Towards Ethical Lifestyle Design

“People who avoid all criticism fail. It’s destructive criticism we need to avoid, not criticism in all forms.” (Timothy Ferriss)

How about Ethical Lifestyle Design?Should lifestyle designers be better people? When reading the recent discussion on the topic over at Beyond Growth (1, 2), one could reach the conclusion that this indeed should be the case. And, honestly, why not? Why limit our niche to the creation of muse businesses, travels, and vain endeavors?

On the other hand, when looking for a better approach to lifestyle design, one should also have in mind that pretty much everything one could wish for in the niche does already exist in another one. Searching for a well-elaborated critique of consumerism? Call Adbusters. Looking for people engaged in fixing our financial system? Ask Attac. Miss an environmental stance? Join Greenpeace or Earth First. Now, you might ask, what do these institutions and the individuals behind them have to do with lifestyle design?

The answer: It depends on your definition of the word. It’s a triteness, but following the broadest and simplest definition, lifestyle design is about nothing more or less than designing your lifestyle. Or, as JD Bentley put it a few months ago in a similar discussion: “Judging by the requirements of the term itself without any concepts applied by the zealots who promote it, everyone who has ever lived is a lifestyle designer.”

But probably, in a widespread use along the web, there’s something more to it, limiting lifestyle design to a much smaller group of people: The niche is then about being an entrepreneur and creating “muse businesses”, automatizing and outsourcing as many tasks of them as possible – in an attempt to create a stream of passive income and obtain free time for the more interesting things in life.

Understood as such, lifestyle design is indeed hyper-individualistic. It strikes me as an “American Dream 2.0”, and that’s probably no coincidence. Tim Ferriss & Co. certainly are deeply influenced by this traditional approach to life, preached over decades in the US.
Maybe, this influence isn’t even a bad thing. Community activism has its place in the world, and hopefully it will grow. But as activists rarely see paychecks for their work, taking care of their funding by creating their own businesses probably isn’t a bad idea at all. As Cody McKibben, an Asia-based lifestyle designer writes in the comments of Eric Schiller’s original post: “[A] big part of my motivation for building my business and my influence IS in fact so that I can use it in the future to make an impact in situations where I currently feel powerless, to open people’s eyes to injustice that is built into the “systems”, and to direct people’s actions to make a positive difference in others’ lives. Right now though, yes I am focused on ways to increase my own income—first have to look out for oneself and then look out for others.” While this may not please most people that want a better planet now, it’s just a call for rationality: If we die of hunger, we won’t change anything.

Unfortunately, not every person on earth is interested in social work. Actually, most people are not. The same is true for aspiring lifestyle designers. In a funny misunderstanding of Darwinism, some of them might even be mislead to think they could exist outside of any community at all. But as I don’t hold it for a good idea to force people into social activism, let’s forget about them for the moment.
Concerning everybody else, we may be on to something when asking about how to create solidary forms of living together on this planet in times of the internet. But the answer to this certainly isn’t anymore about lifestyle design as we know it. Following our definition of the term, it would be either about life in general, or about something new altogether: Terms like “Community Design” or, as proposed in the comments to Klint Finley’s post by Uriah Zebadiah, “Culture Building” seem to be more appropriate. If we want to maintain the term, it’s probably useful to expand it a little, in order to differentiate it from the niche that solely focuses on earning money. As for this article, I will go with “Ethical Lifestyle Design“.

Now, the question is what role the muse business side of Lifestyle Design could play, when it comes to integrating it to a life of social responsibility and activism. And here comes the problem: It won’t play any role at all, if we deny the possibility of using it to hack our working-life in order to create free time and a certain amount of passive income. This is something that was at least implied in Klint’s response, when he stated concerning muse businesses, that “most people, no matter how pure their positive thoughts, will never actually succeed in this.” If this is true, we won’t have to worry and complain about the whole lifestyle design phenomenon anymore, as it then would be nothing but a science-fiction concept created by a bunch of marketing pros.

But is it really true? Admittedly, lifestyle design as a way to dramatically reduce our working hours still has to prove itself. Will it help a larger part of the labor force to break free from 9 to 5, maybe not reaching the four-hour work week, but at least a twenty-hour one? Just by posting a bunch of case studies on his blog, Ferriss won’t silence his critics.

On the other hand, it’s not only since the recent financial crisis of 2008 that people start to challenge their relationship with money, and embrace the advantages of freedom from debt and frugality in order to create a lifestyle that personally fulfills them. Though most of them don’t have nor intend to create muse businesses, this phenomenon could become part of a broader wave of (ethical) lifestyle design. But let’s look a little further into my argument first.

My assumptions are the following: While it is still a small minority, there is a growing group among Western people that questions the usual “get into debt quick” scheme as advertised by our parents and credit card companies. Instead, people consciously decide upon their own on the importance of money in their lives. This reality, in combination with recent developments in internet technology, micro-entrepreneurship and the lessons learned from “The Four Hour Work Week” indeed could be a model benefiting a larger group of the populace. I have no proof for this, and I know that lifestyle design – even after the creditable success of Ferriss’ book – is still nothing but a niche of a niche. Thus, the future will have to prove if I am right or wrong with this.

But if we accept these assumptions, an interesting argument could be made concerning ethical lifestyle design and social activism. My point is this: Counterculture and social movements so far have failed on a broader level, because most activists did not have any relationship to money at all. At one point in their lives, they became so broke that they accepted a 9 to 5 job, forgot their ideals, and became part of the system. Geoarbitrage and modern nomadism exist at least since the hippie trail of the 1960s, but the hippies didn’t prevail. They failed because they didn’t have a business plan.

And this is where ethical lifestyle design could make a difference. Nowadays, “anything goes”. We have twenty-somethings making millions as hedge fund managers in airconditioned offices and peers from their classrooms throwing stones at their windows while marching as part of an anti-G8 manifestation. Ethical lifestyle design could provide a third way between extreme capitalist and extreme anti-capitalist forces, funding individuals that engage in social causes around the planet. It could include entrepreneurs, but also people that manage to reduce their cost of living, staying employed but on a part-time basis. Freelancers and hobby jobbers would be welcome, too. The movement probably would not be centralized nor socialized, but of course there would exist avid exchange of thought around the web – just as we see it right now. Every individual could consciously decide about which movement to follow or create one by their own, and every individual could decide about how much money he or she needs to pursue their causes.

While this individualism won’t please many current leftist activists and theorizers, it is probably helpful to accept it in a certain way. This doesn’t have to stop them from working on their own causes! But let’s acknowledge this: While we are here discussing these matters, people around the globe are creating the very movement they want, both on the streets and behind their computers – and we can be a part of it only if we join them. Reality does not wait for theoretical approval. Lifestyle design will only be as good what we make it.

P.S. Eric Normand makes a somewhat similar point concerning the money question in a new post over at Beyond Growth. Please go over and have a look.