In Exchange With Patrick Rhone

Patrick Rhone is the editor of Minimal Mac and co-host of the Enough Podcast, both of which deal with minimalist practices in the area of technology. Patrick is also the author of Keeping it Straight, a series of meditations and essays on productivity and useful living. Patrick was gracious enough to sit and talk with me about the importance of striking a balance with our technology. What follows is that exchange.

Patrick, I wanted to thank you first for taking time to sit and talk with me today. I’d like to discuss your writing and more specifically, the theme of “enough” that seems to be behind it all. So to start at the beginning, how did you discover this idea of “enough”?

Well, I think the arrival at “enough” is similar to finding one’s balance on a tight rope or balance beam. Everyone has a different and unique center of balance. In order to find it, and keep it, one must make constant adjustments. Even once one has found it, as conditions change, one must adjust accordingly.

Finding what is enough in one’s life is much the same. It is about searching for balance in all areas of life and knowing the right questions to ask and adjustments to make as conditions change in order to keep from falling in either direction. But, also, should one fall, knowing how to find the steps to get back up.

Was there a specific “aha!” moment for you, or has this philosophy always been with you?

I think it has grown out of my natural curiosity and desire to seek balance in all areas of life. Which, in part, is driven by my practice of Buddhist mindfulness.

That’s exactly what it reminds me of, this notion of spirituality. Many people will recognize you from Minimal Mac, your technology website. where this idea of balance is pervasive. It’s a rather unique perspective, because it seems to go against the current of most tech writing: more more more. New, new, new. What’s the advantage of finding a balance with our technology?

I’ve been re-exploring this question of “Why?” a lot lately in an effort to try to distill it. What I am coming to is the idea of allowing technology in your life (and this is about more than just tech) that is purpose driven. That is, the idea that one asks what the purpose of these items is and then intentionally chooses, tailors, and uses these items to fit that purpose.

For example, I recently brought this approach to my iPhone. I thought long and hard about what I use it for and how I go about doing that. Then, I examined and arranged every application installed to serve that purpose (and deleted the ones that had no discernible place within that purpose).

Finally, I think there is another aspect as well. That is, when one has optimized for intention and purpose, one can then focus in on other things with more balance and less friction. If my tools are purpose driven then there is less that stands between my intentions and my actions. The tool then becomes one with that connection and effectively disappears.

That’s what I’ve noticed too as I’ve tried to optimize my tools. And indeed, it’s my focus that’s really benefited from this. I’m more engaged and interested in what I write and I’ve stopped worrying about my workflow on a regular basis. Is that a common response you get from readers?

Yes. Along those lines. I think, ultimately, we want these tools to be a natural part of our connections and to facilitate them as seamlessly as possible.

I have a regular meeting with a good friend. We get together every Monday morning to talk about our weeks, the week ahead, what is driving us, etc. Yesterday, I had my iPad out and was telling him about a wonderful email I received. I looked it up on the iPad, passed it to him to read, he took it, read the email, and handed it back. At the time we thought nothing of this. It was as natural as handing a piece of paper back and forth to read.

Then later, driving home, it hit me. IT WAS AS NATURAL AS PAPER! I never once thought about the fact that we were passing a computer back and forth. All I thought about was adding to the conversation by showing him what I was discussing. No different than if I had printed it out. That is what our technology should be when purpose driven. We should not think about it. Intention flows to action naturally.

Absolutely. You’re getting to something I wanted to talk about. This convergence of tools and intentions seems to be best exemplified by the iPad and the iPhone. Even Apple products in general. When you think about it, It seems so elementary to want technology to feel natural. Any ideas why Apple seems to be the only company onto this idea?

I think it is largely driven by the values and culture that Steve Jobs fostered at Apple. In fact, with much talk about his passing and punditry about the future of Apple without him, it is the values and culture that have not been talked about enough. Because this is, in fact, his greatest and most long lasting creation. It is the reason why we will continue to see this influence in Apple products for as long as the mental eye can see.

This is why companies try and imitate Apple products almost down to the letter and still, something is missing. They can’t replicate it because it is not something you can capture in the design or execution. The company and culture has to be there too. Steve famously said, “It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” I think the ethos and culture drives the how it works part to a greater extent than gets discussed.

I wonder about that, how systemic that culture has to be. Obviously, no one at Microsoft or Google is thinking to themselves “Hey, how can we make this more complicated and less intuitive?”, but there’s always a stark difference when comparing the results. Side by side an iPhone and a Nexus One have so many technical similarities, yet you can tell there’s also a huge gulf between them in terms of experience.

Agreed. I actually have a very close friend who works for Apple. He is an amazing guy. The sort of guy who strives for excellence in everything he sets his mind to.

I’ll never forget one discussion we had about a year ago. About a year prior, he had gone to the the doctor and, well, he was read the riot act. His blood pressure was high, he was overweight, out of shape. His doctor basically told him to shape up or, with his family history, he would likely have a heart attack before he hit 40.

He took that advice to heart. He did a complete 180. Within a few months he was running marathons. A few months more and he was doing triathlons. Today, he is besting and placing everyone else in his class.

In this discussion, I said, “One of the things I really admire about you is that you are always pushing the limits of what you can do with everything you do.” He looked and me and, with no hint of humor at all, said, “What limits? I don’t believe in limits. The moment you believe in limits, even in pushing them, you have them.”

At that moment, I thought; Yep. That is what Apple is made of. Thousands of people who think just like him. That is what makes them different. That is what is imbued in each Mac, iPhone, iPad, and everything they make or do. Relentless-ness.

I imagine it’s just as challenging trying to find our own personal balance with technology. You write for a large tech savvy audience, but you also do consulting work for a variety of clients. Where do people go astray? What are some of the common misconceptions people still make today that causes them to “fall off the tight rope”, so to speak, with technology?

I think most people fail to ask the simplest of questions: Why? Because the why is important. If you look at every Apple commercial, they don’t show you tech and specs; they show why. Why do you want this device? Why would you use it? Why does it matter?

And, trust me, there are people and companies out there specifically designing to answer that why for you. They would very much like it if you did not ask that question. They would like you to just do what they think you should do.

There is an interesting effect called Gruen Transfer, which is the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track of their original intentions and thus are more likely to impulse shop. If you think a company like say, Google, is not designing this into their products, you are kidding yourself.

By asking why, by being purpose driven, you are less likely to be guided by someone else’s purpose for you.

I don’t think it ends there. Having worked at electronics stores, I can tell you first hand it doesn’t need to be as complex as the Gruen Transfer. Most sales people don’t even bother to ask why the customer came looking for a computer in the first place. Or they ask only in the most superficial of ways. As consumers, we’re told what we “need”. I’d imagine people are surprised when they hire you then?

I would hope people are refreshingly surprised when they hire me, especially if they have been working with another consultant. Because, I come in not to just “fix” something, take the money, and leave. I come in to find out what they want to do, why they want to do it, what they hope to achieve, and how I might help them in getting there. I listen to their intention and purpose and that desire becomes the driver for the actions we take.

Again, it seems so simple a concept: find out what you need. Yet, it speaks volumes about how we have an entire culture geared towards never asking ourselves “why?”. If we can say Apple has nurtured a culture that’s become they’re identity, you could say the same about society as a whole. Our example here is technology, but as you’ve explored in your work beyond Minimal Mac, the same issues arise in almost every aspect of our lives. Which goes back to what you said at the beginning of our conversation.

It struck me just now how your perspective takes our approach to technology as a vehicle to open a dialogue about larger issues. Is that a fair assessment?

I think it is. Remove the word “technology” and replace it with “clothing” or “dishes” or “books” and the concepts still stand. For me, discussing these issues within the frame of technology is just one that resonates with a lot of people right now because we are so immersed in it and, for some of us, overwhelmed by it.

Immersed is such a good word. There’s a Gandhi quote that goes “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” In this instance, I like to replace the word life with “technology”.


** We’ve looked at one side of the coin. Let’s flip it. Is it possible to go too minimal?**

Yes. Like I said, the goal is not too much, or too little. The goal is having just enough. I think “minimalism” has gotten a bad rap and that people take it to its extremes. I think practicality is important. I think one omit only needless things. Things that have need, have purpose, should be treasured. Even if that need is not one that is tangible.

Any tangible examples of doing too little?

Well, I certainly went to, and thus advocated, extremes in the early days of Minimal Mac. One only need to look back to my cold war against menubar items to see that. But, here’s the thing: Sometimes we must go to such extremes in order to find out what the right balance is. To go to the balance beam metaphor again, we must hold our arms out and teeter from side to side before we can find that spot that makes us still.

Another example is the time tested uncluttering technique where one clears a space completely, sets a deadline and then brings items back as needed. Anything not back within that time frame was likely not needed in the space.

Both of these are examples of using extremes in order to find balance. In these cases, I think it OK to go to those extremes. It is a tool to ask questions and determine answers.

** You talk about “minimalism” getting a bad rap. I think it’s because people consider it a pejorative. As if it means to be lacking in some way, or that’s it’s sacrificial to be minimalist. My response to that is always to think of minimal in this instance as what is essential. How do you counter the bad rap?**

I counter that bad rap by advocating its use as a tool and journey to the idea of enough. That our journey should revolve around that destination. And what that means, what that looks like, will be highly personal.

I guess, to frame it with Buddhism, that’s a good way of finding the path to liberation?

Perhaps. In many ways, the answer we seek as human beings, the questions that drive our search and discovery for purpose are twofold: “Is this all there is?” and “Is this all I am?”. However we answer that question, there is only one natural follow-up: Why?

This is an answer I seek.

I hope you’ll let us know the answers you find. Patrick, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

My pleasure. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed this.


    1. matthayhurst reblogged this from smarterbits and added:
      Great interview over...Mac himself, Patrick Rhone.
    2. minimalmac reblogged this from smarterbits and added:
      interviewed by Shadoe...surrounding “enough”....favorite...
    3. smarterbits posted this