Wednesday, 22 October 2014
The Deirdre Dialogue
Deirdre, one of my kind and lovely Twitter followers, interviewed me for her website. She must have asked good questions because it became a fairly substantial text. Here it is:
What exactly is Escapology?
It’s the art and science of escape: escape from the undesirable things imposed upon you by modern life. We talk a lot in New Escapologist about escape from work because work seems to be what people are most enthusiastic about escaping, but it’s a more holistic idea than that.
You can escape almost any of the depressing situations the consumer economy might impose on you: work, debt, stress, bureaucracy, an expensive house in the boring suburbs. People tend to think these things are normal and unavoidable simply because they’re commonplace. But to accept these situations instead of choosing to escape them is to ignore your free agency.
One truly good thing about being alive in Europe or North America today instead of in the 19th Century or present-day North Korea, is that we’re actually pretty free to choose how we spend our time. So why does everyone end up working in an office? Uh. It’s a rather sad waste of privilege. If going to work or paying a mortgage isn’t making you happy--and surveys suggest that it probably isn’t--why do it? Escapology is here to remind you that you can walk out whenever you like.
It’s just a thing I made up, by the way. Not a real science. But it’s a useful and fun way to think about the possible value of ‘flight’ over ‘fight’. Fighting is overrated. Nothing wrong with scarpering when it’s the most productive option..
And why would someone want to become an Escapologist?
It’s tremendously empowering. Simply knowing that escape is possible is the beginning of a hugely liberating adventure.
That’s a good question though. I sometimes think that freedom is a bit scary: knowing that you have a thousand options of what to do with your life instead of the obvious one--go to school, get a job, retire, die--can be pretty bewildering. I can see why you might want to avoid that. You can experience a sort of existential stagefright. Perhaps freedom, as the slogan went in Steppenwolf, is “for mad men only”. That’s why, in New Escapologist and in the Escape Everything! book I tend to advocate a more leisurely approach to life: to encourage cottage industry and simple, cost-free pleasures as an alternative to the prevailing culture of busyness because it’s quite gentle and avoids this kind of stagefright or option shock.
How did you make your own escape? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I saved up a modest sum of money, enough to fund some time away from work to regroup. I’d never had a break from school or employment. That’s supposed to mean you’re a successful young go-getter but I just found it depressing and rather unimaginative. A bit of time off seemed like a good idea. The worse case scenario was that I’d just watch movies and read books for six months before going back to work, but there was always a chance inspiration would strike during that time and I’d know how to spend the next phase of life.
It’s amazing what conclusions you can come to when you don’t have to get up at seven in the morning and cram yourself onto a bus with a stomach full of half-digested shreddies. There’s time to think and time to dream and time to figure things out without dimwit managers barking down your ear.
I always wanted to be a writer but had always been advised by perfectly sensible and well-meaning people to keep it as a sideline or as a hobby. But, while idling, I thought “why not? why not give it a go?” I’m still not rich from it, by the way, but it sure beats the alternative. I’d rather be a starving artist that a stressed-out office monkey. It’s not for everyone, but that’s my preference.
Before properly quitting, I created a safety net. I did everything I could while still at work to make myself re-employable should the escape plan fail. I took advantage of training courses that came my way; I developed my skills as best I could by volunteering for unusual tasks and talking to colleagues about their work. I maxed-out my CV as best I could. I called this process a “career gym” because it reminded me of how prisoners sometimes use their time in jail to get buff.
What would I do differently? I occasionally wish I’d done things the Jacob Lund Fisker way. His technique is more mathematically robust than what I did. He made enough money through work and investments to retire forever at 33. I didn’t have the patience for that at 26. I just wanted out. But I can’t help thinking that his way is the most sensible and fail-proof route.
You're someone that has really chosen to take on quite fully the responsibility of creating a life in which you live on your terms and generating an income for yourself. It seems that you've created more freedom for yourself. You write. You perform. You're a publisher. You seem to have a life you enjoy. What do you think is the main thing(s) that prevent other people from taking steps to create a life that is a better fit for themselves?
Fear is the usual reason cited, or, more specifically an anxiety about loss of security.
Cautiousness is sensible, but allowing security to dominate your life and daily actions when you could be out there experiencing a world of freedom and joy is just not a very good decision. Job security is an illusion (they can fire you or go bust whatever your contract looks like) and the idea of being tied to a mortgage or a pension plan for the next forty years or more is the opposite of security. It means you’ve already lost, that you’re already a victim, that you’ve already concented to be food to the Titan of the banks and the corporations. That’s one of the central messages of New Escapologist: that things sold as liberating--mortgages, jobs, cars, vacations--are usually honey traps. If you buy into that stuff, you’re losing. Luckily, there are ways out of the trap and we reveal them in New Escapologist and Escape Everything!
There’s also a sense of Bad Faith or self-deception. You convince yourself that working 9-5 in a boring--perhaps even damaging--industry is acceptable or “the only way” because “everyone does it” and there must be safety in numbers. It feels safe when you’re conforming. But it’s not safe. You’re conforming to a scam. Remember those old experiments? The dot never moves!
Talk about the book that you're working on. How does the book differ to the magazine you publish?
The magazine, New Escapologist, is basically a journal of Escapological affairs. It’s also the backbone of the research process: finding out how people have escaped or are working on escaping.
The book,meanwhile, pulls everything together into a single volume of escape technique. It says “escape is possible”, and “here are some of the ways”.
The first half of the book is a technical description of the trap--a kind of critique of the pitcher plant of modern life--and a description of the things that can be enjoyed or accomplished with a truly free life--a kind of “good life” ethics or manifesto. The second half is about the practical escape routes from work, bureaucracy, consumerism, and the other things we don’t need to be a part of. It’s all there in one volume, printed and bound. You know, unless you buy the eBook version.
How is the writing going? What's the most difficult things about the writing process (and how do you get through this)?
The most difficult part has been designing the structure. This was a surprise as it’s usually the kind of thing I’m good at. Perhaps its because Escapology is something I’ve been working on for a long time and there are any number of approaches I could take to transmitting that information. Whatever the reason, I’ve moved the furniture around three times now. I want to maximise the impact, to reduce the negative or critical stuff and to draw focus on the joyful, liberating stuff. Each time I restructure, it invariably means erasing days of work and writing another 10,000 words. The only way out is to “apply arse to seat” as the great writers say and to get through it. Lucky for me, I enjoy writing. It’s like playing with Lego: clicking different ideas and phrases together in a gorgeous intellectual and aesthetic building-blocks toy.
This will also be the longest book I’ve written so far. It’s not massive, but the finished draft will weigh in at 78,000 words (to be trimmed down to 75,000) and thus be my longest. It’s been interesting to develop the necessary stamina. Most days, I write about 1000 words, but occasionally I manage 3000 and I feel like a weightlifter (for context, Stephen King does 2000). The only way around is to focus on each individual chunk: to get one chapter or sub-chapter drafted at a time. Look after the chapters and the book takes care of itself. Otherwise it’s like agoraphobia and you just get freaked out at the grand scale of where you’ve found yourself.
Oh, another challenge has been getting to sleep at night. After a good day’s writing (or a bad day one) my head is so full of ideas that it can be difficult to rest even if I’m tired. I have to make the decision to either put on a podcast to drown it out in the hopes of falling asleep, or to get out of bed and write everything down to empty my head. I usually only do the latter if I think the ideas are valuable and not just middle-of-the-night fancies, but it can be hard to tell at the time. You wake up in the morning sometimes and see some very odd ideas in the notebook.
I've got to admit that I can be a bit of a planner and I do have todo lists and various things to organise myself. What about you? How do you organise yourself? You're writing a book AND you publish a magazine. How do you go about organising yourself so that you get various things done?
I use todo lists too. I use a little browser application called ToDoist. It’s very simple. It breaks your total workload into projects and those projects into actionable tasks. So one of those projects is the book; another is the latest issue of the magazine; another is my other book (I’m doing another book at the same time -- did I mention that?!) and so on. Tasks are things like “Research Thomas Hobbes” or “Write Ch2.4” For best results, you should schedule a date for each task but I’m a bit of a slob with that. I prefer to just do the task which best suits my mood that day. If I can’t face writing Ch2.4, I’ll read about Hobbes. Or just go to the pub. No point having escaped if you’re going to be a slave to yourself.
What's your relationship to technology and social media? How do you use it so that it's not using you?
I used to be an early adopter of tech. I had a mobile phone in high school, before that was normal. I used to build websites in the mid-to-late ‘90s and I remember being into early social media experiments like Friendster and people saying “what’s the point of that?”.
But these days I’m very skeptical about it all. Social media is a time sink, it makes your friends sound like idiots, it turns your friends into your customers, it leads to only seeing the kind of information you’re predisposed to like. I don’t like the direction in which it has gone.
At the moment I’m using Twitter to promote my book, but I’m not convinced of its efficacy: the best marketing has happened away from social media, on blogs and in magazines.
I keep thinking I’ll leave Facebook and Twitter but I’m not sure I ever will (at least, until other people leave it en-masse and it becomes useless). At the moment, I use it as sparingly as possible and never click on a sponsored link (who would do that?) and I don’t tend to follow many people. Once you’ve got a big, interesting news feed, it’s hard to stay off. I try to keep my social media interactions as minimal as possible, lest it suck me in like it seemingly has everyone else.
The real way to liberate yourself from it is to value what’s off-screen: books, food, the outdoors. Any time spent on Twitter is time away from that.
I tend to think of you as unconventional creative entrepreneur. Do people ever think you're just a lazy bum and freeloader?
Well, there’s no doubt that I’m lazy. But I’m not a freeloader. I pay my rent, my taxes, for my groceries. Freeloading is immoral. A Canadian philosopher called Joseph Heath writes a lot about the morals of freeloading and the prisoner’s dilemma and I’d recommend his books to anyone. As long as you’re paying your own way, you’re no freeloader. And that doesn’t mean you can’t use a socialised healthcare system or public libraries, by the way: you bought into those when you paid tax.
Is the Escapological lifestyle only suitable for creatives?
No. Anybody can choose their own fate. In fact, creatives tend to dismiss very practical escape routes like financial independence through investment, so the economists and business bods among us might fare even better than creatives in the Escapological life.
Where does minimalism fit into all of this? There's so many ways that people go about minimalism, what does it mean to you?
I could talk about minimalism for hours, but I won’t. I’ll save it for the book. And for those people who are unlucky enough to start talking to me in the pub.
Briefly, one of the most important things to strive for as an Escapologist is mobility. Each possession or dependency is a threat to mobility.
Minimalism is a way to escape the excesses of consumerism, debt, the modern phenomenon of having too much to do, too many distractions, too much noise, not enough meaning. It saves money so you can focus your resources on escaping the trap.
There may be some people out there thinking, "What if everyone lived like you do?" What would you say to that?
Actually, the epilogue of the book addresses this very question. It’s a utopian question and an ethical one.
It’s old fashioned perhaps, but “what if everyone did this” is a good way of separating proper acts of liberty within a social system from selfish ones. It’s what separates cottage industrialists from actual industrialists.
A lot of people think the economy would collapse if people slowed down their working schedules and stopped buying so much stuff. But the economy is already in trouble and it didn’t get this way by people being cautious minimalists. The biggest threats to both the economy and the environment are greed and financial mismanagement. And anyway, the economy is a human-made system designed to make life easier: it serves us, we don’t serve it. If we’re running around trying to save it, something has gone fabulously awry.
I have some ideas about how “if everyone did this” Escapology would make the world a better place, which I’ll let people read about in the book. But briefly, the world isn’t helped by your being miserable in some office somewhere.
There's many others who want to escape. They're struggling to escape. But there is a voice that drones on steadily. "Stay where you are… It's safer here… You're just going to fail anyway… " They had big ideas for their lives at one time and then… They just give up at some point. What are 3 practical things that you would suggest for them to get their mojo back AND take action on escaping?
1.Assess your fear. Ask yourself what, precisely, you’re afraid of. What’s the worst case scenario? What would you do to save yourself in the event of your worst case scenario? Once you’ve asked these questions, you can kiss goodbye to your fears. You’ll notice that your worst case scenario (a) is unlikely happen and, (b) wouldn’t be so bad if it did.
2.Remember that you can always come back. If your escape plan fails, you can backpedal. But until you get started, you’ll never know. In the event of failure, at least you’ll have tried. At least you’ll have an adventure story to tell at the watercooler instead of just complaining that your life being boring or unfair.
3.Make a list of everything you hate about your current situation. Meditate upon it and remember that your escape plan will directly result in your saying goodbye to everything on that list. Keep the list and use it to fortify your spirit once you’ve escaped. Never forget why you left.
Robert, I have to ask you about films. Have there been any films that you've found to be an inspiration or that, perhaps inspired you to "escape"?
The Lavender Hill Mob deserves a special mention for dealing with drudgery and liberty with such wit and aplomb. It tells the story of Henry Holland--played by Alec Guinness--a bank employee who acts on his plan to steal a million pounds’ worth of gold doubloons and flee to a life of leisure in Rio. One of the things I love about this film is that we never really think he’s in the moral wrong! The viewer is never lead to ask whether thieving from his employer might be a bad thing: after all, his freedom and dignity were robbed from him in the first place. I wouldn’t advocate theft, but I love how this film isn’t about the moral quandary: it takes for granted that work is a torment and liberty is worthy.
But there are so many films that could serve as escape inspiration. Withnail and I, (“we went on holiday by mistake”), the failed escape scene in Delicatessen, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times for its anti-work ethos, They Live for all of those “OBEY! CONSUME! CONFORM!” posters; the BBC Jeeves and Wooster series for giving dignity to idleness. I never could understand why everyone was trying to get Bertie Wooster to work if he didn’t need to.
Watching Doctor Who and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (both are television series, I know, but they have a film-length serial format) probably inspired a love of freedom and travel and style. Why sit around complaining and paying into a pension when there’s a universe out there to explore, and colourful scarves and cricket whites to wear while you do it?
What about books? Have there been key books or articles that have helped to shape your personal philosophy?
Yes. It was a trio of books which started this whole thing off. In close proximity I read The Secret Life of Houdini, an astonishingly well-researched Houdini biography by Kalush and Sloman; Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson; and How to be Free by Tom Hodgkinson.
The Houdini book convinced me that Houdini’s art wasn’t just a bit of stage conjuring but a metaphor for life: that anything can be escaped if you want it and can apply yourself. Hense Escapology.
Among the Bohemians shows that a life outside of the secure and comfortable and America-lead mainstream is avoidable. Nicholson’s cast of historic characters all embraced Bohemia instead of Bourgeois comforts, flourished to varying degrees of success but even those poets who “failed” or died young through poverty could be said to have truly lived instead of just zombied along with the money crowd.
And Tom’s book, How to be Free, was just “wow”. It not only tells you convincingly assures us that freedom is there for the taking if we want it, but it can be done with just so much joy too. The book communicates such an admirable appetite for life and leisure. It’s one of the best books in the world.
And after you finish the book, what's next for you?
A rest, I think. And then, I hope, another book. Before the opportunity came up to write Escape Everything! I was writing a young adult novel about elderly pirates. You heard it here first, folks. I’d like to go back to that, I think.
- All for now. Please tell your friends about supporting Escape Everything!
Student of Escapology