What Should We Make of Millionaire Accounts about “Living With Less”?
Last Sunday the New York Times printed “Living With Less. A lot Less” an op-ed by tech-entrepreneur and millionaire, Graham Hill.
After striking it big in the tech industry and amassing several homes and endless gadgets, Hill enters into a relationship and his life “was full of love and adventure and work [he] cared about”. As a result of this relationship, Hill ends up travelling around the world with few possessions, working on his passions, and through these experiences his “relationship with stuff quickly came apart”. Returning home, Hill becomes aware of his connection with material possessions: “somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me.” After making lifestyle changes to simplify his life, he now advocates for a life in which you “have less — and enjoy more.”
While Hill’s story seemed genuine, there has been considerable criticism about his millionaire status. Hamilton Nolan of the blog site Gawker shared his thoughts on Monday in a post titled “It Would Be Great if Millionaires Would Not Lecture Us on ‘Living With Less’“. Hamilton criticizes Hill, asking how selling a company and becoming a millionaire makes him a “lifestyle guru” who can tell people “How to Live.” Hamilton’s critiques Hill’s account as guide in which Hill “instructs you, the common man, on the virtues of ‘Living With Less.'” While Hamilton seems to dislike many aspects of Hill’s story overall he notes that “the problem here is not the message. The problem is the messenger.” Though Hill was writing about his lifestyle changes and why he made them, it seems doubtful that his piece was meant to be instructions or a “life coach” lesson. Clearly, the “common man” does not make a million dollars and Hill recognizes this: “I’m lucky, obviously; not everyone gets a windfall from a tech start-up sale” and he points to some evidence that he may not be “the only one whose life is cluttered with excess belongings.”
However, Richard Kim, blogger for The Nation, critiques Hill on this exact point. Kim cites evidence that American spending on “stuff” has declined in past years. He importantly points out that many Americans are being forced to downsize in our current economy. Because of this, Kim notes that salaries are now being spent on healthcare and education- not stuff. However, Kim also points out how stuff has gotten cheaper due to globalization and labor practices and suggests that “Hill and The New York Times would be better off lecturing Washington about pursuing fair labor practices, tougher regulations and socializing medicine and education.” While I believe Kim is right about the problematic financial issues surrounding education, healthcare, and housing, in terms Hill’s op-ed I think he missed the point. Hill’s account is not obviously anti-consumerist and is not meant to be mediation on the structural issues currently facing America. Hill’s op-ed was merely his story about his relationship with money and stuff and how this relationship changed as he was made aware of his own feelings about his life.
Like I have seen through my research and mentioned before, living simply is different for everyone. A millionaire’s story is not going to be everyone’s story, clearly. Hill’s account of his lifestyle changes, like many of the accounts I have heard through my research, are about personal decisions that were made for various reasons but usually in the hopes of ultimately creating a happier, more meaningful life. Every story is important and every story is different. Some will relate to our lives and others won’t. But sharing stories of how we found contentment, stability, peace, or even ourselves should always be welcome. We might even learn something.