Seeking solitude on the financial independence journey

A few weeks ago I finished reading Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris. Having noticed that I have been spending more and more time on my phone, the book was a bit of an epiphany for me and how we, as a society, are more and more dependent on our devices. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect what it means to be human and why it’s important to interact with someone without a device.

If you grew up in the 90’s, I’m sure you have heard this question many times – How many hours did you spend on the internet this week? Ask this question today and people will look at you funny. What do you mean by that? Nowadays we are always connected via our smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, even devices like security cameras, speakers, and TVs.

Step foot on public transportation, it’s not unusual to see that most of the passengers are staring at their phones rather than interacting with each other. Whatever happened to talking to a stranger and starting out small talks? When we dine out at a restaurant, Mrs. T and I have noticed that more and more couples and families are staring at their devices for the entire meal and barely talk to each other. Perhaps they are interacting with each other across the table by texting? Boy, I can’t imagine going out on a date like that. But maybe this is becoming the socially accepted norm?

If you are here reading this blog, you are probably here because of your desire for a better financial life and your desire to become financially independent one day. I don’t know all your reasons for becoming financially independent are, but I do know this – you want to to be financially independent so you can have more time to do things that you enjoy. Perhaps it’s spending more time with your loved ones. Perhaps it’s finding time so you can have solitude. Perhaps it’s having your own thinking time.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to have more time on your hand only to spend all that free time in front of a screen?

Is social networking really social?

When you think about how we have evolved over the last 10 years and how devices like smartphones and tablets have become a significant part of our lives, it’s a little bit sad to think how much of the day to day human social interactions we have missed. Michael Harris certainly noted this in his book…

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety – in particular, those who have a high end for social assurance. The technology becomes a slave, a way to clam our worries about fitting in our belonging. And, with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005; that number blew up to 73 per cent by 2013. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social

He then described this screen social interaction as the machine zone.

For a person who has fallen into the machine zone, a tunnel vision occurs when you actually lose a sense of the body. Physical pain can even disappear. You feel connected to the machine, almost as thought you’re merging with it. And I don’t mean just your hands at the controls, but a merging of your intentions with the intentions of the program. There’s no really a you anymore. The self has fallen away.

A person in the machine zone, then, is alone with the machine and yet not in a solitary state. If it were solitude, there’d be a rich engagement; instead, a person in the machine zone has abandoned engagement entirely. What apps like Candy Crush are best at is demolishing solitude. Put another way, they’re an invasive species, dominating the ground where solitude would otherwise grow.


By connecting with our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computers, we are becoming less and less human. What’s concerning is that we becoming less and less able to think for ourselves, create our own taste, and develop and practice critical life skills.

I have been interacting with many FIRE seekers on Twitter and have become friends with many of them. But are such social interactions really social? Or are we better off just keep it to ourselves and not connecting with other like-minded people?

I don’t know what the right answer is but I believe a good mix of face to face and social media interactions have helped me to stay motivated while on our financial independence journey. These internactions with other like minded people have also helped me to learn new knowledge.


Think for yourself

I can certainly admit that I determine whether I watch a movie or not based on online reviews. If we go out to a new restaurant, Mrs. T and I would typically check the reviews, just in case. Although online reviews seem accurate for the most part, people have their inherent bias which can cause inaccurate online reviews. For example, I have watched a few movies that I thought were fabulous but my opinion did not agree with the online reviews.

What is interesting is that our views can easily be persuaded and influenced by others. This has been proven by countless studies.

In 1951, fifty male students at Harvard University were taken, one by one, into a little room and subjected to what they believed to be a vision test. Each student was joined by six actors who were supposedly taking the test, too. Professor Solomon Asch, a Guggenheim fellow and social psychology pioneer, had prepared these actors, instructing them on how they should answer each question in advance. And so the test began: Here a line on a piece of paper. Here are three lines on this other piece of paper, each line a different length. Now, can you tell us, sir, which of these three lines is the same length as the line you see on the first piece of paper? The answer was incredibly straightforward; there was no visual trickery at play. All participants were able to see which lines were matches. But then Asch’s experiment really began: the actors began making patently false claims; eventually the majority claimed that the answer was clearly line C when anyone with working eyes could tell the answer was line B. A full three-quarters of participants changed their minds at least once in order to conform to the incorrect crowd. Meanwhile, in a control group where the actors gave no wrong answers, less than 1 per cent of participants made a mistake. Subsequent studies back up Asch’s starling findings. Our opinions are so easily bent by the certitude of public pressure.

If it’s that simple to convince a person that a short line is a long line, what chance do I have when the crowd tells me colouring books for adults are now a thing? New arbiters of taste are constantly emerging online, offering comforting ways to brave the content floods, all the while nudging aside more solitary, aesthetic decisions. This line is longer, isn’t it? murmurs the crowd. And we nod our silence assent.

When we allow sites like Rotten Tomatoes to decide which movies, dinners, and songs we consume, we go along with the myth that our decisions are being made by neutral and unbiased guides. Perhaps we think this is a cure for elitism – a flattening of the critical landscape. It’s rational, it’s the crowd, and so it’s undeniably what is best. We find ourselves nudged toward the quantifiable. Our aggregators of taste have allowed for this myth to grow so strong, in fact, that is becomes invisible: a myth of natural, inarguable taste, doled out in star rating and unimpeachable bestseller rankings.
But we forget: taste if never natural. If we aren’t making aesthetic decisions for ourselves, then someone or something else is doing it for us. Bestseller lists have guided readers since the nineteenth century, and mass media has influenced everything from pet food selections to travel destinations, at least since the invention of newspappers. But a new and more pernicious level of taste management now prevails. The world leans across the table, holds a spoon an inche from your closed lips, and gives you a determined smile: You have to taste this.

Can we really believe what we believe based on what others say on these online reviews given that we can easily be persuaded and influenced by others?

I think not.

This brings to an important point – can you really believe in the financial independence retire early (FIRE) movement? Just because many bloggers like myself are writing about FIRE and some have FIRE’d, does that mean this is the best movement available to everyone?

Again, I think not.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the FIRE movement is great and most people should thrive for a better financial future. But don’t go down the rabbit hole just because your best friend is doing it. Determine whether FIRE is right for you or not; determine your top 5 reasons for FIRE; determine what you plan to do when you FIRE.

Think for yourself rather than following the mob.

Losing essential skills

When I was a teenager, my parents, my brother, and I would go on summer road trips. The summer that I got my drivers license, we drove from Vancouver to Alaska then back. Another summer we drove from Vancouver to New Orleans and back. Another trip we flew to Toronto and drove all over eastern Canada and the US. We also did a trip where we drove all over the Maritime provinces and Atlantic US states. These summer road trips usually lasted over a month and I still have fond memories of these trips.

Thanks to these summer road trips, one of the important skills that my brother and I have learned was map reading. I still recall driving around Houston and having to pinpoint where we were on a printed BCAA map the size of a dinner table (the Houston map was HUGE!).

Back then GPS wasn’t available and Google Maps weren’t available. We had to rely on our route finding skills.

When I lived and worked in Europe for 8 months, I would often go to a city without knowing too much about it. And I would purposely explore the city without a map by figuring out a few key tourists attractions and their relative directions in relation to me.

Exploring Barcelona without a map got me off the beaten path and got me pickpocketed by a few teenagers (I ran after them and got my wallet back, a great good story). Exploring Paris without a map got me into a drum dance party. Exploring Vienna without a map got me into an awesome coffee shop.

I wasn’t relying on GPS to find out exactly where I was. I wasn’t following Google Maps to get to my destinations. Because of that, I was able to find unexpected adventures. In Solitude, Michael noted the trend of people relying more and more on GPS and Google Maps for pathfinding.

“Maps have become inhuman… driven by the imperatives of e-commerce rather than a confrontation with physical, terrestrial reality. And so, when Google is the main distributor of maps – as opposed to governments or even a spate of competing companies – our way finding becomes merely an encounter with a vast string of digital shops. It’s not to difficult to imagine a future in which uncooperative stores or restaurants, or even landmarks, are simply deleted from view. The difference, then between your brain’s personalization and Google’s is that the Google experiences really a hybrid of your brain’s choices and a corporation’s.

Another way of understanding this difference is to look at the perspective that maps like Google’s forces us to adopt. In the mapping world, that clean bird’s-eye view that Google uses is called an allocentric (meaning “outside the self”) perspective. The perspective that humans have when they walk down a street is called an egocentric. When a fumbling tourists unfolds a paper map, he is actually using a symbiosis of the two perspectives. He looks up, looks down, looks up, thinking, “Oh crap, I’m lost” or “Ha! Aren’t I clever.” A richer understanding of place evolves from the fusing of the two vantages.

But Google Maps, argues Professor Amy Lobben, has created an entirely new, and far more limited, experience of navigation. “In one sense it does help people to simply press the Easy button,” she says. “But I think that Google Maps is very hindering, too.” You get from one location to another and to do that you press Go. And for the next twenty minutes you are following instructions, head down almost the whole way. I work with map dorks all day and we’ve all seen this, it’s something most people do now. We’ve turned into navigation zombies. Without thinking, you follow what Google Maps tells you to do.”

… It impacts us in two ways, she tells me. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s cold – the user soars up to enjoy an attractive allocentric vision, giving up on the egocentric viewpoint that would expose us to the laughter of that dog walker or the way neighbourhood children invent games on the sidewalk. But the second problem (which is harder to notice) is that, while it makes us feel like navigational gods, Google Maps actually allows our way finding skills to atrophy. “And way finding” says Lobben, “is inherently human. It is so important to everyday existence and is probably key to human evolution. Our ancestors’ ability to get to a food source and back, for example, would have been essential. But then you insert a tool that allows your to way find without thinking and you’re no longer improving that skills.” If successfully navigating a mysterious landscape has always een an inherent part of our survival – if it has, in fact, allowed our ancestors to survive and pass on their genes – then to give up on that skills is to give up on a part of our selves.

When I read this, I became very worried that our wayfinding skills are slowly declining. I worry about how Baby T1.0 and Baby T2.0 will find their way when they are older. Are they going to become headless chickens that staring down at their phones to get from place A to place B and cannot think for themselves at all?

I do not want that to happen. I want my kids to grow up learning the essential life skills that I was exposed when I grew up.

Disconnecting…

Having worked in a high tech company that deals with connectivities for the past 12 years, I am in the thick of things when it comes to connecting people with devices. But after reading Solitude, I am beginning to wonder about the values of constantly connection. Are we going overboard with the constant connection and the constant monitoring?

Once we’re able to monitor every portion of our lives, it can even feel like a kind of laziness, a negligence, to refrain. So we’re compelled from infancy to join this cult of tracking. Gone is the scratchy, audio-only Fisher-Price baby monitor; HD videos stream to the smartphones of watchful parents in the living room. In 2014, devices like Mimo and MonBaby were released, too – smart infant sleepwear that uses Bluetooth to issue reports on breathing, heart rate, and movements. These devices seem to engender increased anxiety about the baby’s well-being while they also abstract the monitoring process. I’ve watched young parents obsess over their baby’s data set while never dreaming of looking into the crib. Naturally, once the more elaborate option is available, the eager young parent is compelled to do all the monitoring they can in the name of care.

children raised in such a nervous climate can have little experience of true solitude, even in sleep. And as they grow up they’ll find that becoming lost or finding oneself in a strange place is a panicky experience…. “We were born connected. Solitude came from maturity.” But in place of solitude’s maturity, we seem to now halt at every unknown and beg our devices to locate both loves ones and ourselves. Wherever we go in the world, or in life, we are known and held in the cradle of some server. Which of the earth’s 197 million square miles do you occupy? This one, right here.

And because of the constant connection, parenting has evolved. Many parents now helicopter over their kids.

When I read the following paragraphs in the book, I was shocked and became extremely sad. I don’t want my kids grow up this way.

I spoke with a bright teenager called Derrick who told me that, for him, communing with nature means first getting a friend to be the “designated texter.” He let that phrase dangle there for a moment.

At last I bit. “What’s a designated texter?” His explanation was heartbreaking: Derrick and his friends are so inundated by messages from anxious parents that, in order to feel properly free when they go exploring, they are forced into a bit of trickery. Half a dozen phones will be left in the care of the “designated texter” (they take turns), and, free at last, the others will wander into the woods, or down to the beach, confident they won’t be hassled for a few hours at least. The texter, left in a basement or bedroom with a movie to watch on a laptop, responds with neutral comments to parents who feel compelled to check in; the texter provides a banal assurance, which is all that’s needed to grant the others some untethered recreation.

Whatever happened to let your kids explore the world themselves? Kids need their space and freedom to explore the world themselves. Without this freedom, they aren’t able to learn valuable life lessons themselves.

I’m a dinosaur

I don’t know about you but I still prefer reading a physical book that I can hold in my hands than an e-book. To me, there’s something meaningful about holding a physical book and being able to touch the pages. It’s also easier to get myself completely immerse in the book in a state of deep concentration without being disturbed by all the phone notifications.

More than half of e-book buyers read their purchases on smartphones, and the number who read books “primarily” on their phones rose from 9 per cent in 201 to 14 per cent in 2015. When we do our book reading on the very devices that we use to connect to our social circles, we come to expect constant commenting and interjection. This is about more than just attention spans. It is perhaps not surprising that a Dartmouth College study released in 2016 found that, even when we focus on a text while using digital platforms, our focus becomes weighted toward the consumption of concrete details and away from the kinds of higher-level interpretation that imbue text with fuller meanings; of three hundred participants, those reading on digital platforms became markedly less able to draw inferences or think abstractly. So even if one could shut off alerts and messaging apps, the social device itself may remain a poor instrument for deep reading. Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientists at Tufts University who specializes in the reading brain, has argued that our smartphones are in fact “antithetical to deep reading.”

By contrast, readers and writers who know how to sit alone in a sustained way, those who now how to do that metic trick of dissolving into another person’s selfhood, are beginning to look like wizards – or dinosaurs.

Now it makes sense why. I prefer reading a physical book because it allows me to get into a state of deep reading!

Seeking solitude on the financial independence journey

The financial independence journey can be very social if you share your knowledge and journey with other like-minded people. But from time to time we all need to seek solitude so we can put ourselves in a state of vulnerable and rethink our approach.

Finish reading Solitude made me think about how much I have changed and made me take a serious look at how much time I am spending on my phone and in front of a screen. I used to lock myself up in my room, listen to music, and lose myself in my own space. Or I would just sit and read for hours and hours without any interaction with others. These were my way of finding my inner peace. Nowadays, I don’t do that as much. I find myself “busy” all the time. I need to spend time with the kids, I need to spend time with Mrs. T, I need to spend time on this blog, I need to spend time to analyze stocks, etc. I am not prioritizing solitude, or alone time.

And sometimes, solitude is much needed, especially when I am having serious personal struggles.

Although I write and talk about finding the right personal balance between saving for the future and spend money to enjoy life today, perhaps I have not found that personal balance on how I use my time.

What is the correct balance? I suppose that will change day to day but I do realize this, after reading Solitude in a span of 3 days – It is OK to seek solitude on the financial independence journey. It is OK to seek solitude. We don’t need to socialize with others every minute of the waking hours.

Disconnect. Look up. Think for yourself. Question authority. Be yourself. Be human.

I’ll end this post with a song by Pilot Speed called Put the Phone Down.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Mr. Tako
    March 18, 2019 at 9:19 am

    This post reminded me of a quote from Blaise Pascal

    “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

    There is definitely some truth to that. Like it or not however, the world is evolving. You can’t turn back the tide just because you don’t like it… but you can exist in your own unique corner of the world.

    For example, you could decide to be one of those parents that doesn’t get their kid a phone. It would meet your needs and views on parenting, but it would probably isolate your child from his peers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you want solitude for your child.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 18, 2019 at 2:08 pm

      Yup the world is evolving and you can’t just ignore the technology evolution. There aren’t too many people in developed countries that do not have a smartphone. And yes, we’d have to figure out an appropriate age when our kids would get a cellphone. I didn’t get one until I went to university. We definitely need to take a balanced approach when it comes to determining cellphone usage for kids. It’s getting harder and harder given more and more communications are done via text and instant messages.

  • Reply
    Abigail @ipickuppennies
    March 18, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Phew, that was quite a post! I think the author has some points for sure, but I do think that things like automated maps still allow for consumption of the outside world because you’re not constantly glancing down at directions or a map. The directions are being read out to you, so you can focus on what’s going on around you, including that funny guy walking his dog.

    Still, I definitely have a lot of screen time, which probably needs to decrease. That said, I do most of my book reading on my iPad because I borrow books from the library. And I return books late when I borrow physical copies so… e-books it is! I don’t think it distracts from my ability to enjoy the text. Then again, I don’t generally get a lot of alerts when I’m trying to read, and I forget the fact that I could get alerts — the few I do get always startle me — so I don’t think that affects my ability to read, synthesize and connect with the material.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 18, 2019 at 3:14 pm

      I think the author has some valid points but as usual, you have to question a few things too. When it comes to maps, if you are constantly glancing down at the directions, then you’re going to miss what’s going on around you. There have been times when I do that when walking around in a new city. But when I’m using Google maps in a more familiar city, I definitely find myself looking up more.

      I bet we’ve all increased our screen time over the last few years. eBooks might work for some people. In my case, I still prefer a regular book. 🙂

  • Reply
    Daniel
    March 18, 2019 at 11:55 am

    That’s why I find the discipline of doing 20 minutes meditation per day forces you out of the mind and into the solitude of the present moment. . if done properly. also lets you appreciate how much we live in our thoughts stories.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 18, 2019 at 3:15 pm

      Taking some breaks from time to time and meditate is a great idea! 🙂

  • Reply
    Aaron Posehn
    March 18, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    I loved this book when I read it last year (and that the author is a fellow Vancouverite). He also has another great book called the End of Absence that is written on a similar topic.

  • Reply
    Mr. Nomad Numbers
    March 19, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    We recently looked back at our first year of slow travel and came to the conclusion that slow travel is about building better connection with people, food, nature, culture or even to history. This seems to fit pretty well with the topic of this book so I decided to add this book to my reading list and read it for myself. Thanks for sharing your review of it Tawcan!

    This book seems to have the potential to make it to our nimble list of “life changing” books: https://www.nomadnumbers.com/books/

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 19, 2019 at 2:32 pm

      Slow travel is something we want to do in the future…like go travel for 12 months. Will check our your list of books and add them on my to read list.

  • Reply
    Joe
    March 20, 2019 at 7:30 am

    I don’t use social media much so I don’t think I have a problem. I worry for my kid, though. The next generation will be surrounded by screens all the time. They won’t have to interact with the real world unless they put in some effort. It’s sad. My son will have to live his own life. I don’t think avoiding smartphones and tablets is the answer. He’ll have to fit in with all the other kids. I’m sure they’ll figure it out. Life is different for every generation.
    I love paper books too. They are a lot easier on my eyes, IMO.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 20, 2019 at 8:19 am

      While I use social media quite a bit I’m not as crazy as some people I know. Like you, I do worry about our kids. From time to time our youngest would grab our phones and start swiping on the lock screen. I don’t think avoiding smartphones and tablets is the answer but rather, finding the right balance.

  • Reply
    GYM
    March 21, 2019 at 11:55 pm

    Oh god, I’m so embarassed since I got my Iphone and it tracks my screen time (on my iphone only). It’s something like 3 hours a day! I don’t know how that’s possible.

    I try to keep our phone away from our kid but it’s very difficult. Do you do any screen time with your kids at all?

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      March 23, 2019 at 10:39 am

      Android P has a way to track your daily usage too. I’m averaging about 1 hr of phone time each day.

      We have very limited screen time with our kids. Let them watch Paw Patrol and Ninjago here and there. Baby T1.0 now wants to draw Ninjago characters by watching Youtube instructions. I’d guess they probably average less than 2 hours of screen time each week.

  • Reply
    Get Rich Brothers
    March 24, 2019 at 10:52 am

    Hey Bob,

    Timely post and an enjoyable read. It is my belief that smartphones and social media, collectively, are having a toxic effect on society at large. I can’t remember the last time I went out with friends and well simply enjoyed one another’s company rather than a good chunk of the time being spent staring into the screens.

    I have made a point of (and it’s not that hard if it aligns with your core values) not taking my phone out, ever, if I am with people. When I am with someone, I want to be with them, and to make the most of that time. This being the exception rather than the rule is a serious societal problem that isn’t going away any time soon.

    I’ll have to give that book by Harris a read.

    Take care,
    Ryan

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