UPDATED 6Jun2019: When people ask me what I do for a living, the conversation usually goes something like this . . . I explain that for 25+ years I’ve supported my wife and five kids with a combination of digital work and hands-on manual labour on a rural island homestead in Canada. I don’t have a boss and I don’t leave the property to earn money unless I want to. My schedule is flexible enough that I can take an afternoon off to go to the beach with my kids sometimes, and if I get tired of doing one kind of work I can always switch to something completely different. I grew up in the city and so far things are working out for us here in the country just fine. I’m very thankful. Click here to watch a video I made back in 2009 about our rural life and a couple of pickup trucks that have been part of the adventure since 1985.
A lot of people like the sounds of this, and some even try a boss-free, independent, rural lifestyle themselves. I’ve been around long enough to see people fail in their dreams of an independent life more often that folks succeed, and it’s helpful to analyze why. One of the biggest factors is what I call “personal RPM”. Think engine speed and revolutions per minute and you’ll know where I’m coming from. Slow RPM starves the dream but too fast RPM burns it out. As usual in life, a balance is what’s needed for success.
Most of the people I’ve seen fail in their attempt to build a boss-free, modern homestead lifestyle fail simply because they move too slowly. Sounds crazy but it’s true. They’re like my 1953 Farmall Super H tractor that you see here. It chugs along at a pleasant and laid-back 1650 RPM at full throttle. That’s fine for a tractor old enough to receive pension checks, but not a good example of personal speed and productivity today. As a teenager my own tendency was towards too slow a personal RPM – too careful and not productivity-minded enough. Working on a farm and later in a commercial woodworking shop taught me what it means to move quickly and productively as a matter of habit. It seemed like an extra exertion to me at the time. Now it’s just normal.
What does slow RPM look like in the world of self-directed living? Too much pointless talk, too much irrelevant thinking and too long mesmerized by entertainment coming from screens are common pitfalls. The inability to maintain a profitable pace without that pace being set by a boss in a formal work situation is usually the root of the problem for most people. Even the walking pace of low RPM people tells the tale. Taking twice as long as it should walking to and from the workshop to the garden to the wood pile day after day adds up. Eventually, low RPM catches up in the form of jobs not getting done, relationship strained and bank balances dipping too low. I can think of three specific cases where marriages and families broke up in ugly ways primarily because fathers and husbands simply weren’t productive enough nor decisive enough. Low RPM is a killer, especially when it happens in the life of the main breadwinner.
Why is it so common to fall into low productivity in the absence of a boss and a formal work structure? I suspect it’s because almost everyone grows up with someone else setting the pace for them. Take school, for instance. It’s an environment where the boss (teacher) tells you what to learn, how to learn it and how fast you’re expected to figure things out before moving on to something else. After formative years of this, most people move into a structured work situation where it’s very rare to be rewarded in full measure for how effectively you make good things happen. People often fail to direct themselves properly because most areas of life don’t demand it. But the way I figure it, if I don’t work productively enough for myself, economic necessity will force me to work productively for someone else, labouring to make their dream happen on their terms. And I’ll take being my own boss any day, whatever it takes.
This is not to say that the higher the personal RPM the better. If you rev too high for too long you’ll burn yourself out, missing too many important details and losing the joy of life. It’s not that super-high personal RPM gets a lot done in the long run, either. Having too many balls in the air usually means you’ll drop some. Revving too high for too long and missed details causes your reputation to fall as you let people down. Burned out health and relationships will put you on the sidelines, too.
Most of the best hands-on people I know spin at a nice, steady 2500 to 3000 RPM, so to speak. They’re still far enough from the red line that they won’t blow a connecting rod or bend a valve, but they always seem to operate with a sane but persistent level of high output urgency. They remind me of a big bore V-twin motorcycle engine on the open road as you drive for hours at speed. The output is high, the engine is hot, but it just keeps on putting out hour after hour. In my own case, my weekly rhythm is simple but steady. I work six days a week (except when I want to sneak off to the beach on a sunny summer afternoon with kids) and I always take Sundays off completely. The work I do here on my Manitoulin Island homestead is almost always something I enjoy, so it takes discipline sometimes to take Sundays off. For me restraint means not revving too high for too long.
Self-directed hard work and initiative in a free market situation has done more than anything else to allow millions of people to pull themselves out of poverty and into comfort and security world wide. Despite media implications to the contrary, poverty is plummeting in formerly-poor countries where people are free to pursue their own work and have the chance to rev up personal RPM to optimum levels. But the world isn’t sentimental either. It doesn’t care how nice you are or how passionate you feel about your work or dreams for independent living. The bottom line is efficiently doing enough of the kind of work that matters, and doing it at the right pace. And from what I’ve seen, the “enough” part has a lot to do with consistently hitting the right personal RPM.