One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in a little churrascaria holed in away in a downtrodden section of Connecticut’s state capital. Churrascarias are basically Brazilian steakhouses, where meat is grilled until golden brown on long metal skewers laid atop real glowing charcoal. The tradition harkens back to the South American gauchos — cowboys, basically — who would cook meat over open fires while on the range.
“This is incredible,” I said, tucking into a pile of top sirloin, “What’s on it?”
“It’s seasoned in the Brazilian way,” the owner said proudly, “Just sea salt.”
“Wow, and the pork?”
“Same thing,” he said.
He just smiled.
That meal taught me an important lesson: Simplicity can be powerful.
It’s a lesson I constantly need reminding of, for I am something of a chronic over-complicator, and not just in the kitchen.
Back in 2010 I’d stumbled across an article in Backpacker Magazine, claiming to list the 10 Most Dangerous Trails in America. I sent it to a couple of friends, and said I thought it’d be fun to throw some sleeping bags in the back of the car, drive around the country, and hike each one. Six months later a simple road trip had ballooned into an impossibly complicated expedition, in which we planned to travel the country, hike the trails, and raise $100K for charity while filming a documentary in the process. The car was covered with the logos of supporters and sponsors, we had media commitments, publishing deadlines, and had even created an LLC for our enterprise.
Things tend to get complicated when I’m around.
But the older I get, the more I embrace this idea that simplicity is the better path forward. It’s a concept found throughout the pages of Tim Ferriss’ ultimate cookbook The 4-Hour Chef where each recipe is kept purposefully simple. Many have just five ingredients or so.
“You can afford better ingredients if you’re buying fewer of them,” Ferriss says.
This reminds me of a conversation I’d once had with a man named Graham Hill. Graham is the founder of LifeEdited, a company that shows people how to live large, with less.
“In the US, we’ve super-sized our lives over the last fifty or sixty years,” Hill had said, “We’ve got about three times the amount of space per person that we had back then, we’ve also got a twenty-two billion dollar storage industry for all our extra stuff…Despite having more space and more stuff, we’re actually not any happier.”
The fix for all this, according to Hill, was simple: Less — less space, less stuff, less debt, less consumption, less struggle, less worry, less chaos.
In essence, a simpler life is a happier life
“I’m not saying don’t have any stuff,” he said “just have less of it, and try to have great stuff that you really love.”
Hill was not some hippy-dippy treehugger either (although he did literally found treehugger.com). He’s a dot-com millionaire, who filled his life with the trappings of success, then felt exactly that: Trapped. It wasn’t until a stint of extended traveling — living out of just two bags — that he truly began to feel happy and his quest for simplification began.
Today, he lives in a beautiful 420 Square foot apartment in Manhattan (that’s not a typo), and it’s breathtaking. Innovative design, and purposeful simplicity have come together to create a space — complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, bedroom, guest bedroom, and space to throw twelve-person dinner parties — that provides without becoming a burden.
As I’ve traveled — first in the US, then in Europe, always out of a backpack — I’ve found similar refuge in a life of simple things. I have one watch, one pair of shoes, and one jacket. I’ve carried the same two pens for the last four months, and (uncharacteristically) haven’t misplaced either of them. At any given time, I know exactly where everything I own is, and because I have to carry it all, there’s very little temptation to buy more.
Of course, there are things I wish to have more of in my life. Financial stability comes immediately to mind. Love or social connection is an obvious other. There are even material things which I’d like to have. But as I flip through the pages of The 4-Hour Chef its got me pondering how I might simplify my way into them.
It’s more than just a book on food. The 4-Hour Chef is really a book on how to learn anything, disguised as a cookbook, and Ferriss’ philosophy of simplicity is extended to everything from sports to language learning.
“I’ve listed the 100 most common words in written English,” Ferriss writes, “…the first 25 words on my list make up roughly 33% of all printed material in English. The first 100 comprise 50% of all written material. If we were to expand the list to the top 300, they would make up about 65% of all written material in English”
English has more than 150,000 words, closer to a quarter-million if you include variations and colloquialisms. If you were trying to learn English, you could spend a lifetime attempting to memorize each of those words. But if you properly select a mere 100 — hardly twice as many as are in this paragraph alone — you can quickly gain access to about half of all the material currently written in English.
If your goal is to learn to read English, simplicity can get you there faster.
Some people just don’t know that simplicity can be powerful. It’s innocent, really. We live in a world that champions hard work for the sake of working hard. Things that look simple are written off as underdeveloped, or the lazy way out.
Whether it’s ninety-nine problems or eleven herbs and spices, most of us default to doing things the difficult way.
Sure, complexity can impart a certain depth of taste. But in life, as in the kitchen, it often ends up totally overpowering the inherent flavor of whatever it is you’re really trying to experience.