According to many, the early hermits were the desert fathers, and are therefore associated with Christianity. But there is a deeper and more widespread spiritual affinity for becoming (not necessarily permanently) detached from society – a walkabout is a contested example from Aboriginal culture, and I assume there’s similar for Native Americans.
I use this page as a think space for a secular hermit manifesto, and I define a secular hermit in the following way:
- Hermit: thirst for solitude
- Secular: not supernatural
(1) Intellectual foundations
My secular hermit philosophy is based on three separate movements: (i) scholasticism; (ii) introversion; (iii) Paleo.
Many religious practices had hidden (i.e. evolutionary) meaning, for example Kosher laws and fasting were effective ways to reduce infection. Using them as religious rituals ensures their widespread coordinated adherence, and therefore made them more likely to work. Having said this, there’s obviously lots of religious superstition that is high cost and serves little benefit. Hence we should be open minded about why traditions emerge, utilise the ones where we can understand the value, and drop those that conflict with our scientific explanations.
I believe the link between monasticism and academia is pretty clear. Both involve the study of sacred texts, a detached physical space to think, and ascetic practices (such as silence and in many cases the abstention of physical intimacy). I found it very moving that almost immediately after publishing this article, I learnt that Edward Hugh had passed away,
The economist, born in Liverpool to a Welsh family, never hid the fact that he had wanted to live in a monastery, and this small Empordà hamlet of 60 inhabitants came rather close to this idea of having a place to reflect, read, and write. Satellite television and the internet allowed him to remain connected to the world, while Escaules gave him the peace he needed to work.
My “Thoughts on Administration” makes a conscious effort to integrate monastic practices with programme management. I am a fan of management but working with a team should be seen as a conscious opportunity to develop other people. If you don’t want to coach, then don’t take on such responsibility. Also, I try to be an institution builder, not an organisation builder. This makes it easier to respond to sunk costs, and although your output will be less visible you can actually have a deeper impact.
“Rest for a scientist, Vavilov said, should be regarded as another way of furthering creative work” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber, p.137
Quiet (Susan Cain, Penguin 2012) is an excellent survey of introversion. Introverts often feel pressured into conforming with a society that seems built on extrovert principles. The book helped me to understand my own introversion and gain strategies to deal with it. It also gave me confidence to shape my social interactions around my preferences, and to communicate better with friends. (I also strongly recommend Create your own Economy (Tyler Cowen, Dutton 2009) which ventures more into the autism debate but makes a compassionate argument for why OCD tendencies should be better understood and the value they serve). See “Caring for your introvert“.
As Tim Harford says in Chapter 3 of Messy, “People flourish when they control their own space”. It’s all about autonomy. The chapter is called “Workplaces”.
How to be healthy? How about:
- Get vaccinations
- Don’t smoke
- Don’t drive while drunk, distracted, or tired.
Finally, there’s many points of tangency between being a secular hermit and the increasingly popular Paleo philosophy. For a general overview I recommend John Durant’s book, The Paleo Manifesto. I don’t follow a Paleo lifestyle strictly but I do make marginal changes in that direction. Here’s what works well for me:
It’s easy to use weather as an excuse not to get outside, so I like the phrase: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. In England this is mitigated by the fact that so much bad weather is rain, and rain does curtail a lot of outdoor activities. And we need to avoid the temptation to blame our clothes. Hence my mantra is: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.
Durant (p.231) suggests that for short periods of time in the sun suncream is unnecessary. Indeed applying it can be dangerous because it will prevent the warning signs that damage is occurring without actually stopping it (i.e. it’s better to feel burnt and get out of the sun than to feel bronzed and stay in it). For sunbathing use a broad spectrum cream that blocks UVa and UVb.
I’d love a standing desk but I need depth when I’m working and elevating it would be ludicrous. If only there were a standing desk that folds down…
An addendum to the “exercise” plan is a sleep plan. I try to nap and also have a sleep plan based on this cartoon:
I am a big fan of the Gro clock and it’s amazing how many years it’s taken to suspect that an adult version might be useful as well. I do appreciate a key difference in that the former intends to make morning a binary issue, whilst the latter does the opposite. But still, it’s about the light – make sure that nightlights are yellow (i.e. sunset) and only use blue tones for morning.
I also have an evening alarm clock – my watch beeps at 9:30pm which is a signal to avoid electronic devices, stop consuming food, and consciously start winding down.
I intend to do a monthly 20 hour fast using the following schedule:
And as best as possible, declutter.
(2) Advice for social interaction
Here are some steps on how to become more of a secular hermit:
- Don’t be afraid to ghost
- Avoid phone calls
- A phone is fine for interacting with complete strangers (I quite enjoy battling with customer services and sabotaging nuisance calls), and I enjoy phoning my parents and siblings. However, generally speaking, the telephone is a horrible way to communicate. You miss out on social clues and have to think quickly (see Cowen 2009, p.72). It’s also very hard to say “leave that with me and i’ll think about it”, and so a business call in particular can generate tension (I’d love to see experimental evidence on negotiations conducted via phone vs. face to face). Over the phone I am concentrating on not committing to something I don’t want to do, and therefore I find it very difficult to establish where mutual gains are.
- In addition, you are left without a record of what has been said. If like me you follow up a business call by taking notes and sending agreed to do lists over email, the call is a waste of time.
- Having said this, if you are frustrated that emails aren’t being responded to, have an urgent query, or are hitting a stalemate, picking up a phone is usually the mature and sensible thing to do. But if face to face and email contact are options, I struggle to see the purpose of a telephone call.
- Social media: Facebook started out as a way to track down acquaintances (the first rival that it killed was Friends Reunited, after all) but is now like calling home (it really is about “updating” friends and family). Twitter is the type of side-to-side conversation that occurs if you’re in the pub (Cowen 2009, p.78). You just shout a few things, a couple of people might respond, and a few more will listen to it. Message boards are like a pub when you’re drunk. They are perfect for in jokes/banter but also confrontation and love ins (depending on whether you’re an angry drunk or happy drunk). I use all three regularly.
- I don’t believe in the cloud (“not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral: hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place”, (Gleick 2011, p.395)) – instead I opt for a well-ordered vault.
- My backup strategy is threefold: (1) a constant USB link to a hard drive; (2) a wireless link to a WD My Cloud. These two steps protect me from me two biggest concerns (that I accidentally delete a file and need to recover it, or that my computer gets stolen). Since I don’t feel fully protected against the risk of a natural disaster (i.e. if my study floods or burns down my wireless back up would be affected), I (3) copy an annual backup onto a portable drive and store it in my office. This seems a more reasonable strategy than using a fireproof safe. All three are WD products and they integrate seamlessly with a Mac. They are much better than Apple’s own products.
- This quote from Arcadia terrifies me:
“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”
- I keep all of my photos within Photos for Mac, categorised into albums and folders for each year. I don’t believe in a “Photostream” and shake at the thought of having a single image outside of my purview. My computer is well ordered and I spend a lot of time filing electronic and physical documents. I’m fighting against a tide when it comes to photos, but I have a system that I like:
- A selection of photos from some albums are posted onto Flickr and shared with friends and family (and all of my photos on Flickr must be in an album).
- An even smaller selection of photos are shared on Facebook. I make use of the albums in Facebook, but I “keep” them in Photos
Thus I don’t shed as I pick up, at all. I don’t have a stream in the cloud, I have a well-ordered reservoir in a vault. For me it is: archive and share.
(3) Travel & epistemic architecture
The advantage of travel is that when you move between time zones, you lose touch with each. Consider this account of the Trans-Siberian railway:
“In the great, monotonous spaces, the measures of time are lost; they cease to have any force, cease to have any meaning. The hours become formless, shapeless, elastic like the clocks in the paintings of Salvador Dali. Moreover, the train passes through various time zones, and one should be constantly adjusting the hands of one’s watch, but what for, what is there to gain by this?” Kapuscinski, R., Imperium, (Granta, 1994) p.32
Or Rachel Polonsky,
Russian literature is full of trains, because (like prostitutes, who also populate the literature) they bring together places, social worlds and life stories that would otherwise never touch. Trains are vehicles of plot and destiny, adventure and tragedy, surprising thoughts and conversations, uniting the squalid and the sublime, iron and plush, making intimacy possible across the great reach of space” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber
My idea of heaven is sitting down with a couple of cans of lager and a good book right here:
“Something about train travel – the rocking motion and the passing scenery, there for you to admire or ignore – lends itself to creative breakthroughs” Weiner, 2016, p.175
In 2018 I took the Caledonian sleeper before the new stock came online, and loved it. See ‘An Ode to the Night Train‘.
The key ingredients for travel are the mode of transport and the hotel room (see My Guide to Travel). Whilst train journeys are my preferred mode, they are usually prohibitively costly. So my staple is to pass through airport and hotel. These spaces are much maligned, but I love them.
All the time, and especially at home, we all have a mental “to do” list. Even if not tempted to do anything on this to do list, we must still spend mental energy deciding not to do it. One way to escape this pressure is to find a neutral territory where there isn’t much that we can do. Airports, the plane itself, and hotels perform this function admirably. The decor is uniform and predictable and you could be anywhere. But that is the point. That is their beauty. Their neutrality is sophisticated because it wipes clean your mental fatigue and allows you to concentrate and focus on the book that you’re reading, or the thought process you have. It is very hard to replicate this at home, when the burden of “other things to do” is so strong. And it’s almost impossible to replicate it at the office, when interruptions are expected (and note that interruptions per se aren’t productivity killers, it’s the anticipated threat of an interruption). I’ve always recognised that I am at my most productive late at night (typically 10pm – 3am) or when there’s few students or staff on campus (i.e. after classes or during holidays). I’d previously attributed this to being a night owl, but now realise that these are times when the potential for interruption are lowest. Once you enter the airport/airplane/hotel realm the potential for interruption falls dramatically.
These days the constant connectivity of social media and email means that a chief source of potential interruption is your phone. So recognise that flight safe mode works on the ground as well. I routinely turn it on if I know there’s little chance of a genuine emergency (e.g. if I’m at home with my wife). If I need to keep a possible communication line open I’ll use “Do Not Disturb” (and ensure that close family would still come through). If not at the match, my preferred method of watching Everton games is to turn flight safe mode on at 3pm and then wait until the 10pm extended highlights without knowing the score. Routinely disconnecting every Saturday is a nice way to find focus on other things (such as writing, or spending time with family).
On average I make a foreign work trip once a month and this isn’t enough to be productive. So I supplement the airplane/hotel room dyad with train/coffee shop. When booked in advance off peak train journeys are cheap and quiet so every month I try to take a 1 hr + journey with a book. There’s a very good independent coffee shop near where I live but my go to place is Starbucks. Starbucks is brilliant – loads of chairs, good coffee (and flat white pioneers), subtle design, not chaotic, great app and loyalty programme. I love it.
“For me, cafes are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” The food and drink are irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere – not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intelligible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.” (Weiner, 2016, p.16)
Ultimately, though my travel dream is to spend time on a container ship. I first had the idea when I saw Michael Palin “repeat a day” on Around the World in 80 Days, and it combines two of my passions in life – global trade and detachment. There’s a fascinating photo-journal called “Live and Work on a Container Ship” (via Things Organized Neatly):
For almost five months now, I have been living and working as a deckhand on a 906 foot container ship making 57 day runs from New York to Singapore, while hitting many ports in between. We are importing/exporting goods from the Middle East, Asia, and America. As I am writing this we are making our way through the Gulf of Aden on what will be my last trip. Here is a little description of what its like to go to sea in the merchant marine.
I thought the photo of the Emma Maersk was mind blowing, but take a look at this: