In an interview with Chris Reining, Morgan Housel, whose opinion I value greatly, named The Quest of the Simple Life as one of two books that had influenced him greatly, stating “It completely changed how I think about financial goals.” I had never heard of The Quest prior to this, but based on Housel’s ringing endorsement I put it on my reading list.
Shortly thereafter I needed a new book to read on my Kindle. Amazon was offering the Kindle version of The Quest for free. Always a sucker for free, the book quickly vaulted to the top of my list and I downloaded it.
Later that day I started reading the book while riding on a stationary bike. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
After only a page or two it was obvious that the book was completely different from the books I usually read. In fact, it became quickly clear that, at least in style, the book belonged to a different era. It was also clear that the writer was incredibly skilled and had an important message and an interesting way to convey it.
Arriving back at home I did some research. I found that the book was written in the early 1900s by William James Dawson, an English minister. The book is fiction but it is written as the first-hand story of an accounting clerk in London who longs to escape the city and live a simple life in the country.
In substance the book has much in common with the modern day minimalism and FIRE movements, but in tone and style it is completely different. Writers today are fairly good at writing as a means of communicating ideas. Today’s writing is clear and concise, but seldom exciting.
For Dawson writing was much more than an efficient way to communicate ideas. For him it was an art form and I found Dawson’s writing beautiful.
I thoroughly enjoyed both what Dawson said, and how he said it. Because the way Dawson says things is such a vital part of the book I wanted share with you some of my favorite quotes:
“I love to imagine myself wealthy, and I flatter myself – as most poor men do – that I am a person peculiarly fitted by nature to afford a conspicuous example of how wealth should be employed.”
“Let us suppose the case of a man who has toiled with undivided mind for thirty years to acquire a fortune; will it not be usually found that in the struggle to be rich he has lost those very qualities which make riches worth possessing?”
“The thing that is least perceived about wealth is that all pleasure in money ends at the point where economy becomes unnecessary. The man who can buy anything he covets, without any consultation with his banker, values nothing that he buys. There is a subtle pleasure in the extravagance that contests with prudence; in the anxious debates which we hold with ourselves whether we can or cannot afford a certain thing; in our attempts to justify our wisdom; in the risk and recklessness of our operations; in the long deferred and final joy of our possession; but this is the kind of pleasure which the man of boundless means never knows.”
“No writer, whose work is familiar to me, has ever yet described with unsparing fidelity the kind of misery which lies in having to do precisely the same things at the same hour, through long periods and consecutive periods of time. The hours then become a dead weight which oppresses the spirit to the point of torture. Life itself resembles those dreadful dreams of childhood, in which we see the ceiling and the walls of the room contract round one’s helpless and immobile form. Blessed is he who has variety in his life: thrice blessed is he who has both freedom and variety: but the subordinate toiler in the vast mechanism of a great city has neither. He will sit at the same desk, gaze upon the same unending rows of figures, do, in fact, the same things year in and year out till his youth has withered into age.”
“To the man who detests the nature of his employment as I detested mine, I would say at once, either conquer your detestation or change your work. Work that is not genuinely loved cannot possibly be done well.”
“I can conceive nothing more ruinous to a young man than that he should have just enough money to make the toil for bread unnecessary. More lives have been spoiled by competence than by poverty; indeed, I doubt whether poverty has any effect at all upon a strong character, except as a stimulus to exertion.”
“Money has little to do with this problem of satisfactory living; I think this was the first discovery I made in the direction of a better mode of life. My French workman [who enjoyed his work and took great pride in it] earned perhaps two pounds per week; I earned four or five; but he bought happiness with his work where I bought discontent and weariness. Money may be bought at too dear a rate [emphasis mine].”
“In it [his schedule of expenses] I accounted for only 268 pounds, whereas I have already stated my total income was 320 pounds. What became of the 52 pounds which found no record in my ingenuous schedule? I could not tell, but I was pretty sure that it was absorbed in the petty wastefulness of town life. Londoners are so accustomed to constant daily expenditure in small ways, that it occurs to no one to ascertain how considerable an encroachment this aggregate expenditure is upon the yearly income.”
“It seems to me that money has lost more than half its value since cheques [sic] became common. When man kept their gold in iron coffers, lock-fast cupboards, or a pot buried in an orchard, there was something tangible in wealth. When it came to counting out gold pieces in a bag, men remembered by what sweat of mind or body wealth was won, and they had a sense of parting with something which was really theirs. But a cheque has never yet impressed me with the least sense of intrinsic value. It is a thing so trivial and fragile that the mind refuses to regard it as the equivalent of lands and houses and solid bullion. It is a thing incredible to reason that with a stroke of the pen a man may sign away his thousands. If cheques were prohibited by law, and all payments made in good coin of the realm, I believe we should all be much more careful in our expenditure, for we should have at least some true symbol of what expenditure implies.”
“To feel that it is bliss to be alive, health alone is needed. And by health I mean not the absence of physical ailment or disease, but a high condition of vitality. This the country gave me; this the town denied my. The only question was then, at what rate did I value the boon?”
“Since nature has chosen to endow us with diverse faculties, our service of mankind must be diverse too. In a word, doing good is a much larger business than the ordinary philanthropist imagines; it has many branches and a thousand forms; and they are not always doing the most who seem the busiest, nor do those accomplish the most in the alleviation of human misery whose contact with it is closest.”
“The best way of doing good that I can devise is to make myself an efficient member of society; and it is obvious that if every man did this there would be little work for the professional philanthropist. It is not help that men need most, but opportunity [emphasis mine]. Philanthropy is, for the most part, engaged in patching up the sick anaemic [sic] body of society; which is equivalent to minimsing [sic] the distress of ill-health without producing good health.
On Financial Independence
“I knew that I was not the gainer by a large income, if I could buy more real satisfaction on less income. I saw that it was the artificial needs of life that made me a slave; the real needs of life were few. A cottage and a hundred pounds a year in a village meant happiness and independence; but dared I sacrifice twice or thrice the income to secure it? The debate went on for years, and it was ended only when I applied to it one fixed and reasonable principle. That principle was that my first business as a rational creature was not to get a living but to live [emphasis mine]; and that I was a fool to sacrifice the power of living in securing the means of life.”
“The chief discovery which I have made is that man may lead a perfectly honourable [sic], sufficing, and even joyous existence upon a very small income. Money plays a part in human existence much less important than we suppose. The best boon that money can bestow upon us is independence. How much money do we need to secure independence? That must depend on the nature of our wants.”
“The first step toward independence is the limitation of our wants. We must be fed, clothed, and lodged in such a way that a self-respecting life is possible to us; when we have ascertained the figure at which this ideal can be realised [sic] we have ascertained the price of independence.”
On Risk and Failure
“Such a distress of mind was natural; yet I think that behind it all my thought was firm and clear. What I had proposed to do for twenty years [simplify his life by moving out of London to a country cottage] I must do, or attempt to do, if I would retain my self-respect. I might become despicable to myself by failure in my task, but I should be much more despicable by never trying to accomplish it. In that half-hour of meditation the die was cast. I had come to my predestined battlefield. I must here be triumphant or defeated; in any case I must attempt the conflict.”
These quotes are only a small sampling of the wisdom and great writing in the book. In fact, the hardest part about writing this article was limiting the quotes to a reasonable number.
Seldom has a writer of Dawson’s skill put his talents to use on a book about money, simplicity, and financial freedom. The book is full of great ideas, memorable quotes, powerful insights, and beautiful writing. It is definitely one of my favorite personal finance books and I highly recommend it. And since Amazon is still offering the Kindle version for free, you can’t beat the price.