“Looking out at the lake, drinking good tea. That’s his only luxury.
And what an enormous luxury that was.” ― Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake
I arrived just after midnight. The drive to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont is nearly an hour long, and it was raining incessantly. There were few towns along the way, and it felt like the campus was in the middle of nowhere.
We finally arrived at a collection of buildings spread out over many acres. This was going to be my home for the next eight days.
I got out of the cab, lugged my bags through the rain and arrived at the students’ check-in desk. I was then directed to the Fitzpatrick Quarters, where I found my room. I had forgotten how small school dormitory rooms could be. The communal bathroom had three toilets, two washbasins and two showers all housed in a single space smaller than my bathroom at home. I barely slept that night, and the next day I woke to meet other students awkwardly in the corridors and bathroom.
I had been telling myself that I was yearning for the simplicity of a backpacker’s life. But that first night—and the thought of sharing a bathroom with six others—quickly quashed my dreams. Maybe that basic life wasn’t exactly me. It seemed that luxury and creature comforts had become indelibly marked into my being.
And yet the next eight days of living like a 20-year-old student not only proved to be some of the best days I’ve had for a long time, but also made me feel so much more deeply alive.
I’ve spoilt myself and my family for far too long, getting drunk on the luxuries to which I once aspired. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on luxury hotels, first class travel and trendy restaurants. But I doubt that, on my deathbed, I will remember the luxurious hotel suite in Bali or the two-hundred-dollar “black cod” at Zuma in London.
I wasn’t brought up with a silver spoon. I worked hard to earn the money that I’ve spent so lavishly. I’ll be the first to admit that, at the start of my entrepreneurial life, it was these symbols of wealth that motivated me to make money.
However, as I’ve transformed myself from the inside out, my values have changed too. What used to give me joy, no longer does. Instead of luxury and comfort, I would rather seek inner peace, simplicity and authenticity—ironically, the very things that money not only can’t buy, but usually neglects.
I believe that too much luxury somehow creeps up on us, poisoning our soul dollar by dollar, and corrupts our values. As it takes over, we become stale, lifeless and bitter.
Worst of all, this life of pursuing luxury is one of diminishing returns. We are never fully satisfied by any experience.
Suddenly, flying business class isn’t enough; first class is deemed sexier. The double room at a five-star hotel becomes okay, but wouldn’t a suite at the new six-star hotel make us even happier? Or we convince ourselves that having the new Tumi bag is now a necessity.
In my experience, the following are some of the biggest misfortunes we’ll suffer if we pursue the diminishing returns of a life of luxury.
We lose our raison d’être.
We are souls living an earthly experience, not mere flesh having some soulful moments. Sooner or later, we will die, and no material things—cars, homes, clothes—will fit into our coffins. We can bring only our experiences and emotions.
All these comforts and luxuries we strive for are moments, which we enjoy at the start, but which fade very quickly. They lack meaning in the grand scheme of things. We can’t allow ourselves to get attached to them. But sadly, that’s exactly what happens.
The week I spent at the writing college took me back to the nostalgic days of my youth. True, the bed was hard, the pillow was awful, and sharing a bathroom was awkward, but all these supposed hardships paled in comparison to the lightness, freedom and sense of community that I gained from the minimalistic way of life on campus.
We lose our hunger.
People who live the fullest lives are often the happiest. “Full lives” usually include experiencing joy and enduring pain, but most of all they are infused with meaning. The people who enjoy them have an insatiable appetite for living.
However, we quickly lose our hunger as we start enjoying our comforts too much. We no longer want to push our comfort zones, and we become numb. Then, without even knowing it, we find we’ve become trapped in a life where we are not willing to suffer, sacrifice, or face our fears.
We become nothing more than mannequins waiting to die.
Even worse, we transfer this comfortable and indulgent lives to our children. They enjoy the fruits of our hard work, and subsequently become demotivated to embark on their own experiences.
A distant friend has done exactly that with his kids. His son was wearing a Rolex watch at age 16; travelling first class and staying at luxury hotels (inviting his friends) at 18. He is now almost 30 and still lives with his parents and works with his dad, mimicking everything he says or does. He has not established an identity of his own; deep down, he is unhappy, as he has no hunger for life.
We miss out on real-life experiences.
When we live luxuriously enough to employ hired help at home, be they a cook, maid or driver, then we relegate our real-life experiences to others. When we stay in cocooned luxury hotels, we don’t see or feel the soul of the cities we visit.
I’m not against hiring help, but it sometimes becomes too much. I’ve seen with my own two eyes how the nanny becomes the mother of the children, the driver becomes their friend, and the cook runs the kitchen instead of the kitchen being the family’s hub. There is satisfaction and adventure in walking up the mountain and skiing down, rather than taking the ski lift up.
During those magical eight days at the college, I felt like I was stripped naked to the authentic me. The simplicity of removing too many layers of luxury brought my sensory feelings back to life.
I’m not saying I’m going to start living like a student just when I’m entering my fiftieth year, but I do want to be more selective with the comfort and luxury I afford myself. I plan to start by examining everything I do with a simple question:
“Would taking this comfortable action or buying this expensive item add any value to my life (bearing in mind that I’m truly content to read a book, a slight breeze stroking my face, or to sit in nature, typing away on my laptop)?”