One of the guiding principles of the Consortium is being austere. Like many of the world’s best ideas, it started off as a novelty, possibly even a joke. During our junior year of college, the Consortium began congregating late at around midnight (some of us were experimenting with a biphasic sleep schedule, others were just doing the whole inverted sleep schedule thing).
Without getting into to much detail about the origins of the Consortium, it was just a bunch of kids sitting cross-legged in a circle on bare, oakwood floor, drinking hot water from old mugs. We couldn’t have an open flame in the dorms so in place of a fire, there was the Pac-Man lamp that Steven ordered, which could change colors and brightness. We set it to a slowly fluctuating, deep-orange that would go dim to bright and back to dim, in order to illuminate each other’s faces.
We would engage in conversation late into the night about everything– science, religion, tech, Yale, family, our goals, relationships, baseball. And when it was 3 or 4 AM and we were starting to get tired, we would solemnly head back into our own rooms, often to do the essays, problem sets, and readings we hadn’t yet completed. This happened several times a week and it was wonderful. It was also not a cult, I promise.
The way we structured our Consortium gatherings, that was austere. Like many life principles (think Aristotle’s eudaimonia), it’s really hard to pin down the exact definitions. Sometimes it’s just easier to give concrete examples of what is [insert life principle here] and what isn’t [said life principal]. Here’s an attempt at explaining what being austere is all about.
Austere: being austere (pretty self-explanatory)
Not austere: being decadent (again, pretty basic)
Austere: drinking hot water late at night
Not austere: drinking tea
Possibly the most austere: drinking lukewarm water
Get it? No? Here are some more examples:
- sitting on hardwood floors, rocks
- working in the dark
- cardboard furniture
- ice-cold showers
- Brutalist architecture
- pushing an old marshrutka up a snowy mountain pass
- unsalted popcorn (cooked on a stove-top, obviously)
- bare walls
- sitting on a couch or a chair
- the Sun
- late-night food
- adding avocado to your food order
- cranking the thermostat up
- mass consumption
- using a bedframe
- and using pillows
So what began as a joke has actually become somewhat of a guiding principal in my life. And I think this is also true for the rest of the Consortium. And even though we’ve gone on to do things that might not seem so austere: starting a company, working for tech startups, working for tech giants, management consulting, getting a PhD (that’s actually kind of austere), I don’t think that’s necessarily at odds with austerity.
Because from a macro-level view, the Consortium’s late night discussions were decidedly not austere. We were a bunch of kids sitting on bare hardwood, sure, but we were also privileged enough to be in a building with some of the heaviest, most medieval-looking cast iron gates out there, with meter-thick stone walls, functioning gargoyle spouts, and an Instagram-ready courtyard. All in all, a fortress owned by a institution with a 27 billion dollar endowment and non-profit status.
But isn’t the deliberate act of imposing austerity in the midst of decadence the essence of being austere? Isn’t fighting brokenness with deliberate action something to strive for? For even in the midst of decadence, there can be light. A soft, flickering light emitted by a single Pac-Man lamp.