Coach’s Challenge for 2/16/09

Good day, team,

The title of this week’s challenge could be “Grateful for Less.” I’ll tell my story, and then you can decide.

Years ago I lived in Venice, Italy, for a year. I wanted to live in Europe for an extended period of time, in a place where the locals demanded that I speak their language, that had fine wine and excellent cuisine, great art, easy access to water, a place that would require me to live my day-to-day life differently. Venice was perfect.

Soon after I moved there, it became obvious to me that living in a place without automobiles was very different. You have to walk everywhere. Aside from the occasional water taxi, you are completely dependent on your body to get you from place to place. You also have to carry everything on your person. This not only keeps you in great shape, but it slows you down, limits the number of places you can get to within any given day and means that you try to purchase everything in small amounts. None of this going to the store and buying a jumbo box of anything. Because you have to carry it home, small is the perfect size.

I was also living without a washing machine or dryer (the Italians think that clothes dryers are unsanitary), so once a week I had to hand-wash all my clothes and hang them out the bathroom window where my clothesline hung. There is an art to hanging laundry in Venice, and if you live on the third floor of a 14th  century building and you don’t get it right, your unmentionables end up in La Signora’s garden on the first floor. It’s a terrible way to get to know your neighbors, believe me.

Since there were no big supermarkets around and each store had its own specialty—the bread shop, the meat shop, the pasta shop, etc.—it took me awhile to figure out where I was going to get laundry detergent. After I had made many inquiries in broken Italian, my neighbor finally took pity on me and escorted me to the one store in my neighborhood that sold detergent. She warned me, “The detergent boat arrives on Wednesday late afternoon. First thing Thursday morning, you have to be here bright and early to get your box of detergent; otherwise, they’re sold out by noon and you have to wait another week.” Imagine how strange this was for me as an American. We can buy detergent 24 hours a day in any size box with a long list of choices—bleach, no bleach, liquid, powder—at the price point we want.

So early the next Thursday morning, I went down to the detergent shop. A line had already formed. I waited there thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this to buy soap,” and trying not to look impatient (most Italians think that all Americans are impatient). When I finally got into the shop, I saw the wall of detergent boxes. There was only one kind in one size, small by American standards, but good if you have to carry it home. I purchased my box of detergent and triumphantly headed for home. Accomplishing the simplest of things when you live in a foreign country is always a victory.

All year I repeated this ritual and actually began to appreciate the rhythm of the experience. It was like hearing a familiar piece of music, and each Thursday morning when I stood in that line, I felt like I belonged there.

One year later, I was back in Northern California after my year abroad. On my second day home, I was jet-lagged and shocked by how fast everything and everyone moved (especially the automobiles). I had no food and a suitcase full of dirty clothes, so I headed off to the grocery store.

I wandered into the nearest Safeway to make my purchases. Imagine how strange this was: The aisles in the store were wider than the streets I had walked in Venice. The store was the size of an entire Venetian neighborhood square, and the shelves were filled with huge amounts of everything. As I made it to the detergent section in a daze, I began to peruse the soap offerings on the shelves. There were so many kinds of detergent I could not possibly read all the specifics on each box, let alone make a choice. The entire experience began to make me anxious, and I started to cry. Finally, in the midst of all the boxes, I realized what a waste of time it was for me to read detergent boxes to compare ingredients and prices. How depressing and confusing! I quickly grabbed the box closest to me and made my way to the check-out.

As I fumbled in my pocket for a few dollars, the clerk asked me, “Did you find everything you needed?” I mumbled something obscene in Italian and quickly left the store.

What did I learn? That the experience of access does strange things to our psychology. We always tend to want more, but when we’re given too many choices, we get more and more confused and less satisfied with the results. There’s never enough, even when there’s so much that we can’t possibly use it all. The list of things we want to buy, improve, get a good deal on, etc., is never-ending, and so, as we acquire more and more, we become less and less satisfied.

Your challenge this week is to try living with less. Look at your stuff—in your garage, in your closet, in your office, in your refrigerator or kitchen cupboard. How much is there that you never use? And when you go to choose something, is it difficult to do because you have too many choices? Try limiting the amount of stuff you use this week and see what happens. Experiment by going to the store and buying the smallest amount of something and see how long it lasts. Two weeks ago I bought a jumbo bag of pretzels, because they were the best price. I’ve only eaten about a handful, and even though I’ve tried to keep the bag closed (by a special clip from Safeway designed to keep jumbo bags of stuff fresh), they’re now going stale.

The architect Mies van der Rohe pronounced that in buildings “Less is more.” I found out that maxim is also true for life in general. See what you think.

Have a good week!

Kathleen

Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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