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The Power of Less

A short catalogue of non-starters:

Aged 23 I wrote a proposal for a book called ‘how to be a real intellectual’ with writer Lloyd Evans. We got to see, and interest, a top agent but for some reason failed to write any more of the book.

Aged 25 I wrote a book about walking the Pyrenees- the friend who read it left off half way through I could tell by the absence of pencil marks from there on. No publisher was sought.

Aged 26 I wrote a kid’s book called Marcus Mayhem and his magic trainers. I had one conversation with a publisher but it was never submitted.

Aged 30 I co-wrote a language book that was commissioned for no upfront money called ‘Sexpertise in Japanese in 7 days’. The publisher read the manuscript and cannned the project.

And finally a starter:

Aged 31 I wrote Angry White Pyjamas about a year doing martial arts: it went on to win two major awards including William Hill sports book of the year, was turned into a movie script by Miramax, and sold over 80,000 copies.

What happened? Less happened.

With all the projects in my 20s I was doing too much too much of the time. I was so distracted by earning my rent, living a great social life, embarking on side projects and business ventures of all kinds, saying yes to everything.

Finally I said no to a few things. I went for less not more.

I learnt to do one thing at a time. I learnt to accept doing less means making sacrifices. You have to kill your little sidelines and diversions. That might be painful. You have to accept that pain to avoid the greater pain of not doing what you want to do.

I moved back to live with my parents while I wrote my book. I told myself if it took ten years and 100 rewrites this book would get published. I wouldn’t drop it after a single toe in the water. And I didn’t do anything else until it did get published (which took about a year of fishing around for a publisher). I did less and got a lot more.

Of course I’d learned a fair bit about writing along the way. But by doing less I opened up a whole new experience of a power that I never knew existed. By doing less I felt I was twisting some focus grip and concentrating my existing skills a 100 fold. The other day I was showing my kids how to use a magnifying glass to light a fire. I’d forgotten how you have to learn how to twist the lens in several planes and back and forth to get that diamond bright spot of pure heat and light. It’s quite a fiddle. By analogy, by doing less gave me the space to get control over that lens, I finally was able to bring that spot into focus, make it diamond bright.

I learnt about doing less by making expeditions. I was always amazed at how comparatively easy it was to succeed at what I set out to do when I went on a long hike carrying all my gear. In everyday life in my 20s my projects failed but my expeditions succeeded. There were so few distractions- get up. walk. make camp. sleep. But without distractions you achieved your goal of making the miles. I was a slow learner but finally I made the connection. Do less. When I approached doing martial arts I applied the same method- cut everything else out, do it full time, during the day, and worry about getting money in my downtime. That way I earned a black belt in a year. 

You might think being a polymath, someone who aims to master many different skills and types of knowledge, requires more not less. Not at all- just do one thing at a time- then change and do another thing. You acquire polymathy sequentially- because that way you can really focus- which you can't by attempting to do it all at once.

I was in a friend’s house today and went into one room which was empty like a hotel room. I felt the power of less immediately- which you forget so easily, surrounded by all your things- I remembered it from all those empty hotel rooms I have stayed in where you feel completely free and how a new beginning can start right there, right out of that small suitcase. With less you feel anything can happen.

More clogs the mind. As soon as you start focussing on less, on cutting away all you do not need, you start to build momentum. As soon as you decide to keep it completely simple, the simplest form it can take, you begin to move forward. It’s as if all the weight of more was stopping you moving.

Two years ago I moved all my ‘important papers’ into another room. I haven’t looked at them since. I have my notebooks of years back. I used to look at them but I don’t anymore. I have shirts I never wear. Indeed, when I go on an ultralight hike I carry no spare clothes at all, only a warm set that can be removed as the weather heats up. This could get ridiculous you might think, and of course it might. But I’m willing to go there. Or at least get a lot closer.

Less is the power of the hermit, the monk, the desert nomad. Amongst Bedouin the one who is most respected is not, as in the settled world, the one with the most tools, the largest kit bag, rather it is the one with the least, who can make do and mend with almost nothing. A third world polymath.

Travelling light is not only easier and more fun, it frees the mind. With less to hang on to you have more to look forward to.

That we need to get used to less is becoming all too apparent. Anything unsustainable will seem, to our children, not only foolish but morally reprehensible. Those silly old buffers who prate about their absolute need for clean water to crap in and endless cheap power and food generated by a system that wastes almost as much as it produces- they will be seen in the same light as the last rulers of ancient Rome.

That the ‘problems of the developed world’ can be solved by doing more of what has already not worked will have to change. We’re running out of money for more, less will be the only option.

But it is in the personal realm that the power of less can really be felt, can really be used right now. It completely inverts the happiness game that most of us get caught up in a lot of the time. “If only I had X I THINK I would be happier.” Instead, with less, you say: “What can I get rid of? Because I KNOW that will make me happier.” Just keep looking for ways to strip your life down. Reduce your wardrobe. Have fewer toys. Less tools. If you don’t use it everyday think of getting rid of it.

By using less, by giving yourself less choice of distraction, you’ll find it easier to see what you should do. That empty room again. If you can, spend time in an empty room, no pencil and notebook even. Spend several hours in your ‘cell’. You’ll be amazed at your productivity, how your thoughts will be sorted and made clear.

Or take a walk. Not walking somewhere, not stopping to drink coffee, but a circular walk of about an hour, thoughts move at walking pace- you’ll do more than three hours of pacing your crowded office stopping every half hour to check your emails.

The email thing. Unless you have an ongoing project check them twice a week- Tuesday and Thursday. Send them from a phone so that you can be excused their necessary brevity.

Facebook. Ditch it.

Carrying a phone- why?

Anyone who has been backpacking knows the power of less. When I started ultralight backpacking I was shocked at how, for so many years, I had carried so much weight I didn’t need. Extra clothes, heavy cooker, pots, double skinned tent- all gone.

I carried so much I didn’t need and exhausted myself. Now I can hardly believe at how much more fun it is to carry a light pack and go further.

The Time thing. Surely ALL of us need more time? What we need is to do one thing at a time, do less, have far fewer distractions, have far more time ‘doing nothing’ (really nothing and not TV and Internet nothing) and then, strangely, what you have to do will take less time. In WW2 they extended factory hours to make more bombs- but they found people made less in 11 hours than in 8- because when you work 11 hours you have to get all your other demands met during work- social mainly- and you work with far less intensity. We need to also accept that if we live a life that revolves around a car, then we will always have too little time.

Less means accepting sacrifice. Might even be a little painful.

I recently read about a multi-millionaire giving away his wealth. Most of it. But he could probably have given away all of it and it wouldn’t matter that much. The contacts, the reputation, the skills he had already developed would probably keep him from needing his millions. In fact it would probably hold him back in the sense of learning new things, since nothing insulates you from experience better than wealth.

The money thing. My old aim was, like so many people, to make as much money as I could as fast as I could. Of course it always takes a little bit longer than you anticipate. And pretty soon half your life has gone by. Then you start thinking about how much you’ll need for a comfy retirement and…stop right there. Less. You need very little. Friends, adventure, challenge- none of this costs that much money. All you need is normal money, not silly money. Success is a process not an end result. Identify processes that you want to continue, be a part of, are meaningful, give something to others- that is success. Not the bestseller, the sold company- I mean these are nice things, lucky things, and maybe the result of identifying a ‘success process’. But they are not success. Ever achieved your wildest dream? I have- to win major literary awards with my first published book. What did it feel like- kind of flat. I dreamt of walking the full length of the Pyrenees mountains- what did it feel like when I did and plunged into the sea at the end- not that great. What does it feel like when you are in the middle of a great process- be it writing, walking the high hills, making something happen, creating something, helping folk- it feels great.

You don’t need the success others crave, you need less. You need to identify a success process that’s all.

The world is what it is because people thought they needed more. It’s time for less.

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