When a new client dissatisfied with the results they’re getting for all their time, effort, and cash starts working with me, one of the first things I do is introduce them to the concept of minimalism.
It’s a philosophy that’s broadly applicable, practical, and easy enough to digest that we don’t get all bloated and gassy.
A personal development breakfast – so to speak.
In fact, I could pretty much sum up my success philosophy on the back of Captain Crunch:
One of the most important aspects of leading a fulfilling life is putting ourselves in a position to succeed: Empowering ourselves to focus on the things that are most important to us.
That is why I’m a fan of the idea of minimalism: Eliminating everything unnecessary, doing no more than is necessary, and giving ourselves the space to focus only on that which is most important to us.
In the 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss likens this to medicine’s “minimum effective dose.” We don’t take more medicine than we need to get better, lest we suffer from side effects. Nor do we need to increase the temperature of water past 100 degrees (212F) to boil it – it doesn’t become “more boiled.”
For ages I’ve embraced this idea of minimalism wholeheartedly.
And I took it as far as I could when, at the start of my travel adventure that’s now taken me across Europe, Asia, and now to Western Russia, I basically sold everything I could and started living out of my backpack with only what things I could carry.
So I was the consummate minimalist. Dave Bruno’s “100 Thing Challenge” had been conquered with the greatest of ease.
That must mean all the success, prestige and groupies that come with minimalist stardom, right?
Not quite. In reality, I had become the champion of a cliche. Boring, rigid, and of questionable utility. Perhaps even questionable morality. For minimalism, as it tends to be preached and practiced by the blogging elite, is broken.
Today there exists a huge body of research that shows “stuff” doesn’t make us happy. The psychological process of hedonistic adaptation (“we get used to things”) ensures that we quickly return to a sort of “base level” of happiness, and marketers everywhere rejoice from the fact that we have to go back for another hit of consumer-crack. The hedonist treadmill us in full flight.
So this gives the minimalist movement a lot of firepower to amp up their anti-consumption cannons. The 100 thing challenge exemplifies this. One of my favorite blogs, ZenHabits, focuses on simplicity and minimalism a LOT.
“So what’s the problem?” You ask.
Minimalism, like most philosophies, has a critical weakness: The human tendency to lose sight of why we’re adopting the philosophy in the first place and pursue it for its own sake.
It’s like focusing on the economy with such zeal that we forget that the reason the economy matters is because it can help improve our quality of life. In and of itself it’s a useless concept.
With minimalism, when things get taken – somewhat ironically – to extremes, this guiding principle of simple living can turn into a debilitating dogma that’s just as poisonous to our minds as the consumerist, maximalist mindsets we were attempting to replace when we championed it.
The problem with minimalism, as we tend to read about it online, is that it’s still focusing on stuff.
It might not be consuming as much, it might be liberating in terms of time spent organizing, caring for, repairing, and managing our stuff, but it’s still a fixation on things and not the things that matter.
It’s like a glutton and a bulimic and their relationships with food. One consumes as much as possible, the other purges as much as possible.
Both are dysfunctional psychological states to embody. Both are excessively focused on food, instead of something constructive such as using one’s body to interact with the world – think dance, sex, martial arts, sports.
Likewise, having no possessions, or 100, or 1,000 has no intrinsic bearing on the quality of your life. In my travels I’ve seen the delighted faces of children lighting up for having seen their own photograph for the first time, even while their families are too poor to afford shoes and I’ve met millionaires miserable with their inability to convert success in business or finance into satisfaction with the miracle of being alive, who are instead seeking escape through drugs and trophy wives.
Charlie Lloyd writes in a little essay:
“Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.”
I would add to that by saying that happiness is having options: the ability to do meaningful work and spend time with important people; and the ability to take on risk – or cope with the inevitable challenges and barriers life will throw in our path.
Which brings me to an important moral problem modern, populist minimalism faces:
Modern minimalism is for the rich.
It’s devolved into an elitist technique for the rich to overcome their addiction to consumption, and with that lost its original impact and power as a general principle anybody can apply.
I was reading an interesting article about the Problem With Minimalism over at The Art of Manliness.
In the article, Brett and Kate McKay elaborate on Mr Lloyd’s statement about risk.
They say that the rich can afford to be minimalist, because if they end up in an emergency situation it’s easy for them to just buy their way out of trouble. That might mean replacing the fridge, calling the plumber, getting a new car, or a new pair of jeans.
Poor people don’t have this option available to them. In order to be safe, they have to have more stuff, because it’s their stuff that will allow them to solve the urgent and unforeseen problems in their lives.
I am a big believer that we can lead a good life even if we don’t have much money. But that largely comes down to our ability to handle risk in non-material and non-monetary ways – for instance through our skills and our relationships.
I am even more convinced that poverty should not be glorified. So the fact that a person can live a rich life without much stuff must not be [confounded] with the idea that we need to reduce our possessions to be happier.
It’s one thing for me – a healthy, happy, 26 year old, to write about 10 ways to get free food if you’re broke. I could do any of those things for months or years if I needed to. I would probably have fun once I adjusted to the shock – because I’m a positive, upbeat person who has worked hard at developing the skills to manage such a situation.
It’s a wholly different situation for a single mother of 3. The needs are different. The risks are different. The available options are different.
Both of us could be broke and possessionless and perfectly uphold the ideals of dogmatic minimalism. But our wealth is not equal, even if our possession count is.
When it comes to wealth and happiness, we have to look at the context. For one person, minimizing may be the exact thing needed to live happier, and in another case more stuff might be exactly what’s necessary.
Of course, we have to address the group of people that probably comes to mind most suddenly when we talk of minimalism: The possessionless philosopher-bachelor.
Diogenes, the Greek philosopher often credited with founding Cynic philosophy, was one of the early “western” minimalists, making a barrel his home when he wasn’t out hounding the Athenian population for what he considered a lack of moral values.
He was, as most minimalist gurus we can look to today are (not the blogging type mind you), a single, childless male, and not at all someone after which we could model a functional, healthy society.
Doesn’t matter if our model is a Buddhist from Thailand, a Hindu on the banks of the Ganges, or a long-dead Greek dude – this model simply doesn’t scale to the level of a whole society.
And to that point, I think it’s incredibly irresponsible to tell poor people that they shouldn’t have “more” – they already have plenty, or maybe even too much – just because there are, in some sense, a lot of people doing it with peace in their hearts (I guess that’s where you put it when you have no shelves or cupboards).
That’s making minimalism into a dogma, the ideal we are to attain, instead of a tool that we can use if and when it is appropriate.
I apply minimalist ideas to my life, because I am rich enough to do so – and somewhat ironically – would be rich enough to do so even if I was broke.
But minimalism is not my goal. I don’t know how many things I own, nor do I care. I’ve used the tool of minimalism and developed the habit of minimalism in such a way that I pretty much only own things I use frequently or get great pleasure from having, and I buy very little.
Each of us has to determine for ourselves how much is enough to feel safe and to feel we’re adequately looking after the people who depend on us. We must remember that this quantity is not only different for everyone, but it will change for us over time too.
There is no ideal amount of stuff we can have to maximize our happiness all the time.
Additionally, we can develop certain mental skills and habits which will allow us feel safe in a wider variety of circumstances. Competencies that would help someone conditioned to supermarket shopping and living in a 2 story home in a gated community cope with the economic apocalypse both emotionally and practically.
We don’t want to be reduced to a curator of material goods. That is not a recipe for happiness pie. Having an internal conflict about what we own is no healthier than the common internal dilemma about what food to eat.
Minimalist in its purest an simplest form is the definition we started with today: The idea of eliminating everything unnecessary, doing no more than is necessary, and giving ourselves the space to focus only on that which is most important to us.
It’s not about possession at all. It’s about doing more of what matters.
Minimalism has helped me travel and experience planet Earth with a light bag and a lighter mind.
The key, I think, is to apply the concept of minimalism to minimalism itself: don’t be any more minimalist than you absolutely need.