Jay Nunn

Mostly Travel

Jay Nunn

Going Stoic: An Experiment in Contentment

I’ve been listening to The Tim Ferriss Show podcast on my way to and from work, and was inspired by one of his segments on Stoicism and the writings of Seneca, specifically Seneca’s Letter #18, which advocates occasionally setting aside a few days…

…during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

So for one week (5 days of work), I would limit myself to a very basic, very cheap diet. Rice and beans seemed to be a good way to get some basic nutrients for the least amount of money. It came out to a little less than $2/day. No other foods and no beverages other than tap water (no alcohol, no coffee, etc.), and no flavorings or cooking aids other than salt, pepper, and some bay leaves. No internet, TV, or media. No driving other than commuting to work. No computer other than some writing and important work.

Here’s what I hoped to achieve:

  • Recalibrate how I think about luxuries vs necessities in my life
  • Take some of the mystery out of the downside of being broke – to be able to make better career/life decisions with less fear about negative outcomes
  • To understand what it feels like to live with very few means instead of projecting how I think it would feel

Here’s some of what I actually learned:

  • My little 5-day experiment pales in comparison to what millions of people around the world are forced to endure every day. I still had shelter, a place to prepare my food, clean and accessible water, warm clothes, and many other resources that are easy to take for granted.
  • I have to stress this again: I am truly fortunate to have grown up with consistent access to food and shelter, and that I continue to be able to focus on things in my life other than basic survival and comfort.
  • There is not much fun about eating the same thing for every meal, every day…
  • … but, it’s still possible  – and very doable – for me to live off of $10/week
  • Most of the things (both physical possessions and the ways I spend my time) in my life are, at best, completely unnecessary or, at worst, distractions from the things that are truly important to me
  • It’s hard to focus on anything when I’m thinking about food and when I’ll be able to eat next – I was definitely less sharp and more distracted at work
  • I spent a lot of time preparing food for the next day and washing dishes, which is time that I could have spent doing work or working out (but probably would have spent goofing off online)

Some other interesting takeaways:

  • My entire trash for the week consisted of two plastic bags that the beans were packaged in
  • I confirmed that I am a compulsive snacker, drinker, and internet surfer when I’m bored
  • A couple days out of the experiment and I’m quickly falling back into old habits of eating, drinking, spending, and leisure. I need to start making some elements of living simply more permanent in my life.

So one experiment in the bag. I’ll definitely do this – or variations of this – again. I learned that I still have a lot to learn.