The power of minimalism

by Jack on June 2011

[The setting is EARLY 2011, at Terminal E, International Arrivals, at Logan International Airport, Boston]

USCIS GUARD: “Sir, did you pick up your luggage?”

[The USCIS guard in front of the sliding exit doors at baggage claim jolted me out of a daydream.]

JACK: “Excuse me?”

USCIS GUARD: “Your luggage. Do you have everything? You can’t get back in here once you’ve left.”

JACK: “Oh yeah, I’ve got my luggage.”

[Gesturing at the red rolling suitcase I bought at Walgreen's for $14.99. (I thought it would cost $19.99 but there was a sale on that day.) I also had a backpack slung over both shoulders.]

USCIS GUARD: “That’s all you brought? From London?” [USCIS GUARD shows confused face]

JACK: “Yeah, I never check baggage.”

Frequent traveling is one of the best gateway drugs for a minimalist lifestyle.

When I have traveled “heavy” in the past, I’ve always been amazed at how few things I actually used out of the things that I supposedly “couldn’t live without”. (I’m especially embarrassed at the pile of junk I dragged to Australia, most of which I left at my cousin’s house – completely unused – while I bounced around the country and learned to drive on the left hand side of the road.)

Every time, I would promise myself that I’d learned my lesson, that I wouldn’t pack as much next time. Eventually I actually learned. Iterated application of the 80/20 rule eventually locked in on what was essential and what was useless. Now I see people checking giant stacks of luggage at airports and quote the philosopher Ludacris to myself: “What in the world is in that BAG, what you got in that BAG?”

Listen to the voice in my head:
Audio MP3

Overpacking is just a neurosis, an insurance policy. You can’t control everything about your trip so you overcontrol what you can – your stuff. When you release the neurosis, you release your attachment to your stuff. You release your attachment to the false idea that your stuff can save you from uncertainty. The only thing that saves you from uncertainty is accepting it.

Then the idea of packing more lightly starts feeding back into non-traveling life. That’s when you start to become a full-time minimalist.

Actually, minimalism as an idea is something that has been in my life as long as I can remember. (Also see: simplicity, frugality)

I always loved the architectures of Tadao Ando and Louis Kahn. I like modern furniture. I don’t like clutter or unnecessarily ornate details. Living in rooms that are mostly empty is better for the mind. It creates space in which to move and think.

[In fact, "creating space" is a good metaphor for what I do for my clients in coaching.

Creating space for transformation. Creating space for possibility. Creating space for change. Creating space for a new self, a new identity.

This can't happen when a person is living in their head among the detritus of a self left behind years ago.]

The summer after I graduated from high school, my drive to ‘minimalize’ was inspired by an Outward Bound canoe trip. It blew my mind: ten people could paddle five canoes, carrying food, shelter, and everything else they needed. It was a completely autonomous, self-contained team.

For months afterward, I dreamed of living as a full-time minimalist nomad, carrying a tent, a camping stove, and everything else I needed, but nothing more than necessary, traveling from one place to another.

I didn’t actually do this. Instead, I returned home and went to university. But the idea didn’t quite go away.

Minimalist Dreams

For some situations, it’s nice to have a clear goal in mind. This is one of them.

My ideal lifestyle is what I call “prosperous homeless” – no fixed address; traveling lightly enough to fit all my possessions in carry-on luggage; having the financial means to travel permanently, and stay in a hotel, B+B, or apartment every night (or week, month, or year) if I were so inclined.

I am not “there” yet, but I am making gradual progress. At the end of 2009, I downsized from my own 1 bedroom apartment to one room in a 4 bedroom place. That meant placing a lot of excess furniture in basement storage.

A few months later, while I was on a Vipassana meditation course, flooding destroyed all but one of the items I had in storage in the basement. That was a welcome sign from the universe – I was being supported by natural forces in my quest to become a true minimalist! That rain disposed of lots of things that I never used, never needed, but hadn’t yet shown the focus, courage, and balls to actually throw it away.

That experience further drove the point home: ownership of “stuff” isn’t particularly interesting or special – it’s access and usage of physical things that matters.

Over a period of several years, as my weight grew from 175 to 220 pounds (aka “The Time I Got Fat”), I moved a weight bench and a set of dumbbells through several different residences. For some reason, owning that stuff didn’t save me – it wasn’t a magical amulet that could chase away the demons of an unhealthy diet and too much drinking. I didn’t return my physical body to the proper shape for me until I started doing yoga and CrossFit-style workouts, and eating a vegan diet.

What do you want your stuff to do for you?

Owning “stuff” doesn’t matter – it’s what you do that counts. And you can “do” just as easily with something rented or borrowed as you can with something that’s yours. Often you can “do” without.

Think about it this way.

As a minimalist, you don’t want to “own” a car – you want to move the body from A to B in a comfortable and timely fashion.

You don’t want to “own” a book – you want to be able to read the 50,000 words of content written by Author X, at the time, place, and medium (paper, bits) of your convenience.

You don’t want a Gerhard Richter on “your” wall – heck, as a true minimalist, you don’t even buy in to the illusion of a wall that’s permanently “yours” – you want access to a gallery where you can enjoy the art of Richter and other great artists.

The idea of releasing material objects from your life is intimately connected with the idea of emotional release.

Quite often we use the metaphor of “holding on” to suggest emotional strength – life’s challenges as flood waters or hurricane, holding on as being strong in the face of external forces. But a person can also express incredible emotional strength through releasing – in recognizing when holding on is no longer working effectively.

The more we can release physically, the less we tell ourselves that we “can’t live without”, the more empowered we are to craft lives of genuine freedom and creativity.

Once in a while, when you have an object that you think you can’t live without, hold it for a moment and ask yourself “could I let this go?”, “will I?”, and “when?”

Thirty two thousand days from today, you will already have let it go, whether you planned to or not. Why not release your hold on it now and focus on what’s most important?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick June 27, 2011 at 10:13

Insightful post man. I think that as you grow older you start to realize what really matters to you. Definitely in the last few years I’ve geared toward a more minimalist lifestyle. Focusing on great experiences more than specific items that I need or want.

It’s funny how whenever we moved or did a “spring cleaning” my brother would be willing to throw away stuff and I’d get so upset. He’d have no problem chucking things we hadn’t used but I would fight to hold onto them. I was emotionally attached to items that didn’t matter.

Granted, I still enjoy some of my possessions — like going for a nice drive in my car. But I’ve trimmed away a lot like watching excessive TV or video games. Now I’m much more interested in going down to the beach at night to sit on the rocks and watch the waves roll in.

Not sure how big of a George Carlin fan you are but one his most famous bits is about our need for “stuff, it’s hilarious – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac

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Jack June 28, 2011 at 17:21

Thanks Nick. I know what you mean about holding on to stuff. I think I have been (and am) a minimalist philosophically because I have the bad habit of holding on to useless things that I know I won’t ever use again. Weird mementoes and strange keepsakes that have no value. So my philosophical stance is a conscious tool to counteract my bad habit.

I think the goal of minimalism is not necessarily to be the crazy “50 things” nomad guy unless that’s what you really want. (And if it is, great!) Having a car doesn’t kick you out of the minimalist club if it fits your lifestyle and you use it intelligently. Having five cars, well… Using your possessions intelligently and not piling your life full of crap that you don’t need – that’s the goal.

Thanks for the Carlin clip – classic!

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Nacho Jordi June 29, 2011 at 20:20

Hi Jack,

I really liked this post, and the way it is constructed: one of the most unpleasant visualizations when you plan to travel is seeing yourself carrying all your stuff like a snail. Well, the thing is, you don’t have! I’ll apply the 80/20 principle ruthlessly for my next baggage.

And then you take it back home: the thing is, we are surrounded by a lot of things that do not enhance us, but ‘fatten’ us and menace our mental peace. It’s a great mentality to have and I’ll certainly cultivate it. Thank you for the inspiration.

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Jack June 30, 2011 at 08:42

Thanks Nacho! When I finish a trip and I realize that I never used “X”, it’s a combination of frustration and happiness. Frustration that I didn’t need to bring it in the first place, happiness that I won’t pack it next time.

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Matt R July 1, 2011 at 22:15

Good points here Jack.
The traveling mindset tends to breed the minimalist mindset or vice versa.
It’s good to pack lighter as you can buy the item at the city you’re at if you really needed it. Think about the destination city and if they’d have an item. If they do, leave that item behind because you can buy it there in emergency.

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Jack July 3, 2011 at 18:54

Thanks Matt!
I am increasingly believing what you said: The traveling mindset tends to breed the minimalist mindset or vice versa.

The more a person tends to ask “do I really need it?” and “[for how long] could I live without it?”, the more efficient a traveller / minimalist they tend to become. It’s a good habit, IMO.

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