A revised and updated version of this essay can be found in A Minimalist Abroad: Essays on Finding Happiness, now available at Amazon!
As I sit here writing this, I am 3 short months away from my 52nd birthday. I say this so you’ll understand that I’m not some college freshman who has just been introduced to Thoreau’s Walden for the first time, or a disaffected Millennial who has recently discovered the works of Joshua Fields Millburn. I’m not writing about minimalism with the passion and enthusiasm of the recently converted. I’m also not so vain as to believe that I am the first person to experience these things. Walden was published in 1854, and while Millburn has only had his website running since 2009 or 2010, that’s practically the Pleistocene epoch in internet terms.
I don’t engage with things because I want to be associated with fads and trendy buzzwords. I practice minimalism, a term I begrudgingly accept because people are familiar with it, because it has worked for me. My wife and I have have achieved big, hairy, audacious goals because of our dedication to simplicity and planning; the proof lies in the fact that she is in graduate school, I make a living doing what I love, and we reside abroad among the glorious lakes and forests of Finland. I’m not here to tell you about artisanal organic gluten-free non-fat fair trade sustainable heritage non-GMO handcrafted small-batch free-range minimalism. I’m here to tell you about how living a simple life works for me, and how it might work for you too.
Free Range Minimalism
What’s in a name? Tim Ferriss calls it “lifestyle design”. The folks behind The Mind Palace podcast call it “a well-curated life”. Author Ciji Ware calls it “rightsizing”. Some refer to it as intentional living. As a writer, I tend to think of it as editing: keep what works, try to fix what’s not working, cut out whatever isn’t necessary.
I like the term minimalism insofar as it speaks to efficiency. Why make two trips when you can do it in one? Why have a process that takes 10 steps when you can save time and money and get the same result with 3 steps? Why do things, or own things, that don’t add any real value to your life?
Whatever you call it, it’s about making the best choices for your life. That’s it. That’s all. It’s not about owning the least possible amount of stuff, or buying the most groceries for the smallest amount of money, or having the most meticulously organized home, or getting the most things done in the least time. It is about prioritizing what things in life are most important to you, and making decisions that allow you to focus more of your resources on those priorities and less on things that you don’t really care about.
Buzzword Tourists And Bumper Sticker Activists
I dislike the term minimalism because it leaves some people with the impression that it requires living like a Buddhist monk: you’re allowed to own a begging bowl, a robe, a pair of sandals, and that’s all. It evokes those people who live in tiny houses that more resemble the shoebox dioramas some of us made in elementary school than functional homes. Who would want to live such an extreme, stark lifestyle? Sadly, I can answer that; I also dislike the term minimalism because it’s become a faddish buzzword tossed about by people who want to be seen as the cool kids.
When people latch onto a fad, they sometimes take it to annoying and pretentious extremes for no reason other than to get attention. It’s not about any actual value or positive influence or power that the fad might possess, assuming that the fad actually has those qualities. It’s about been seen as someone who is on the cutting edge, on board the next popular bandwagon ahead of other people. Those early adopters and presumptive tastemakers are the experts, and therefore better than you (Disclaimer: I am not better than you). It becomes their personality, and all conversations lead back to that object of their obsession somehow. That fanaticism tends to destroy other peoples’ receptiveness to the ideas being expressed, regardless of their objective merit.
It’s what we used to call bumper sticker activism, which I guess here in the 21st century is currently expressed as hashtag activism. You’re not doing a damned thing to further a cause, but you’re making sure that everyone can see how much you care because the back of your car is covered in bumper stickers and your social media feed is full of trending hashtags.
Correcting For Concept Drift
A larger issue is that of concept drift. People endorse fads without actually understanding what they are, how they work, why they might be important, or what benefit they might convey. On one end, you get people who form cults around the latest phone without a clue about what the new features and actual selling points of the device are; they bought it because they want to look cool, and they’ll preach its superiority in spite of their lack of knowledge because possession of the thing makes them superior. On the other end you have people who can tell you how much better they feel for going gluten free and drinking nothing but raw milk, without being able to tell you what gluten is or explain in non-conspiratorial terms why raw milk is regulated, and in spite of scientific evidence that any benefits are so minuscule that you can’t even notice them. On the chilling end, you have people not vaccinating their kids because a former Playboy Playmate read a discredited article about it on the internet and are more interested than being righteous that factually correct.
Concept drift usually comes from a good place. Something isn’t working, they hear about a solution that seems remarkably simple or gives them hope, and they become an evangelist for it. They explain it to their friends to the best of their ability, who explain it to their friends, and it ends up on the internet where it simultaneously becomes disinformation and official cult doctrine.
I Am Not That Type Of Minimalist
Minimalism is a common thread that runs throughout my life. It has kept me sane in dark times, fed and sheltered in lean times, and been a strong foundation during the best times. It has given me a greater degree of freedom and independence than any other philosophy or doctrine, because it allows me to define who I am, what I need, and what I want to do. I can speak to things I’ve been doing for 5 years, 10 years, and 30 years because this isn’t a phase I’m going through. I didn’t become a minimalist entirely be choice; there have been times in my life where I was forced into minimalism by circumstance, or chose minimalism not because it was an appealing lifestyle but was the means to an end. It’s nibbled around the edges of everything, from my relationships to how I run my business to decisions on what I read, watch, and listen to. It is a real, palpable thing to me, not a fad to be tried on and paraded around until the next shiny thing comes along.