What is Barefoot?
The Barefoot Manifesto
- Growing a business and designing life on your terms.
- Achieving financial independence by rejecting the unnecessary and focusing on what counts.
- Finding happiness in simple pleasures
“Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
I remember a scene from my student days that prompted my initial thoughts about the Barefoot philosophy. I was traveling across Indonesia from Sumbawa to the island of Komodo. I sat on a beach that must have been more than 3 or 4 km in length with not a soul in sight soaking in the sun’s rays, the roar of the surf and the sea breeze. I came to the beach in search of some ancient rock carvings apparently left by an old gnostic religious sect who lived up at the end of the beach but found myself, instead, on a slight detour propped up by my traveler’s backpack facing the setting sun. The caves could wait, I was enjoying the moment. A coach screeched up beside the beach and out walked a tour group hurriedly on their way to Komodo. They disembarked their cramped bus whereupon the tour guide held up a flag to catch their attention.
“We are now going to walk to the other end of the beach to see the rock carvings. But, please, we don’t have much time so please everyone keep your shoes and boots on so we can cross the beach quickly and be back before sunset,” said the guide.
I watched from a distance as the booted coach party trudged across the beach, frogmarched by the incessant guide. They stopped at the rock for 5 minutes, took a few photos then returned to the bus. Each was ordered to stamp out the sand from their shoes by the guide who kept reminding his clientele they had exactly 4 hours to reach the ferry. The last stragglers were ushered onto the bus, the door slammed shut and off they went. My enduring image was that of a bloated face of one of the party pressed up against the glass, his eye fixed to the viewfinder in his video camera capturing the sunset from behind the darkened glass as they whizzed off into the distance.
Barefoot: A Mindset not a Choice in Footwear
According to Wikipedia, Barefoot is “the state of not wearing any footwear” but I don’t walk around barefoot. I go barefoot when I go to the beach. For me, Barefoot isn’t a choice in footwear but a choice in lifestyle and mindset.
Barefoot is a mindset applicable to various endeavors – from business to sport to lifestyle – that encourages us to reject the unnecessary and embrace the vital.
Barefooters.org provides an interesting interpretation of barefooting that captures the arrow of motivation that drives my own personal narratives in business, training, travel and writing:
“Going barefoot is the gentlest way of walking and can symbolise a way of living — being authentic, vulnerable, sensitive to our surroundings. It’s the feeling of enjoying warm sand beneath our toes, or carefully making our way over sharp rocks in the darkness. It’s a way of living that has the lightest impact, removing the barrier between us and nature.”
The Myth of ‘Making It’ and Why Empowering ‘Self-Help’ Disempowers
Many of us try to achieve that mythical status of arrival through financial independence or “making it”. In my 20s, I always fantasized one day I’d sell my company and sail of into the sunset (by aged 30). In my 30s, I wrestled with the prospect of never having achieved these lofty goals. Now, older and slightly wiser I realize the fallacy of my earlier beliefs.
“I’ll go travel the world”, “pay off my debts”, “buy my wife that new Mini” only when I achieve X (X being that raise/promotion/sell the company/next deal etc).
It inevitably never happens because the for most people who aren’t Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg or Tony Hsieh, we aren’t gifted with the midas touch. My earlier beliefs were misguided because I’m not like Branson or Zuckerberg no matter how much the self-help literature out there indoctrinates us with the idea that we could be as successful as them, if only we thought like them.
Self help lit leaves with the harsh reality of either chasing super-stardom or complete failure in mediocrity; if you’re not a Branson, then it’s your fault, because success is down to your beliefs and your world views. No doubt that Branson and Zuckerberg got to where they are because they believed and had the right world views but most people aren’t like that. Just like most people aren’t equipped to run a 9.6s 100m like Bolt.
Barefoot provides the 3rd way. You can live the lifestyle of a millionaire and travel the world without being a millionaire. You get all the benefits without the stress, fame and jealous relatives. As much as the bios of Branson and Zuckerberg are useful and indeed inspirational, they aren’t success manuals for most people. Unlike Barefoot Living, they don’t provide a simple success formula.
Keeping it Real – No More Celebrity
But Barefoot won’t work for all. First, we need to keep it real by taking our metaphorical shoes off and that is the first hurdle. Chasing the celebrity of Branson and Zuckerberg as role models for our business and life success is no different from staring at 6 packs in Men’s Fitness magazines. Sure, these are inspiring images of what’s achievable through constant effort but for 99% of the readers, they are high demotivating. They demotivate because they just make you feel worthless.
The first hurdle requires us to throw away celebrity and stop chasing the big time with its names and cars. By doing this we free ourselves to face our fears in 3 ways:
- Change: being brave enough to live your own agenda and make radical change. This is the art of non-conformity. If you want the esoteric then you’d do well to read this poem by Rumi Become the Sky.
- Focus: rejecting what’s not-important. We could spend a life chasing happiness only to discover it exists in the simplest of activities (like Jiro-san and his sushi). Strip out the unnecessary clutter in our lives that compels us to pointless behaviors like chasing the corporate career ladder or buying expensive doodads. If you want the aggressive synopsis, read this quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
- Humility: facing the world unbridled like a traveler and accepting you don’t really know that much
I have summarized a few applications of the Barefoot philosophy below:
Barefoot Business – Keep it Lean
In business, keeping going Barefoot means keeping it lean. From personal experience, I can cite a number of times when ego derailed (and nearly destroyed) my business ventures. Ego is the fat padding; the larger office, the PA, the bigger title, the costly speaking engagement – the comfortable soft sole of business that removes us from reality. This is what my office looks like today. Mark Zuckerberg talks of the “hacker way” – an approach to coding and business built on the principles of lean (extreme) programming where vulnerability and exposure were the key tenets of self-development and learning.
Steve Jobs famously spent most of his early days as an entrepreneur actually going barefoot. The Telegraph cites Walter Isaacson’s description of Jobs as…
an enigmatic figure who “went barefoot most of the time, wearing sandals when it snowed”. He became a vegetarian after reading the book Diet for a Small Planet and experimented with even more radical regimes, once eating nothing but apples for an entire week.
But don’t confuse choosing not to wear shoes with the Barefoot philosophy. Much of what Jobs achieved in business came through a single-minded capacity to focus on what’s important (the Barefoot philosophy) not his penchant for walking around like Jesus. You don’t have to throw away your shoes. The challenges we face aren’t physical but mental.
Barefoot Self-Development and Junk Media
Barefoot Self-Development is about being brave enough to live life on your own terms. Too much self-development literature encourages us to live other people’s agendas. We are sold on the myth that this is the most entrepreneurial time in our history (it isn’t – the facts clearly state the contrary). But that doesn’t stop the marketers convincing us that if we’re not making the big bucks, it’s because we (not the system) have failed.
The evidence is around us. Advertising (read “Junk Media” like “junk food”) convinces us we’re not “enough” and we’re only a purchase away from happiness (car/yacht/swanky apartment/Rolex watch/Gucci shoes etc) and if you don’t have these things in your life, it’s you that’s lacking. We are sold on a celebrity culture that implicitly denigrates our own self-worth. In one scene from The Simpsons, the camera pans out on Marge reading “Better Homes” magazine only to reveal its full, more telling, title “Better Homes… than yours”.
Swimming Upstream by Making Choices
We only have to Google the term or peruse a number of self-help/online coaching websites to realize the world is full of gurus offering us all the material doodads we could shake a stick at. Barefoot is about choosing your own lifestyle options, which means swimming upstream.
But, we are not victims in this pernicious world of marketing, you can make choices about what you pay attention to. But making choices means going against the grain of popular culture, or swimming upstream. People will berate and reject your ideas and decisions. “What’s the point of that?” they’ll say. I was fascinated to read this Reddit Q&A post about a guy who cycled from Salt Lake to Alaska “for the adventure”. The first question he received from the readership was “why didn’t you travel by plane?”
We can make conscious choices in our lives about money, careers and identity – you know the hard stuff. Swimming Upstream means making choices about consumerism and old fashioned careers. As Chris McCandless says in the movie “Into The Wild”,
“Mr. Franz, I think careers are a 20th century invention and I don’t want one.”
Why work your life on a career when there are short cuts? Tim Ferris’ “The 4 Hour Work Week” is built on the principle of “Minimum Effective Dose”. Why work 40 hours a week when you could achieve 80% of your results in just 4? Few people ever reach the mythical 4 hour work week but many will benefit from the idea that the remaining 36 (or in many cases 56) hours of our work week are simply fluff – manifestations of the ego that serve little purpose apart from keeping us busy. Going Barefoot means being ruthless with our own time and keeping it real/being true to ourselves in what we really want out of life.
Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” are effective manifestations of the Barefoot philosophy. In short, Covey extols the virtues of Focus and Kaizen (the Japanese word for self-development) as key foundations for successfully implementing the habits. Covey’s 3rd habit – “put first things first” or “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” encourages us to look at what’s really important in our work and life by separating the important and the urgent. Too much of our lives are taken up by the important and urgent as opposed to the important and non-urgent. We end up spinning plates. Barefoot helps us retain perspective.
Barefoot Fitness and Learning to Give Up
I read somewhere that of all the professions trying to climb Mount Everest, it’s the athlete who is most likely to die. Seems counter-intuitive given the elite nature of these individuals, their mental mettle and ability to focus. Now, you may not be an athlete but we all have a little athlete in us striving towards some kind of goal and it’s important to know why this energy can also be our undoing.
I love triathlon – you know, the swim/bike/run thing. I’ve completed Olympic and 70.3 Ironman distance triathlons. If you’re serious about fitness, like I am, then you’ll also appreciate the importance of discipline and focus in your regime. But while discipline in fitness is key it can also steamroll everything else that stands in its way – like your family, enjoyment, lifestyle and so on. From my own experience, I’ve found the Barefoot philosophy useful when trying to keep centered on what’s important. For example, many triathletes (and sportspeople) end up setting themselves tough goals that end up becoming the sole focus of their lives (like getting down to a specific racing weight or strict nutritional regimes), forgetting why they started the fitness thing in the first place.
Which brings me back to the Everest conundrum. Athletes die because they have indoctrinated themselves with the wisdom of “never, never, never give up.” Useful this may be when the sugar reserves are running low, half way through a 7 hour race but this wisdom is often our undoing in situations where the cost of failure runs higher.
As author Seth Godin points out in the book “The Dip“, the long-held wisdom of self-development that “winners never quit and quitters never win” is simply bunk. Bad advice. Winners have a history of quitting. The difference between a winner and a loser is that the winner just knows when to quit. Losers stick at it.
Fail in a race and you walk away with an injury at worst, or a slice of humble pie at best. Fail in business you lose money and time (money can always be recovered). Fail on Everest and the consequences are fatal. Going Barefoot means understanding how and when to apply focus and when to back up if things aren’t going to plan.
Barefoot Health and the Myth of Nutritionism
Nutritionism is the antithesis of Barefoot Health. Our modern society promotes the virtues of good nutrition, often based on specific amounts of specific foodstuffs. The most nutritionally obsessed nation of all – The USA – is perhaps also the least healthy in the developed word. As Michael Pollan writes in the book – “Food: A Defense”, we are rapidly becoming a nation of orthorexics – people with an unhealthy obsession with food. Compare, for example, the FDA’s approach to reducing food to a matter of nutritional components (food groups, RDAs, good fats/bad fats, vitamins, etc etc) with that of the French. The French eat off the nutritionist’s charts and drink plentiful wine but outlive their American peers. How so? Pollan describes this “French Paradox” as if posed to the French themselves “Quelle Paradox?” (what paradox?). For the French, Barefoot eating is simply a way of life rather than an enforced nutritional code. Pollan’s analysis of the French diet reconfirms that it isn’t the nutritional aspects of the French diet that makes it healthier than the American equivalent but the fact that when it comes to eating food, the French eat a lot more. I’m not talking about portion sizes here, the Americans win hands down, I’m talking about food vs non-food. You won’t find margarine at a French family table. Margarine – a frankenfood of synthesized fats that when first created was banned from being colored yellow so as to not confuse it with butter. Before it’s modified, margarine is colorless.
Barefoot Health means eating and living in the manner our body was designed. Eat food; a diet low in processed foods and a palette of natural colors. Eat with other people. Avoid eating alone. Don’t eat while standing up or in your car at a drivethru. Take a long lunch break. Enjoy your food.
Japanese Zen and Barefoot
The practise of Zen is often misinterpreted for various trendy applications (Zen fitness, Zen food, Zen dating whatever). You don’t have to look far to find some design or web company with the word “Zen” in their name. In part it’s because there are no official definitions for Zen, so take your pick.
My personal favorite is that Zen means the “unsymbolization of the world”, i.e. the acceptance for things as what they are as opposed to the labels we give them. You don’t need to meditate to appreciate Zen, you can simply incorporate its ideas into your daily life. For example, complaining about our environment. I’ve found myself frustrated and sitting in a traffic jam too many times in my life (one time is too many). Complaining about the jam won’t change anything. Telling ourselves “there’s nothing I can do” brings an acceptance that reduces the self-created pressure.
In short, removing those mental shoes that insulate us from our environment. Zen means keeping it simple so we can appreciate what’s important in our lives. Being busy, busy, busy numbs us to the vitality of our existence, that’s why being idle can be good for us. You all know the sense of wellbeing achieved by clearing out an old cupboard and taking a bag of junk to the recycling. Clutter isn’t just a physical state but also a mental one. According to some interpretations, Zen means “doing one thing at a time” and in this sense, Zen means focus.
- Check out my list of Barefoot Tools that will get you started with your Barefoot Living
- If you’re running a business then here are my essential tips for Barefoot Business.
- Likewise, for fitness and travel
- If you want ideas for books and/or movies related to Barefoot Living, check out my Barefoot Literature page
(pic source Wikipedia)