Sunday, March 10, 2013


Graham Hill, the author of the lead article in the Sunday Review section of today's New York Times, thinks you have too much stuff. He thinks you have too much stuff because he used to have too much stuff:
I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late '90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff -- electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn't.
Actually, his relationship with material things is very unusual. As a result of that Internet windfall he obtained in 1998, when he was in his twenties, he was able to acquire a lot more material things than most people ever will:
To celebrate, I bought a four-story, 3,600-square-foot, turn-of-the-century house in Seattle's happening Capitol Hill neighborhood and, in a frenzy of consumption, bought a brand-new sectional couch (my first ever), a pair of $300 sunglasses, a ton of gadgets, like an MobilePlayer (one of the first portable digital music players) and an audiophile-worthy five-disc CD player. And, of course, a black turbocharged Volvo. With a remote starter!
He hired a personal shopper with the absurd name of Seven, who helped turn his life into a Bret Easton Ellis novel by buying him a bunch of gadgets. And then he developed a rash of First World problems:
My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.
Since then, he's dialed his life down -- in terms of stuff, if not in terms of career. "A compulsive entrepreneur," he still dreams up tech start-ups for a living -- and continues to be successful. He's lived in Barcelona, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Toronto, "with many stops in between."

And now he's pared his wonderful, soft life down. And so should you -- even though he has no idea how you live, no experience of what it's like not to get to travel the world on a windfall obtained at a young age, no idea what it's like to have to go into an office every day and work at a dead-end job you hate. Maybe a lot of people in America have too much stuff because they feel stuff compensates for the tedium and anxiety of lives that haven't worked out as peachily as Graham Hill's. So maybe he should cut them a break.


The lead item in today's Times book section is a review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. I'm not going to get into the pre-publication controversy surrounding this book -- the backlash against what Sandberg has been writing and doing, and then the backlash against the backlash. I see from the Times review and other notices that Sandberg -- like Graham Hill -- knows she's been fortunate in life. She counsels a level of drive and forcefulness that she's developed in her own life, but she acknowledges that government and society (men in particular) need to change in ways that will empower more women.

Which is good. And yet this is what it took for feminism to get to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, after all these years? It had to come attached to a TED/Aspen/Davos life story?
Sandberg has been the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008. At 43, she has already had a storied career: research assistant to Lawrence Summers at the World Bank; management consultant at McKinsey; chief of staff to Summers at the Treasury Department; and six and a half years at Google, where she rose to the post of vice president of global online sales and operations....

Sandberg's career as a feminist champion began with her 2010 TED talk, in which she first laid out her lean-in message. She followed up with a commencement address to the Barnard class of 2011. Both went viral.... She ... shares Eric Schmidt's advice to her when she was considering a job offer at Google, which was a less attractive option than others she had at the time: "Only one criterion mattered when picking a job -- fast growth."
Both this and the Graham Hill piece address a world in which ordinary people in ordinary jobs -- jobs for which "fast growth" is not even a remote consideration -- barely exist.

The notion that society could be organized in such a way that ordinary people's lives could have more dignity and worth isn't addressed. Get rich first, or at least get on the fast track -- then your life matters.


Ten Bears said...

My son and I share eight hundred sq ft with three rescued pit bulls, two little mexican mixes, a bizarre blend of technology and well over a thousand books. With four generations of flotsam and seven history. Not to mention the illuminating stuff. Have enjoyed successes, though not of young Mr Hill's good fortune, and courtesy the US Army have traveled the world, visited exotic places and met interesting people before, ahhh... and I too find, even after forty years, past behaviors reprehensible. Yeah Steve, It ain't me.

But then again it has been my experience that you have to lose everything to gain appreciation for anything. Young Mr Hill should go sit down somewhere and shut up, be seen and not heard

Donna said...

Rich, wildly successful folk lecturing about needing less, living a more pure life, doing your art, music, writing fror free have never had to sweat paying the rent, being locked into a gig because you can't do without health insurance even for 6 months, --- there's always been a safety net and no dire consequences.

Amanda Palmer belongs in this group. Solidly.

Matt said...

It's time for an HBO series based on The Prince and the Pauper, where these Ubermenschen get to work in a call center for a year or two.

Cirze said...

No one's life matters to them except theirs.

And they seem to have no clue how empty theirs seems to others when hearing their "heartfelt" plaintive cries.

Victor said...

I'm waiting for the Ron Popeil, "Ronco Home Guillotine Set," with adjustable blades.

From 12 inches, for scrawny-necked internet-rich geeks, to 25 inches, for the Wall Street fat-cat model.

"It slices!
It dices!!
And, after you tire of slicing and dicing old and stale vegetables, you can hack at some Millionaire's or Billionaire's necks.
Look at how it goes through this Wall Street Banker's spine, like a hot knife through butter.
Remember, order today, and get 6 FREE PIKES!!!
Mount your disembodied heads on your Ronco FREE PIKES!!!

Dial 1-800-FU-DRICH!"

Unknown said...

I am a Socialist and I love my stuff. Just sayin' :)

trnc said...

So Hill's personal shopper was George Costanza's kid?

Auntie Social said...

I really, really want to order my Ronco Home Guillotine set, with the extra, deluxe Popeil Pail to catch the severed heads.