Less Is More

The place has not changed since 1950. It was clean and had a spartan feel to it. It was old and dated and yet we were proud of it.  It was to be home for the next six months. It was the training  dorm of The Basic School, the Marine Corps campus for training officers.

We learned quickly that every service of the military had nice facilities. Except the Marine Corps. Money that is allocated in the Marines is meant to supply fighting Marines; everything else is secondary. The Marine Corps is the only government department that returns money every year to the U.S. Treasury and tries to make due with 90% of its allocated budget. The main reason for this approach is to instill the ethos that “less is more.”

From the very moment you become a Marine the attitude is always to look for ways to make due with less. For example, even as a second Lieutenant making less than $20k a year, I had to buy my own uniforms. This cost me close to three thousand dollars. The Marine Corps did not care about the uniforms. It cared about the point: make due with less.

This philosophy has served me well throughout my career. When I worked in sales for a bank I was given a territory that had been abandoned by everyone who worked it before me. The consensus feeling was there was no money to be made with that particular region. As salesman retired, my peers inherited the best accounts while I was given the dregs. So, every two weeks I traveled to far out places all over the world  in search of bank deals. On one particular flight I was stopped by the flight attendant and warned about flying into  my destination city given the dangers. But, as I traveled I made good connections and, within a few short years, I was one of the top performing sales people on the desk. I had succeeded from  an area that “had no money.”

The “less is more” philosophy has also been the creative spark for some of the best businesses in the world.

In the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the author goes to great lengths to explain how Jobs first started building Apple computers. Jobs had no money to pay anyone. So, he would enlist family and friends to help build the computers by hand.  It wasn’t just the assembling of computers. This philosophy of less pervaded everything Jobs and Apple did. One of the reasons Apple computers have no fans is because there was no place into which to put them. Jobs also hated the noise fans made so he contacted an engineer who figured out a way to keep the circuit boards cooler. They discovered that by having the circuits work quicker they could could shut down quicker, thus reducing heat buildup. This philosophy of less enabled Apple to become one of the leading computer companies of all time.

But the “less is more” philosophy is also prevalent in the arts.

The acclaimed film director Robert Rodriguez made his directorial debut with the movie El Mariachi. He filmed it with family and friends on a shoestring budget. Upon completion, Rodriguez made a trailer and pitched it himself to movie studios. The executives were impressed that he was able to make such a good trailer with only $7,000 dollars! Since he was so new to the business, he was afraid to tell them that the whole movie had cost him that amount. Because he had made such a good movie for so little, offers poured in to make more movies and his career was launched.

Marie Kondo, author of The Japanese Art of Decluttering, writes of the benefits of having less. She is paid to go into houses and, literally, throw way stuff.  As she states, “People accumulate so much stuff during their lives that they have little time for anything else.” Her clients are not hoarders but rather have become dysfunctional in their lives due to clutter.

There is an old saying, “Be careful of what you own because in the end it might own you.” I witnessed this first hand when my parents got older and owned a large house in the country. They became like slaves to the place. They had to constantly work to maintain it leaving little time for anything else. Similarly, when I traveled to Europe, I witnessed the same thing. It is not at all uncommon to travel throughout European countries and see large castles and chateaus in states of ruin, all because they were too big. Too big to own and too big to maintain.

Yes, one of life’s paradoxes is that having less can lead to a richer life.

Although millennials have gotten a bad reputation, they appear to have forgone the “bigger is better mantra” preferring rather renting smaller homes as opposed to owning larger ones. In addition, the tiny house movement can also be traced to their wishes to own more affordable and potentially mobile housing. The millennials seems to understand that experiences, friendships, and memories are the basis for a truly blessed life…things our ancestors knew but we have forgotten.

Religions teach the same message. The New Testament warns, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”  Why? Because the material world is very seductive and the more you possess the more you are enslaved to your possessions.  Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism teaches that when you see something you want to purchase, never do it until you have walked away, thought about it, and returned later to make the purchase…if you still feel you need or want it. Otherwise it owns you.

True wealth, and success that matters, can’t be purchased. The Marine Corps has it down. The best of religion has it down, too. Try and take an honest look at your life and its “things” in order to reevaluate whether you are free or enslaved. It the latter, all you have to do is let them go. Now that’s freedom.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com