“Manifest plainness, Embrace simplicity, Reduce selfishness, Have few desires.” — Lao Tzu
Twenty-five years ago, I started a business—not to save the world or “solve an urgent problem in my community” (as they say in Silicon Valley), but solely to make money.
I told myself I wanted to make X amount of money, buy a beautiful home, live like the rich do, and thus become happy.
I reached the X mark and lived well, but I didn’t attain the satisfaction I sought.
The X target doubled, then tripled. Finally, I was having a hard time keeping up with my expenses. The law of diminishing returns—the benefits I gained were less than the sweat, tears, and blood I put in—kicked in.
I had tripled the income I’d dreamed of, yet instead of feeling happy, I felt saddled with more responsibilities. I kept putting more pressure on myself. And with that came much more stress, which ultimately led to anxiety and despair.
Though I was achieving most of my material goals, true satisfaction remained elusive. I was always striving for more.
Nothing was enough.
I had to face what Buddhists call “the truth of Dukkha”—having an unsatisfactory life.
To make matters even worse, after all the effort I put in to reach my X, I wasn’t enjoying the fruits of my labor. Not the first class traveling, not the five-star hotels, not the expensive cars or the Rolex watches. Instead, I became more disconnected, my energy levels dropped, and I felt increasingly unfulfilled.
I would be on a beautiful holiday with my family, yet I would view them as if separate from me, almost like watching them on a screen. This went on until I got a big cosmic slap from the universe. A double threat to my existence—a family tragedy and my company nearly going bankrupt—woke me up.
Looking back, I think the most significant source of my gloom and disconnection was the fact that I had become trapped in a material way of life. I was complicating my life, adding too much stuff, getting enamored of the wrong people, and always trying to keep up with the Joneses.
I was not in touch with myself. I wasn’t feeling my experiences. Everything was complicated and overwhelming.
All I had to do was simplify my life.
However, that proved more challenging than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t easy to untangle the things, ideas and people that I had accumulated wrongly in my life. Nor was it easy to retrain the way my mind processed stuff for most of my life.
There’s a powerful little story that I read almost eight years ago, to which I return time and time again. The source of the story is debatable; one attribution is to Heinrich BÃ. Regardless of its origin, this story always pushes me to reflect on how satisfied I could be if I lived simply:
“An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.
“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.
“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.
“But,” the American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”
“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then, senor?”
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
“Millions, senor? Then what?”
The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”
The moral of the story is clear for all of us to see. Why complicate our lives when, at the end, we attain true inner peace and happiness by having less—not more?
This story reminds us that true satisfaction will not come from gratuitous external stuff, but rather from an internal feeling of completeness. Whether it’s money, possessions, property, or the goals we set ourselves, we must first simplify to benefit from the richness that life has to offer.
The true spiritual journey is thus an inward one. On such a path, we remove the clutter and noise that surrounds us so as to finally hear the music that rises from our hearts.
As Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”