Spartan by name, Spartan by (the call of) nature: Sly Stallone as John Spartan in Demolition Man

For the last few years the electronic music website Resident Advisor (RA) has run a weekly podcast called ‘Exchange’.

Despite RA’s focus sometimes being a little high-brow and esoteric for my tastes, there are some real gems in the Exchange series (not to mention in the 600+ DJ mixes in their main podcast catalogue).

Recently RA snared a highly regarded yet relatively low profile guest (in terms of public persona) – the founder of XL Records, Richard Russell.

I found two of Russell’s anecdotes particularly interesting: first, how he dived into the relatively basic music production software Reason on a recommendation from his friend Liam Howlett of the Prodigy; and secondly how his work with Gil Scott Heron on the ‘I’m Here Now’ was underpinned by one word.

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That word was ‘spartan’. Gil Scott Heron loved the sound and meaning of the word and it was used as the stress test for everything the pair created.

Spartan is generally defined as:

‘Showing indifference to comfort or luxury’.

It’s quite easy to confuse being spartan with minimalism.

I believe it runs a little deeper than being minimal.

Although adjacent, to be spartan feels to me more closely aligned to Stoicism.


 

In my own life I’ve recently implemented a more spartan approach, partly through choice and partly through circumstance. It’s not been easy or always particularly enjoyable, but I’ve learnt some lessons.

Going spartan has forced me to look at what I really need, and what are just frivolities. It’s also opened up new possibilities that probably wouldn’t have appeared if I’d stayed on previously trodden paths.

Here are a few things that have happened:

  • Hopping between alternative (i.e. free of charge) places to work in New York I’ve learnt which conditions suit me best (and worst) for creativity and productive work, and also discovered pockets of the city I never knew existed
  • I’ve got better at cooking. You’ll be hard pushed to get a decent lunch in NYC for less than $12. Cooking at home conserves funds, has made me query my diet more closely, get surprisingly creative, and is a good reason for my wife to leave the office at a decent hour and switch off from work for a little while 🙂
  • Limited resources have made me more resourceful. This is perhaps counter-intuitive at first but I’ve found it to be true. Stripping back the layers meant I’ve had to find ways to do more with less. A little like Richard Russell and Gil Scott Heron.
  • Whilst he was probably thinking more about minimalism in UX and design than being spartan, Steve Jobs famously once said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. I queried this when I first heard it but from recent experience of creating my own projects I now believe it to be true. A spartan approach helps frame things in a different way. Ask yourself how you could solve a problem if you didn’t care about comfort or luxury. A lot of great innovations have come from this start point. And Jobs himself did live a pretty spartan lifestyle, all things considered.
  • I’ve become more resilient. Small things that may previously have upset or frustrated me just aren’t that important now, and I know I can survive with or without them. Rejection or lack of recognition (i.e. not being able to bathe in the luxury of glory) hurts less.

I’m aware in my case these are very much first world problems. I still have the luxury of being able to afford a nice cup of coffee and have a roof over my head, and I aim to continue being grateful for those things. However, I believe the principles and benefits of being spartan can be useful to apply in almost any circumstance.

They may even make you happier.

Naval Ravikant describes happiness as:

the state of when nothing is missing.

The generally accepted route to happiness is to have everything you want. To acquire.

If Naval is right, and I consider him one of the wisest people I’ve encountered, perhaps it’s easier to get there by being spartan.

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