On Tuesday night, I went to a book reading of Everything That Remains a memoir by The Minimalists – Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. These best friends shared their experience of converting from a life filled with empty consumption to a life of value. Not like the value meal as in big portions or double coupons but to a simple deliberate life where every choice you make you’re asking yourself, does this bring me value? Or joy?
This idea, this philosophy, is something that has really been speaking to me, sometimes shouting, and sometimes barely a whisper over the past ten years.
I’m not suggesting (and neither are The Minimalists by the way) that you have to get rid of everything that you own.
For them, becoming a minimalist is about breaking the cycle of numbing yourself with stuff. And that often starts with taking an inventory of your possessions. Maybe consumer goods is your weakness – clothes and electronics and home decor or maybe it’s television or wine or food or cigarettes or CandyCrush or your career or a busy schedule. We tend to be very adept at tuning out, shutting down our inner life in exchange for the immediate gratification of external validation.
Rewind to 10 years ago. I had a great, desirable job – on paper. I worked for a start-up on their biggest, most valued account. I made good money. I had a fairly impressive title. I was made to feel critical, crucial, important.
Every day after work on my way to the subway, I would walk to Filene’s Basement and buy something to reward myself for surviving another day.
They weren’t particularly nice, expensive things. I wasn’t bingeing on Chanel or anything like that, and I never went over the edge to push myself into debt. But in that shopping, I was seeking something, a little reward, a little validation for not sleeping, working long hours, and having a constant stomach ache. There were two voices in my head: the very loud one saying I should be grateful for the opportunity and happy I have a job. And the very quiet one whispering, what are you doing? It took me months to get up the courage to quit.
Fast forward to a year ago when my family was selling our home, packing up and relocating to a different city. Moving might be the most satisfying purge ever. We brought only what we loved and needed. And we moved into a rental that doesn’t require any of our precious resources (time or money) to repair. We didn’t feel compelled to fill it with new stuff. We made a conscious effort to use only what we already had. In our new neighborhood, we are able to walk and take the train most places so we were able to sell one of our two cars.
So yes, both of those things happened and were a deliberate set of choices, but like The Minimalists, getting rid of the physical stuff is simply a gateway for the personal transformation that happens when you strip away what is not bringing value and joy into your life. When you strip away the excess noise, clutter, baggage, toxicity, you’re left with very little besides yourself. And if you’ve been a bit of a slacker when it comes to being connected to yourself and your own personal value, you are forced to look yourself straight in the eye and say, This is who I am.
Scary, scary stuff for most of us. No wonder we opt to turn the tv back on…
When we’re getting our self-worth from the outside world – your outfit is so cute, your house is so nice, you’re such a great worker, your job is so impressive, your kids are so well-bahaved – it’s dependent on an external source. It takes courage to let go of all the things, people, roles that have made you feel so secure and validated in your choices.
Minimalism is not a once a year purge of accumulated clutter (although going clutter free is highly recommended) it’s a commitment to an ongoing conversation about the world we live in and our role in it.
Can we be doing better? Can we question what we’ve come to believe about success and happiness? Can we listen to our gut when it’s telling us that things aren’t quite in line? Can we give ourselves the physical and mental space to do just that? Can we step away from life choices that are truly empty promises? Can we find our true selves under the avalanche of stuff that threatens to bury us alive?
I think the answer is yes. I’m sure the answer is yes.
Minimalism might be the philosophy or a lifestyle choice, but the result (I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m guessing it’s in the title – Everything That Remains) is an authentic life.
Here are a few things that I am always working on in my life to keep this conversation going in our family…
- Be deliberate in purchasing anything new
- Cherish memories not things
- Choose experiences over things
- Walk as much as possible so that we can only buy what we can carry
- Reduce trips to Target, Ikea, big box stores where it’s easy to buy, buy, buy
- Reject the cult of busy even if it means opting out of popular activities
- Don’t spend resources caring for possessions – house, car, pets
- Keep it simple, as in my kids played with a Ziploc bag of water for 45 uninterrupted minutes because we were out of balloons
I had the pleasure of meeting Joshua and Ryan at the reading and they recommended some other helpful resources (below) specifically about Minimalism and families. Because it’s one thing when you’re a single guy or even a couple, but when you have kids the culture of stuff and busyness is very, very hard to bypass.
Even if you’re not ready to join the movement, you might still find the conversation beneficial. You can learn more about The Minimalists and their books here, and make sure to check out their tour dates to see if they’re coming to a city near you. Warning – they like to hug.