October 18, 2018
It’s become cliche for unfulfilled professionals to ditch the suits and skyscrapers for a farm. Livin’ off the land holds a lot of appeal to a lot of people. It’s also become a cliche for people to spend a lot of time and money to find out that farming isn’t as fulfilling as they thought it would.
I have a theory that people crave a certain set of things that lead them to homesteading, but homesteading isn’t actually exactly what they want, which explains why so many people fail to find meaning in it.
The things people actually crave are 1) Autonomy, 2) Context, and 3) Mastery. I’ll explain all of these in greater detail.
I think the big thing modern people want that they aren’t getting is autonomy. Autonomy is having control over your own life. There are a lot of reasons we’re struggling with autonomy. You may have spent most of your youth following a script that was written by someone else, from what you studied in college or going to college period, to taking a job that feels unimportant at best in order to “put in the time.” Now you’re working for someone else so you don’t really get to call the shots at work either. Even though the pay is fine, you’ve also managed to accumulate enough debt, through school loans, car loans, credit cards, and a mortgage, that now your career options are limited to things that pay well enough to service all that debt. Unless you can make a big change, you’ll be doing what you’re doing now until you’ve socked away enough to retire, if that day ever comes.
No wonder people seek autonomy. And homesteading seems like it holds the promise of control that people want, after all, who has more autonomy than someone who provides for themselves out of their own land? Except that farming is capital H Hard. It takes a lot of capital, a lot of very specialized knowledge, and it’s at least a full-time job, so if you were hoping on not having to work as much, you’re out of luck.
But perhaps there’s another way to achieve autonomy without betting the farm.
By this, I mean that people want context for their lives. Nobody wants to feel like a cog in a machine. We wish that we lived in a more exciting time, or that we lived an exciting enough life to be an example to everyone on social media. Religion used to provide a ton of context for people. It was easier to endure the daily grind when you were sure that you were doing God’s will. But with religiosity at an all time low, religion doesn’t work for a lot of people the way it used to.
Tradition is also a way that people find context. If your family has worked in an industry for generations, or if your family has lived in a town for generations, or if your people, whoever they are, have a reputation for being highly regard in a certain profession, it’s easier to go with the flow and take your place upholding tradition. As the pace of technological change quickens, almost no one works in the industry that their parents did. A lot of cultural traditions are starting to seem anachronistic at best, or harmfully stereotypical at worst.
Once again, homesteading seems like it holds the solution! Everyone has roots as a farmer. Farming is something that everyone can understand. When you’re responsible for growing your own food, you’re anything but a cog in the machine. No one can say that your work isn’t important. Farming feels simple and pure, almost religious in the quiet respect it inspires. And there is nothing more traditional than farming, but it doesn’t come with all the baggage of a family industry or cultural tendency (unless your family is farmers).
But once again, homesteading doesn’t deliver for everyone. Not everyone is cut out to be a farmer. A lot of people feel more at home in an urban setting. Modern farming also involves a lot of technology, and if you want to avoid technology and go pre-electricity and all natural, you’re generally in for a lot more work. At the end of the day, if you don’t really love farming, it’s going to feel like a job, like any other, and you’ll be back to wishing you were in a different context.
This one is self-explanatory and it goes along with autonomy. People want to feel like they’re good at something. Being accomplished makes us feel in control of our environment.
I think the reason that homesteading is attractive from a mastery perspective is that it’s so physical. When you can hold the literal fruits of your labors in your hands, it’s easy to feel that your action is affecting the world. When you do knowledge work, especially in a large company, it may be hard to distinguish your contribution from everyone else’s and in any case, your contribution is some words on a page or some code in file.
Even where the result of your labor is something like a logo, your success isn’t as visceral as holding delicious food in your hands, or watching your crops grow larger day by day.
Homesteading can fall short here too, though. As I’ve mentioned before, farming is hard. Just because it’s been done forever doesn’t mean that it’s simple. I think the physicality is satisfying, and I can totally see how someone would get much more satisfaction out of growing crops than doing anything at all on the computer, but I don’t. This point isn’t as good of an argument, all I have is my own experience to go on, but the intellectual stimulation that comes from doing something like writing is far more rewarding to me than making something with my hands.
I do enjoy making things with my hands, but if it consumed all of my time, day in and day out, I think I would come to resent it, and I doubt I’m alone in that feeling. That is just a long winded way of saying that not everyone is cut out for farming…
Now, after all that, I have an idea to offer as a solution. That idea is Technological Homesteading. Instead of buying a piece of land and growing your own food, you figure out how to leverage the magic of the internet to be able to earn your living from anywhere.
It sounds a lot like being a digital nomad, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between living like a college kid, going from hostel to hostel with nothing but your laptop and a couple packs of ramen, and organizing your life in a way that you can achieve the things you envisioned for 50 year old you while having all of the autonomy, context, and mastery that comes with homesteading (or our fantastical idea of it). I think technological homesteading is a lot more versatile than traditional homesteading because it doesn’t lock you into a particular career. It only requires that you figure out a way to use the internet to make money.
I was going to say it allows you to do any type of remote knowledge work, but I think it’s more flexible than that. Even if your dream is to make something physical, you just need to live somewhere with space for you to make whatever it is you can make and as long as you can charge enough to cover shipping, you’re golden!
Easier said than done, for sure, but even in this day and age I think people really underestimate the power of the internet to build a tribe and grow a following and share your work and earn a living from anywhere.
We're sharing what we've learned in the course of doing some unconventional things in the hope that we can help others do better and get more out of life.