Simple Living in a Complex World: Transitions, Aristotle, and Coming Home

Selling a house can be an emotional undertaking, a journey of self-discovery. It is a bittersweet experience as we downsize to simplify our lives.

Our peaceful home and the soothing nature reserve alongside it has been a haven to me and our family for almost two decades. It’s a place where I connected with my soul on walks in the forest, where I have meditated in the stillness and beauty of the valley, where our family appreciated the beauty of nature.

However, I’m coming to realize that a large part of my motivation to acquire this property was my need to prove myself and it has consumed much of my energy. That my worth has been tied to this place came, in part, from my early upbringing, driven by the voice of my mother who lived through poverty in the depression and who defined herself by her belongings as a result. This drive for status acquired from material possessions became part of my personal identity and has been a weight on my shoulders.

Like all patterns we create, this pattern has both a good side and a destructive one. I still love an aesthetic home that feeds my soul and am proud that we created that space for myself and loved ones. However, I know that the source of the drive to sustain it was not good for my wellbeing. In the words of the Quaker theorist of the simple life, John Woodman, I “necessitated to labour too hard.”

This struggle brings to mind Aristotle’s challenge to an external-oriented life which is as relevant today as it was twenty-three hundred years ago. He identified “external goods” as wealth, property, power, and reputation. These still create the standard vision of success in our modern times. Aristotle contrasted these external goods with elements of character or the “good of the soul”: fortitude, temperance, justice, and wisdom. When we consider what we truly want for ourselves and our children, are we overly concerned about being wealthy and successful? Or is success a means to the higher goal of being a good human being?

This transition to downsizing has inspired me to reconnect with my deepest self. Letting go is agonizing, yet it is leading me to a deeper homecoming to my authenticity.

I am looking forward to living more simply in this complex world, with less pressure and more focus on work that matters to me and the activities in life that I truly value. It’s never too late to start anew. And a huge reminder of this is that my new granddaughter, Juno, has just arrived! I look forward to spending more time with her.

Here are three lessons from my experience that I hope will be useful on your path to a simpler life:

  1. Practice making decisions based on sustainable values, not emotions. Decisions motivated by appearances, impressions, and impulses most often lead to a financial burden that you don’t need to carry.
  2. The good life is not one of consumption or size or external appearance, but of the flourishing of our deepest selves. It’s ultimately about the expression of love, giving of ourselves, and developing strong character.
  3. True belonging and worth ultimately don’t come from a physical place. They come from within.

How to practice walking the talk with your values

I believe values need to be aspirational, not descriptive. The best values inspire you to better actions, not just define your current state. This is true with organizational values as much as it is with personal values.

For example, I have, historically, had a problem with control, anxiety, and patience. When I don’t have control I get anxious. And when I get anxious I get impatient. And when I get impatient I’m prone to taking it out on people around me – in the form of pressure, frustration, and disrespect.

My number one value is contentment, which means being satisfied and at peace with the present moment. However, this value is not a description of myself. It is an aspiration.

After speaking at a conference in Whistler, B.C., I caught a shuttle to the Vancouver airport (about a three hour trip). Traffic wasn’t as bad as expected and we got there early enough that there was time to catch an earlier flight. I found out there were seats available on the earlier flight for a $150 change fee.

I immediately went to frustration. I allowed the guest service person to take away my contentment and peace of mind. Annoyed, and upon reflection, I wondered why I gave my serenity and personal power away to a person I didn’t even know. Then I sat and re-read my values and decided it was more important to be contented than it was to be right.

I used the 90 minutes to relax, make some calls to friends, and reflect on what really matters in my life.
When I walked on the originally booked flight, I was a lot more contented than I was at the guest service desk.

I am practicing walking the talk. And I’m making imperfect progress.

What is your aspirational value?

Don’t seek a promotion if you want a raise.

I see it all the time. People seeking a promotion to get more money. And they do it by making a good impression, pleasing their boss, looking good. But, if your motive to get a promotion is to get a raise you’ll likely make a lousy boss.

We’ve got to stop equating increased compensation with promotions. I’m all for paying people more when they are given increased responsibilities, but don’t seek leadership as a path to increasing your salary. Seek leadership because you want to serve. The best leaders often don’t even seek positions of leadership. They’re called to it.

If you want to make more money, bring more value to your organization. Good individual contributors who bring increased value should be compensated fairly for it. But being a good individual contributor is no guarantee you’ll make a good leader. The two require completely different skill sets.

Assess leadership capacity and motive before promoting someone. Separate one’s ability to be a good individual contributor from being a good leader. And let’s not make promotions the only path to getting a raise as a first step toward getting better leaders.

Don’t seek a promotion if you want a raise. If you want a raise, seek to bring more value to your organization in your current role and negotiate a raise from that perspective.

What would you like from your parents?

“What would you rather receive from your parents: a rich financial inheritance with no character and values, or character and values with no money?” I’ve learned that with character and values you can create wealth and much more.

This week I’ve been sorting through some stuff we’ve accumulated over the past fifty plus years, sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Inside a tattered cardboard box I came across a treasure: a scrapbook that my father compiled from 1939-1949. It contained a summary of the early years of the Rotary Boys’ Town in Calgary. Countless photographs, newspaper articles, and detailed stories filled the pages. The book gave me a taste of the impact the Rotary Club and my father’s leadership had on the youth in Calgary during that decade – and the unimaginable ripples that would circulate outward from these experiences.

Going through the scrapbook reminded me of the inheritance of values and character embedded in me. The joy of choosing service over self-interest. The value of contribution, connection, compassion, and community. The importance of pride in one’s work. The beauty of humanity.

Thank you, Dad. You couldn’t have left me a better inheritance.


Everyone communicates but few connect.

–  John Maxwell

Our newly hired hand arrived early. When I saw an old man riding a rusted bicycle up our gravel road in the pouring rain and into the yard of our family farm, I wondered, “Who is this slightly scary, weird-looking guy, whistling and smiling, dressed in worn-out coveralls, a flannel shirt, a torn jacket, and rubber boots?”

I was a teenager and was expected to work with this newly hired hand—whose name was Norris—for the summer. I didn’t want much to do with him at first. I just hung around for a few days and quietly worked alongside him.

He didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t talkative. He simply went on about his business. At the time, I thought it was a little odd that no matter what the weather was like, or if we were fencing or building something or hauling hay, Norris always showed up on time and was happy. Except for a short lunch break, he never stopped working and never complained. Whether we were fencing, hauling hay, cleaning stalls, building a corral or a barn, or working with the horses, from the moment he arrived until the moment he got back on his rusted-out, single-gear bicycle at the end of the day and peddled off, he was always smiling. Always whistling. Always working. Never grumpy. Always the same steady mood.

We ended up working together for three summers, and in those six shorts months, Norris changed my life. While I could never have articulated it then, here’s some of the things I learned from him:

  1. Relationships are mostly about showing up. Being reliable, being able to be counted on, being calm under pressure, being steady in the storms – all go a long way in building unspoken trust.
  2. Norris, through his safe and steady presence, taught me to bond with horses rather than break them. People have a lot in common with horses. A horse doesn’t progress or perform as you want it to because you demand that they do so or because you threaten them. Horses, like people, will enlarge their capacity only when they have the right conditions and are given the proper care. You don’t have a right to the trust of another. You must earn it.
  3. You can have huge influence on others when you’re comfortable with yourself. You make a difference when you don’t have to pretend or impress or try to make yourself big or others small to prove that you are someone that you aren’t.
  4. Listen more than you talk. In all the time we worked together I can’t tell you one thing about Norris except what I saw. As a self-absorbed teenager, I never took the time to listen like he listened to me. I never asked anything about him. I only knew that he had only a grade seven education and was a bachelor who lived in a dirt shack (my father drove me there once) and was very selective about who he worked for. He liked and respected both my parents.
  5. Bring a firm handshake to everyone you meet. One of the only times I saw Norris’s gruffness was the first time I shook his hand. “You shake a hand like a fish,” he told me. “If you are going to go anywhere in life, learn to shake a hand like you mean it.” I found out that shaking a hand firmly is a confidence builder.
  6. Assess your ignorance. Always be a student. Everyone has something to teach you. Be a learner, not a knower. Humility goes a long way to earning trust. Norris was always curious, a consummate scholar of life.
  7. Pound a nail with your arm, not your hand. While building the new round corral one of those summers, Norris shook his head as he watched me pound in a nail. Quietly he took my hand with the hammer in his hand and taught me how to pound a nail with accuracy and the least amount of effort. “You have to drive a nail with your whole arm,” he told me, “Not your wrist. You’ll wear yourself out doing that.”
  8. Attitude makes a big difference. I once asked Norris how he can be so happy all the time. In his defined Scottish drawl, he responded, “Happiness, young man, is not a destination. Happiness is a method of travel.”

Years after I left home, and after my parents sold the farm, I received a note from one of my former neighbors telling me that Norris had died. The old dirt shack he lived in caught fire and burned to the ground. He passed away in the middle of the night, alone.

I’m sure that Norris had no idea of the impact he’d had on my life, and how that impact created ripples in time that will go on to generations yet unborn.  Not just impact in the here and now, but in the here and forever. People who influence us are like that. They come into our lives at important junctures, sometimes intentionally with a request, and sometimes unexpectedly—like a passerby who stops to help us when we’re stranded in our broken-down vehicle. Most never know the difference they make.

Our world seems to be more and more in flux. Things seem more unsettled and unpredictable. I’m not sure that the use of our devices has really helped us get more connected. I think John Maxwell got it right. Everyone communicates, but few connect.

Are you connecting?

How do you counter entitlement in your culture?

When you see entitlement in the culture where you live or work, there are five steps to counter it:

  1. Model the way. Just as you won’t expel darkness with frustration, you won’t drive out entitlement with annoyance. Instead of complaining, be the light. You attract others by being attractive.
  2. Stick with the winners. Find the allies in your culture who live by the values you are committed to and work together to create the kind of environment you want to work and live in.
  3. Put your attention on personal responsibility. Whatever you focus on will grow. If you focus on being frustrated with entitlement, your frustrations will flourish. If you attend to the values you are committed to live, they will grow.
  4. Stay grateful. The attitude of gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. What you appreciate will appreciate.
  5. Be careful not to make things too easy for those under your care. Comfort breeds entitlement.

If you want to learn more about how giving too much and making it too easy for people breeds entitlement, check out my next webinar, February 23rd at 11 AM MT.