

A Market Researcher’s Worst Nightmare

I just got off the phone with a market research company. They were screening me for an upcoming market study.

I’ve been on this company’s list for a long time, and have only qualified for one study, and that was in my capacity as a professional, not as a consumer.

As a consumer I guess I’m pretty lame. They ask me questions like:

“Did you recently purchase or will you, in the next 6 months, purchase a major appliance such as a refrigerator, washer, dryer, or dishwasher, or range?”


I don’t plan to replace major appliances. I replace them when they break.

I didn’t qualify for that study. I guess you have to buy a major appliance every 5 or 6 months…

“When you purchase a new mattress, what factors do you consider the most important when choosing a brand?”

The last time I purchased new mattresses was twelve years ago, for my children. I think I just had the children lie down on them and pick the one they liked, as long as it wasn’t too expensive.

Cost and comfort.

I recently replaced my 18-year old daughter’s mattress by trading it for a newer mattress my mom had in her guest room but hardly ever used. Does that count?

Once, after a recent move, the children and I did find ourselves short one mattress. My son and I stood at the window discussing this problem, and a moment later the neighbors across the street came out of their house carrying a mattress and box spring, placing them on the side of the road and affixing the garbage stickers to them

My son and I looked at each other, said “Huzzah!” and went across the street to pick up the mattress and box spring. Carefully, I peeled the stickers off and knocked on the door to return them (no sense letting municipal garbage stickers go to waster…)

The neighbors were grateful. They said the mattress was still perfectly good but they were replacing it with a larger size. “Here,” said the woman of the house, handing me a plastic bag. “This is the sheet set.”

Relying on Providence doesn’t sit well with marketers, apparently, because I didn’t qualify for that study, either.

“How many times per month do you go to the movie theater?”

Let’s see…

I go to the movies maybe twice a year, when a highly anticipated movie comes out, usually something our family wants to see together. In fact, I can recall by name all the movies I’ve seen at the theater in the past 10 years, more or less in reverse chronological order:

  • The Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2
  • Of Gods and Men
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1
  • Star Trek
  • District 9 (sort of a strange choice. My son and I went to see it…)
  • Inception
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Prince Caspian
  • Bella
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Return of the King
  • The Two Towers
  • Fellowship of the Ring
  • Shrek
  • Monsters Inc.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Needless to say, I was not chosen for that market study. They want somebody who darkens the door of the Cineplex more than 0.16 times per month.

Nor was I chosen for the one I just got off the phone about. The interview went like this:

“Do you have any children living at home? What are their ages and gender?”

An 18-year old girl and a 14-year old girl. My son, 20, no longer lives at home.

“Do you have any children under 11 to whom you are related, or with whom you have a close association?”

Yes. My youngest nieces are 8 and 5, respectively, and my youngest nephew is 3. I also have several close friends who have small children: two 9-year old girls, two 6-year old girls, one 10-year old boy, one 6-year old boy…let’s see…I think there are more…

“That’s okay. You don’t have to list any more.”

I took that as a good sign.

“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for toys for any of the children in your life?”


“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for clothes for any of the children in your life?”


“In the last 30 days, have you shopped for books for any of the children in your life?”


Rats! I can tell where this is going…

“In the last 30 days, have you taken any of the children on a special outing? For example, to the zoo, the movies, a museum?”

Yes! We went to see The Hunger Games! And I took my daughters to Caribou Coffee yesterday.

But it was too late to redeem myself:

“At this time, ma’am, your answers are leading us away from the direction the company wants to go, so you do not qualify for this particular study. But we will keep you in our database and contact you about future studies.”

Questions for Reflection:

Which principles of simplicity cause me to consistently strike out with market researchers?