Spotlight On: Bill Powers

Spotlight On: Bill Powers

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Sporty and I thought it would be really interesting to shine a spotlight on other minimalists to see what their lives look like.

We came up with a set of 10 questions (the last of which we believe to be the most important) and we’re asking everyone we feature to answer them.

Same questions, different answers. It can only make for interesting reading.

Previous episodes (there are four now, so this is probably the last time I’ll list all of them) include a housesitting duo from Canada (eh!), a hilarious Brit with a peanut butter eating sausage dog, an intentional living daily vlogger from Minneapolis and a couple whose house is so small it only fits two cups.

They all arrived at the idea of living a simpler life in different ways, but I think it’s safe to say that all of them are enjoying the many benefits of downsizing.

Spotlight On: Bill Powers

In this edition of Spotlight On we introduce you to Bill Powersaward-winning author of Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin, Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream. Yet again I have my TEDx Cape Town talk to thank for this amazing connection.

Bill’s publicist reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in reading his latest book, New Slow City, which chronicles the year he and his wife, Melissa, spent in a 350-square-foot “micro apartment” in New York’s Greenwich Village in an attempt to live ‘off the grid’ (i.e. slowly and mindfully) in one of the world’s fastest cities.

I could not respond fast enough. We’re talking two of my favourite things in one book: New York City and minimalism. I’ve never been to the Big Apple, but now more than ever I want to visit it.

I devoured both of Bill’s books in close to one sitting. His work is highly readable and his story is one that we can all relate to. I highly recommend checking them out. Even Sporty enjoyed them and she’s far more of a spy/thriller/action kinda gal.

Nowadays Bill and Melissa live in an adobe house in Samaipata, Bolivia with their little girl, Clea, her cat and a few uninvited eight-legged guests. The view from Bill’s writing desk is enough to make even the most Zen among us green with envy.

Writing with a view

What Was Your Tipping Point?

What prompted you to say, “Screw it, let’s just sell everything!”?

Really, the tipping point was the backstory to my latest book, New Slow City, which originated with a somewhat angry question. It came from a reader of Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream, my previous book about living in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot off-grid cabin in North Carolina. “It’s easy,” she wrote, “to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature, and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?”

I received a hundred variations of this question in emails, after lectures, and during television and radio interviews about Twelve by Twelve. I always answered by saying I was living 12 x 12 values… but in Queens, New York — the home to which I returned after my time in the cabin.

But as each year passed, the reader’s doubt increasingly became my own as overwork, material clutter, and the lack of contact with nature — “civilization,” in short — brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually, I too doubted it was possible to live 12 x 12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.

Not so fast. As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City, and I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12 x 12 — about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature, and living simply — and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.

In an attempt to do this, Melissa and I embarked on an experiment. We sold or gave away 80 percent of our stuff, left our 1,600-square-foot Queens townhouse, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, and moved into a tiny rental: a 340-square-foot “micro-apartment” — roughly two 12 x 12s — on the fifth floor of a nineteenth-century walk-up in downtown Manhattan.

Greenwich Village micro apartment

Melissa in the Greenwich Village ‘micro-apartment’. Looks cosy!

How Do You Earn a Living Now?

Is it different than to your pre-minimalist days?

Borrowing from author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, I practice two minimalist principles at the same time: 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle.

The 80/20 principle says that we accomplish 80 percent of work results in just 20 percent of our time. Conversely, we more or less waste the other 80 percent of our time on a paltry 20 percent of the results.

Dutifully, in New Slow City I talk about how I 80/20 my life and find that the principle holds true. In one particular week, for example, I looked at all the potential work streams — in international consulting, writing, and speaking — that I could pursue, and distilled out that week’s most strategic one in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm: a high-end magazine article. Then I overlaid the Hodgkinson’s Principle. Hodgkinson’s says that work expands to fill the amount of time available to accomplish it.

Thus, having chosen the one most critical work activity, I corralled it into a tight timeframe, and found it works: I condensed what might have been five days of work into two.

Off the grid in NYC

Taking advantage of those five-day weekends.

This approach spawned “reverse weekends” for me, where I worked smarter for two-days and took five-day weekends. This is not a utopian idea. Even Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, has recently called for a 3-day work week and Google is increasingly experimenting in lowering hours and thus increasing employee creativity and efficiency.

Granted, using 80/20 and the Hodgkinson’s Principle won’t be ideal for everyone or all the time. This approach is more suited to entrepreneurs and hourly workers able to prioritize their own time and tasks, nailing the most important ones as quickly as possible and thus freeing up time. But almost anyone can create a small sideline work stream and apply these principles; eventually, perhaps, this side income might become one’s main income.

How Much Stuff Do You Own?

How much of it do you travel with?

In our Manhattan micro-apartment, Melissa and I slimmed down to what could fit into 340 square feet. (Hint: not much.)

At first it seemed impossible to live in a micro. To bathe in our fish-tank bathtub — it was three feet long — I adapted the yoga pose “shoulder stand”: Head in the water, flush against the tub. Butt against the other end. Feet at a ninety-degree angle up the wall. It was one thing, I discovered, to live 12 x 12 in serene solitude, the gurgle of No Name Creek ribboning through your permaculture orchards. It’s quite another for a twosome to squeeze into a double-wide 12 x 12 in an impure polis. Sure, we’d winnowed our belongings way down from Queens, but we still had far too much.

I installed shelving and hooks, acquired from a vacated apartment nearby, whose exiting tenants were happy for me to scavenge their leavings. Melissa and I stowed a minimal kit of kitchenware, toiletries, clothing, and books as if equipping a houseboat’s trim hull. It was a refreshing purge; the apartment seemed to expand with each tweak. Melissa and I both felt our well-being rise in proportion to what was shed. A chaotic apartment began to transform. A slim metal table in the kitchen welcomed the cutting board; jackets lazed on his-and-her hooks; sandals snuggled in their micro-shoe-apartment beside the door.

Since having our daughter Clea, now 3, we made another move: to Bolivia. We’ve traded well-trod career paths for five-and-a half permaculture acres here in Samaipata (Quechua for “rest in the highlands”; pop: 4,000). We’ve come here in part because of a combined sixteen-year history in Bolivia, writing and doing environmental and human rights work.

My ten-year-old daughter, Amaya, lives in a nearby city with her Bolivian mom, and spends vacations with us. Melissa and I are godparents to four Bolivian children; Clea’s godmother is Quechua. We grow food here and have built a carbon-light, minimalist house (800 square feet) using indigenous and modern bio-construction techniques.

We’re also contributing toward conserving the rich “vernacular” (i.e. textured and hybrid, largely free of elements of corporate monoculture like chain stores) culture of our adopted community. One instrument for this, here in Samaipata, is the Transition Movement, a “glocal”—global-and-local—network of more resilient towns responding to climate change through fostering organic farming, alternative energy, Slow life, material minimalism, and local economy.

Bolivia adobe house

The family’s carbon-lite home in Bolivia. Very hobbit-ish.

Hippie in the making

A gardener (hippie?) in the making.

So now the amount of stuff we have has expanded somewhat. But not much. You get used to thinking of your living space like a ship’s hull. In fact, we just did another purge a few weeks ago. And I rarely check a bag when traveling. I spent two months on a speaking tour last fall with just one small carry-on and my laptop bag.

Is There Anything You Regret Getting Rid Of?

Honestly, no.

What Are You happiest About No Longer Owning?

A car. We haven’t owned one in one in over a decade. Both New York City’s public transport system, and now the dense re-villaged life we live now support it. In our town in Bolivia, less than 10% of folks own cars.

How Do You Handle Gift-Giving?

For each other, friends, family, etc.

It’s not much of an issue. We’re very spontaneous and non-materialist about gifts to each other. Coupons for massages, an occasional locally-made garment, a date night out. Those sorts of blessings. Our families are very open to our largely stepping out of the gift-buying culture; it’s been pretty seamless. And in Bolivia, it’s not as much as a commodified culture, and anyway as expats we’re “weird” anyway so whatever we do is by definition normal within that overall weirdness.

What’s Your Debt Story?

Do you have? Did you ever have? How did you deal with it?

Burdened with credit card debt after college, I followed my friend, author Vicki Robin’s practice of tracking every penny I spent in an account book each evening, and I was amazed to find that some 30 percent of my expenses were on “gazingus pins,” or things that, in the end, I decided weren’t worth the exchange of my life energy. I graphed it over the months, watching the line of expenses go down without a drop in the quality of my lifestyle. I paid off my debts and took a pair of scissors to my credit cards.

I wasn’t making a bundle after college as a junior high school teacher at a Native American school, nor later as an aid worker and writer, but I always “paid myself first” before paying the other bills, depositing 10 percent of every paycheck into investments. Over time, I found myself living well below my means, a practice that eventually paved the way toward a lot more flexibility.

Sporty and I Eat a Plant-Based (Vegan) Diet.

Is this something you could see yourself doing? Tell us about the kind of food you enjoy.

We’ve been eating vegetarian at home for a few years now. I eat no meat, but do have fish in my diet to diversify it. Melissa occasionally eats meat when dining out. My younger daughter eats hardly any meat; the elder does. So it’s diverse! I find being essentially vegetarian is more in line with my ecological beliefs of minimizing land use for cattle, etc. and also being kinder to animals.

Gardener in the making

Clea admiring her crop. She seems especially pleased with those tomatoes.

What Does the Term ‘Carbon Footprint’ Mean to You?

(Laughter) That makes me think of a moment back in our Manhattan micro-apartment. “We need just three lights in our entire pad,” I told Melissa one day shortly after downsizing. “Our carbon footprint is a fifth of what we had in Queens.”

“But my carbon foot is five times bigger than this apartment,” Melissa responded. “This feels like carbon foot-binding.”

We not only adjusted to the smaller space—of course— but thrived in it! However, that was the ignoble beginning.

But to answer your question, we carry a general awareness of how difficult it is to really reduce your carbon footprint, particularly with air-travel having no carbon-light “substitute” and how that’s so perplexing to reduce. And then there’s the dilemma that an enormous proportion of one’s footprint isn’t personal, but systemic. The footprint to create all of the infrastructure (highways, public lighting, etc. etc.) that we all use.

Do You Like Peanut Butter?

I’d tell you, but you’d just spread it around. (Laughter) A friend told me that peanut butter is the glue that holds her life together. I wouldn’t go that far, but we love the sugar-free peanut better we make at home… and I just planted peanuts in our garden to supply it.

Rooftop farm in New York

Rooftop farm in New York City.

Bill Clea and kitty

Hanging out.

A view to live for

A view to live for.


*We’re keen to earn passive income to fund our coffee habit, but we’re definitely not going to be shifty about it. This means we’ll only ever link to something if we’ve personally used it, eaten it, read it, or whatever, and are 100% impressed. Also, it won’t cost you anything extra if you purchase something via our link. The vendor has to cough up our commission fee, not you. 😉

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4 thoughts on “Spotlight On: Bill Powers

  1. What a great article and I am so happy that one of my favorite authors is thriving!

    • Hi Shari

      Bill’s answers were great weren’t they?! I’m so pleased to meet a fellow fan of his work. He’s by far one of my fave authors as well. 🙂

    • I am looking forward to finding his books to read. Thanks for the peak into possibilities. I wish we could all be as naked, natural, and carefree as your daughter in the garden. Society ruins us. Hugs from California.

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