This post is written for the readers of ribbonfarm, who might get here through my guest post there. I hope you like this model. It is inspired by Venkat’s writings about work, triangles and archetypes, expanding on his graphical ways of intellectual vandalism. If people like these lifestyle economics, I might further develop this model.
Wealth is the central obsession of life, as a means to homeostasis, respect, and self-actualization. The push of needs, and the pull of wants, drive us toward the work that shapes our lifestyle, because desires are satisfied by goods made of capital with labor added. Your lifestyle depends on the types of capital you work with. Over a given period you can work to get more stuff, more leisure, or more mobility, but never all three at the same time. They are fundamentally at odds.
The deep tension between the three types of capital is what makes meaningful work feel painful. When you don’t invest real effort, the balance settles; life flows toward a stable state of mediocrity, defined by the norms of the town you live in, like water fits in a puddle. You may be happy, but you will not be interesting. Those who plan to make a dent in the world must face the pain of adding labor to capital, at the edge of polite society.
- Stuff is the most obvious kind of capital. Real estate, machines, furniture, food, etc. Stuff with high liquidity, such as money or paper assets, is used for exchange and storage of value. Labor is most visible when done to raw stuff, in order to make more valuable stuff. In the past, this type of work absorbed all the energy of most people, but nowadays technology makes stuff cheap.
- Mobility is any change of pace and surroundings. It keeps the heart and mind fresh with excitement and wonder, in flow. Rich experiences require freedom from drag, obligation and routine. It is the opposite of “knowing the place like the back of your hand.” Mobility is capital, because those who have it can go after what they desire quickly, at the right moment, for the right price. The mobile have no single-point-of-failure. They can explore and exploit any environment to the point of diminishing returns, insured against anxiety and boredom.
- Leisure is rest, and to busy people it will never be more than that. But a long stretch of free time allows for the reflection that breeds art, science and philosophy. True leisure is disinterested, revolving around things that are immune to change, viewed from an eternal perspective. There is no transcendent clarity without stillness.
Labor and Lifestyle Design
Hard effort applied to the world gets you two kinds of wealth, while you sacrifice another kind of wealth at the same time. Labor is characterized by its opportunity cost; any interesting lifestyle is defined by a painful lack. That tension is The Lifestyle Triangle.
This Lifestyle Triangle goes beyond standard microeconomics by adding mobility to the traditional conflict between work and leisure. It shows that self-actualization demands a painful sacrifice. You will have to let go of either time or materials.
The shape of a triangle ensures that any change of position within it creates and destroys wealth simultaneously. The whirl of work is the lifestyle within that given time interval. The center is an everyman land, and toward the edges and corners we find the more archetypal lives that are interesting enough to appear as characters in stories.
All hard work moves you closer to the edge, and with total focus you will become possessed by a corner archetype. The purest lifestyles designs fuse two kinds of wealth together at the cost of one huge sacrifice. There are three final destinations in life: Nomadic Minimalists roam around, scouting for a serendipity that allows them to catch a self-actualizing prize. Creating Careerists make deep trades with time and materials, and Jetting Aggrandizers are on the move to the next information hot-spot.
The lives of the Creating Careerists play out in the traditional economic tradeoff between material goods and leisure: they trade labor for increased access to both, while locking themselves down into a network of specialists. Each new resume- or portfolio item shapes their mind more to the task that the market demands, like a tree grows deep roots so it can reach toward the sun. Examples of lifestyles that approach this corner are corporate professionals, virtuoso artists, lawyers, and farmers. Creating Careerists are builders of lasting value. The purest cases succeed at fusing life, work and love into their next achievement.
Any valuable creation demands that they put the nose to the grindstone, swallowing boredom to stay within certain bounds of proven tradition. They put their 10.000 hours in, striving to know the place like the back of their hand. Movies about famous artists, scientists or entrepreneurs portray the achievements, while neglecting the cost of the effort invested.
Nomadic Minimalists explore the tension between mobility and leisure while minimizing total cost of ownership. While most will pursue money and paper assets just like the other types, they avoid the bother of illiquid assets and real estate. As Baltasar Gracian put it, they “stroll through the open spaces of time to the center of opportunity.” Moving from place to place, weaving a web of otherwise unconnected friends, their lives are filled with deep and pleasurable experiences. Their boundary crossing keeps them fresh, but the risk of their unstable flows of capital keep poverty close by, forcing them on rough patches of social- and material discomfort.
Colorful examples are beggar monks, hippies, and the Sinti- and Roma people. The modern version of this lifestyle has recently been explored by the Minimalist movement, led by Leo Babauta of zen habits. It has since decayed into a ridiculous fight over who owned the least number of things. Steps toward this corner lead to ocean sailing, backpacking, geoarbitrage, island hopping and couch surfing.
Fictional examples include Hideous Kinky, in which Kate Winslet’s character bums around in Morocco with two young children. She hopes for enlightenment with the Sufis but finds danger and poverty. In Pulp Fiction, when Jules plans to “roam the earth,” Vincent chastises him for deciding to become a bum.
These types make fortunes by gaming the systems of stuff on a large scale. They live within electric fences and their assistants manage their flights between Aspen, Manhattan and Monaco. While they do not work in a way that is recognizable to a careerist, they are always ready for battle. They never keep still, because where the stuff-side of the triangle approaches the mobility-side, material wealth is most ephemeral. At the point of the Jetting Aggrandizer, mobility and stuff have become pure information, the resource with leverage on the future. It absorbs all the time and attention of the owner. As traffickers of nitroglycerin they cannot relax.
This kind of life is understood well from Richard Connif’s funny observations in Natural History of the Rich, which views them as a dominant subspecies with unique display behaviors and mating rituals. We cannot infer their motives from what they say, because they hide the volatile truth. Conniff discovered “the three big lies” of the subspecies. They pretend that money does not interest them, that power doesn’t matter, and that they are not trying to impress other people.
Rich people casually drop a line like that early in the conversation. We need a fictional Jetting Aggrandizer to get to the essence of their work. In Lord of War, Nicholas Cage’s character is an arms dealer who says in voice over: “The only problem with an honest buck is they’re so hard to make – the margins are too low, too many people are doin’ it.”
Be careful to not look at the wrong things when you put a tag on someone’s corner lifestyle: the pure types are distinguished by the capital they sacrifice, not by their net worth and ethics. Many rich people are Creating Careerists, such as Henry Ford and Bill Gates, and a psychopathic con man is more a Nomadic Minimalist than he is a Jetting Aggrandizer.
The labor that moves you toward the corners of the triangle also moves you away from the good at the opposing side. Your sacrifice becomes a Jungian shadow that must be managed with a minimal effective dose of that good, in order to maintain homeostasis. The careerist’s vacation is far away and crams a year of mobility into “sight-seeing” managed by a “tour guide.” Even the purest minimalist has to maintain reliable access to food, tools, clothing and health care. Aggrandizers tend to get the reflective time of leisure forced on them through nervous breakdowns, “type A”- behavior-heart attacks, and rehab clinics.
Living on the Edge
Stories are nearly always about people that move toward the edge. On the stuff-edge of the triangle live bankers, consultants and entrepreneurs. On the leisure-edge are zen students, writers and stoners, and on the mobility-edge we find expats, post-doc researchers and con artists.
In the industrial age the villains tended to be owners of stuff, as with Robin Hood vs. the sheriff of Nottingham. But the ephemerality of the information age has made villains more mobile. Screenwriters have become aware of that source of power: the villains in the early James Bond movies are captains of industry, while the later ones are information brokers, smugglers and gamblers.
Some stories are specifically about a chemistry between people with opposite corner lifestyles. In Priceless we see how gold diggers work themselves up along the mobility-edge toward the the top of the triangle, attracted to places where former aggrandizers slide back into leisure.
Drama and productivity happen when someone acts to change his or her position within the Lifestyle Triangle. All else is happy busy work and widget-cranking that no one wants to watch.