You know that old saying, “marching to the beat of your own drummer?” I only recently learned that the phrase originated with Henry David Thoreau. In Walden, Thoreau
writes, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This is a timeless observation from a book that has become more essential with each passing year.
A few weeks ago at the People’s Climate March in DC I had an experience that gave rise to a similar metaphor. As one might expect at a large gathering of environmentally minded folks, there was quite an array of passionate, colorful characters in attendance. At one point we started to hear, above the cacophony of chants and jeers, bagpipes! Sure enough, as we rounded the bend to the White House, a man was standing atop a set of stairs piping out Scottish tunes. Next to him was a woman dancing so intensely it was as though she was entranced… or maybe auditioning for the next Sia video. She was completely absorbed in her movements. I’d like to think that if Thoreau had come across her he might have made “dancing to the drone of one’s own bagpiper” part of our vernacular.
Anyways, I’ve been binge-reading lately – specifically devouring books about our cultural relationship with money. It all started with “The Man Who Quit Money”. It’s the true story of a man who, as you might guess… quit money. To say the book’s protagonist, Daniel, “dances to the drone of his own bagpiper” is an understatement.
What’s interesting about the book is not just the gimmick, though learning exactly how one manages to live without money is pretty interesting (spoiler alert: dumpster diving). What was really eye-opening to me, though, is Daniel’s philosophical reasons for choosing to live the way he does. He thinks about our monetary system in a way that’s so different from what we’re taught. He points out that it’s become essentially illegal to operate outside the monetary system and takes issue with the very premise of exchanging pieces of paper and swipes of plastic for goods and services, or even bartering for what he needs.
You might assume Daniel’s life is miserable and solitary, but the book paints a very different picture. He has many friends at different stages in life, enjoys living outdoors in the beautiful southwest desert, donates his time and skills volunteering, and finds he has more than enough of the material possessions he needs without feeling burdened or insecure. Honestly, how many people with ample money can say the same?
I’m not about to denounce the financial system and take to living in a cave eating discarded tofu of questionable origin. And there’s much to be debated about Daniel’s chosen lifestyle and whether he’s truly operating “outside” the system or just benefitting from the fray. Nevertheless, Daniel’s story got me thinking and turned me onto a whole slew of books and blog posts by other people dancing to the drone of their own bagpiper – financially speaking. Some are pursuing extreme early retirement. Others are seeking another form of financial independence. My favorites are questioning the prevailing “wisdom” of how much money and stuff one needs to be fulfilled.
A Quick Note: I want to acknowledge that only people in positions of privilege can make some of the observations and choices that follow. There are many people in our own communities struggling to get by, whether due to unemployment or underemployment, systemic injustice which keeps marginalized people from having opportunities for advancement, medical emergencies that can bankrupt families, crushing student loan debt… the list goes on. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have an affordable roof over our head and some money in the bank, though, we have choices to consider.
Our modus operandi in the US and much of the developed world is to see money as the currency of our lives… the metric by which we measure our life’s worth and meaning. The benchmarks we use to compare our success and self worth are the size of our salary, the value of our house, the make of our cars, the labels on our clothes, and the quality of school we can afford for our children (be it by tuition to a private school, or the cost of living to inhabit a good public school system).
We all want to live comfortably and feel we are of value. But it seems accumulating stuff has become our default, and the fact that 38% of US households have revolving credit card debt with the amount owed per individual averaging more than $16,000 (yikes!) is
terrifying to ponder. It’s unfortunate that most of us aren’t encouraged to explore what it would be like if we chose a different currency – other than money and stuff – to collect and use to measure our life’s value.
If you didn’t have the Rent soundtrack stuck in your head already, I’m sorry to do this, but… “525,600 minutes, how do you measure, measure a year? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife…”
There are so many more ways than money to measure our lives. Money – and what we spend it on – may be the default that advertisers everywhere are desperate to keep us fixated on, but it needn’t be this way.
So what might embracing a different life currency look like?
- Daniel (aka. the man who quit money) seems to thrive on the currency of freedom and autonomy. Despite what many of us may think, money was not the means to finding freedom and autonomy for him, but actually a hindrance.
- Many people I know have chosen to make personal and professional fulfillment the currency of their lives. They may choose to continue serving in a job such as teaching that isn’t high paying but gives them personal satisfaction and meaningful challenges.
- Depth of experience is one currency I’m focused on right now. I try to have both the time and attention to be fully present with the people around me and bring new experiences into my life. I do have a money-based goal to pay off our mortgage early, but the purpose of that goal is to have the flexibility to experience more and more as I age. My dream is to have financial security enough so I can care for loved ones if needed, take time to travel, and pursue personal interests without the pressure of any debt on my shoulders.
- Knowledge and understanding – be it scientific, spiritual, or otherwise – is another currency one could choose to make their focus. On a related note, it’s surprising to me that taking a sabbatical, a common practice in academia that benefits both teachers and the institutions they belong to, has not been more widely co-opted in other industries.
Most people would consider the idea of “giving up money” to be utterly crazy, and I agree. But equally crazy is the practice of making money the main resource we seek and primary driver of our life decisions. Doing so usually means working long days for most – if not all – of one’s limited lifespan. It means becoming more and more dependent on one’s job to finance more and more desires instead of realizing the freedom that humble living and financial security can bring. It means more time shopping and accumulating and, often, taking on debt to do so. It’s participating in a consumer system that continually reaffirms for us that we are not enough as we currently are. That’s utter craziness, even if it’s socially acceptable.
What is the currency of your life? What precious resource are you working to acquire and how can you bring more of it into your daily experience? What might you need to give up to attain it?
The easy answer is trading more of our time for money. With enough money, all other desires should be attainable, right? But if you’re willing to listen to your own bagpiper, you might find some other answers start coming to the surface. How might your life look different if you committed to measuring your success and progress by the amount of freedom you have/fulfillment you attain/depth of experience you are able to live/things you learn? How rich might you feel then? Are you brave enough to start dancing, even if no one else hears the pipes?