Narratives of entrepreneurial success and great wealth are fascinating
Today’s high-achieving culture adores people like Elon Musk who dream big, set ambitious goals, stubbornly get things done, and build wealth for themselves.
This scale of purpose, however, is not for everyone. A surprising number of people find their purpose by going the other way—by rejecting the trappings of wealth and pursuing humble, unpretentious, contended lives.
Consider the case of Burt Shavitz, the namesake and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, a prominent beauty-products company. Burt, whose bearded face and scruffy hat grace the tins of the company’s hand salve and ointment, died this summer at age 80.
The small, simple, happy life
As a young professional photographer in the sixties, Burt grew increasingly disenchanted with city life in his native New York City. He was particularly distressed by the loneliness of an old woman whom he photographed at a home across his apartment—she always looked out sorrowfully from behind dingy curtains and never left her room. “As soon as I took this shot, I knew that that would be me, ninety years old and unable to go outside, if I didn’t get the hell out. I borrowed a van from a former girlfriend, packed up everything I needed—my bed, what clothes I had, an orange crate of books—and disappeared into the declining sun,” Burt recalled in 2014.
Burt left his city life for the backwoods in Maine and started living in a camper van. He led a hippie lifestyle; he had no ambitions and very little money. He took to beekeeping after unintentionally stumbling upon a swarm of bees at a fencepost. One day, while peddling beeswax by the side of the road, he met Roxanne Quimby, a single mother who was hitchhiking to work. Roxanne and Burt soon got romantically involved.
Roxanne had an entrepreneurial mindset: she made candles, lip balm, and hand lotion from a 200lb stash of unsold beeswax and started selling personal care products to tourists and at fairs. Over time, when their business thrived enough, Burt and Roxanne moved to North Carolina to establish a factory. However, Burt missed Maine very much. After a falling out with Roxanne, Burt sold his one-third stake in the company to her for a measly $130,000 and returned to Maine. (In 2007, Roxanne and her associates sold the company to Clorox for $913 million; she claims to have given him $4 million of the proceeds. Burt’s Bees/Clorox continued to pay him an unrevealed amount for continued use of his likeness and his name on its products.)
Idea for Impact: Happiness is mostly a matter of perspective
After returning to Maine, Burt no longer kept bees to make a living. He just enjoyed life—doing what he wanted, when he wanted. He told Flare magazine in 2013, “I’ve always had enough. I never starved to death, and I never went without a meal. I served in the army and went to Germany and slept in snowbanks, and walked 100 miles in the day carrying an 80-pound pack. What was it that I needed? My beekeeping produced enough cash that I could maintain my vehicles and pay my land taxes. What do I need? Nothing. No wife, no children, no TV set, no washing machine. All the pins sort of fell into place my entire life.”
During his later years, Burt lived in a cluttered country home in Maine that had no hot water and liked to watch nature pass by. A 2013 documentary called “Burt’s Buzz” captures his long and unconventional life. This highly recommended documentary (entirely on YouTube) juxtaposes Burt’s ideal day—“when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere”—with the rock star adoration that he received from fans during a visit to Taiwan as the ‘brand ambassador’ of Burt’s Bees products.
In interviews—as in “Burt’s Buzz”—Burt denounced the emptiness of consumerism and extoled the virtues of simple, reclusive living. Evidently, he never regretted missing out on millions, but felt hurt by a three-decade-old business deal with Roxanne gone bad. “I’ve got everything I need: a nice piece of land with hawks and owls and incredible sunsets, and the good will of my neighbors,” he once said. An obituary in The Economist observed,
Settling back in his rocking chair, feet spread to feel the heat of the stove, Burt Shavitz liked to reflect that he had everything he needed. A piece of land first: 40 acres of it, fields and woods, on which he could watch hawks and pine martens but not be bothered, with luck, by any human soul. Three golden retrievers for company. A fine wooden house, 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep, once a turkey coop but plenty spacious enough for him. From the upper storey he could see glorious sunsets, fire off his rifle at tin cans hanging in a tree, and in winter piss a fine yellow circle down onto the snow, and no one would care. … He would wander into the woods or lie on his lawn to watch the baby foxes play, murmuring “Golly dang!” with simple happiness.
The seventeenth century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, “Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them; and a man has attained it when he enjoys what he loves and desires himself, and not what other people think lovely and desirable.” If, indeed, contentment consists of liking of what one has and having what one likes, Burt’s humble life illustrates how happiness arises from the harmony between oneself and the life one leads in one’s simple corner of the world.