At the age of 28 Ryan Nicodemus & Joshua Fields Millburn had what they always wanted — six figure jobs, oversized houses, high priced cars, closets of clothes. The only thing missing? Happiness. If ‘stuff’, they decided, was not helping them find happiness, perhaps not having ‘stuff’ was how they would find it. They decided to get rid of the vast majority of their belongings, take significant pay cuts and live a minimalistic lifestyle.
Here is a bit of their story.
How did you come to the conclusion that you would be happier if you had less stuff?
I think it is too often, especially in American society, that we are told if we have the best product and the best car we are going to be happy. We are also told if we don’t have these things we are not living the dream and we are not as happy as we could be. I bought into that philosophy hook, line and sinker, but I was not feeling fulfilled. I thought all these possessions were not making me happy maybe I needed to shed them. I saw people who were living their passion, they were living their life the way they wanted to and that really appealed to me. For me, minimalism is the antithesis of mindless consumption. I wanted to stop the mindless consumption in my life and minimalism was a great tool to do that.
How did you transition from mindless consumption to minimalism?
Josh and I came up with the idea of a packing party. We spent a day or a day and a half packing everything in my condo. In the end, it looked like I was moving out. Then over the next 21 days I unpacked things as I needed them. I did this because I wanted to see how much of this crap I was actually using. The first night, of course, I unpacked my toothbrush, my shampoo, my towels and sheets. Then over the next 21 days I was unpacking fewer and fewer things. At the end I realized 75 – 80% of my stuff I didn’t even use.
What did you do with the 75 – 80% of the stuff you realized you did not use?
I put it in one of three piles. A donate pile, a sell pile and a throwaway pile. The biggest pile was the donate pile.
Was there any one thing that comprised the majority of these three piles?
Most of it was clothes and weird knick-knack stuff. I had 10 or 12 paint shirts. I was looking at them thinking, “Why do I need 12 painting t-shirts? I don’t even paint.” I had two or three spatulas. I had way too many dishes. Now with my dishes I could host six or seven people. Back then I had enough dishes for 50 people.
Do you find clothes are what people have the most stuff of?
It varies. It is clothes, but I have heard a lot of people say they are bothered by too many books or DVDs.
How would someone know if they have too much stuff?
When they start looking at their stuff thinking, ‘I need to get rid of this crap.’ It is when people look at their stuff as trash instead of treasure. It is when things feel overwhelming even to go through.
Sometimes people send us an email about how they feel weighed down by their possessions. People are not feeling that they own their possessions they are feeling their possessions own them.
How did you know what you ended up keeping after the packing party was all that you needed?
Because I only kept what I used.
What advice do you have for someone who is interested in giving minimalism a try?
Josh and I like to talk about a few different approaches. The most extreme one is going to the dumpster and throwing all your stuff away. The middle approach is what I did, have a packing party and get a feel for what you use. If that is overwhelming, we always say start with one room. Start with the room that is giving you the most anxiety or the most stress and do a packing party in just that one area or part of your home.
How do you think your life has become more meaningful now that you have less stuff?
Before I did a really good job of putting off all of my important relationships. My mom lived 20 minutes away from me and I would see her six or seven times a year – maybe. Same thing with my grandmother and father. Since then I have been able to build those relationships again. For so long I was able to tell myself, ‘Oh, they will understand. I am really busy. I am making a lot of money. I am in school. I am working 50 – 60 hours a week. They will understand.’ The truth is they don’t understand. I just kept telling myself it would get better, but it wasn’t getting better and I knew it would not get better unless I made some kind of drastic life change.
I think what you are saying is that minimalism transcends getting rid of stuff. It is more about a way of life.
The word minimalism means different things for different people. For me it is about getting rid of the mindless consumption we get wrapped up into. It is living deliberately. What people don’t understand until it is too late is that mindless consumption only adds to their stress. It is only temporary in relieving their angst, whatever that angst is. That is exactly what mindless consumption did for me. I was part of it. I would get the newest greatest gadget, the newest video game as an escape, but after I got done with it, it just kind of left me with an empty feeling.When I realized how I had fallen in the trap of mindless consumption and the consequences it had on my life, mainly how I lost focus on the important relationships in my life in order to focus more on work, in order to make more money, in order to consume more, I finally said enough is enough. I worked hard to change my focus from having the latest and greatest widget, house, car etc. to focusing on those important, primary, relationships in my life with friends and family.
How do you decide if something is a meaningful purchase and not an act of mindless consumption?
I look at things I consider buying and ask myself, ‘What is this item going to do for me? What am I going to get out of this item?’ Asking this question helps me determine if the purchase is a need or a want. If I find that it is a want and not an essential item conducive to my life then I will not purchase it. Even when it comes to food I’ll ask myself, “Am I really hungry or does this just look good?”
How do you think the economy is helping the minimalism movement?
I always tell Josh, ‘People better become minimalists now before they have to.’ I think people are starting to realize the American Dream is broken.
What part of the minimalist movement is kind of a pain in the ass?
For me it was very difficult to go from busy, busy, busy to not having anything to do. It took me two months to adjust. It was really uncomfortable, but anytime I am uncomfortable it has been a discomfort for something that has in the end mostly benefited me. Being able to stay with that uncomfortable feeling has always been key for me.
What the majority of the people at our Meet Ups struggle with are the family, the friends, the kids that give them a hard time about this.
What are people getting a hard time about?
When I started doing this I had people asking me if I was depressed or thinking about killing myself because I was giving all of my stuff away. I think people feel threatened by somebody doing something different and somehow that translates to them thinking that I think I am better than them. I think they look at what I can live without and what they have worked so hard to get their whole life. People who have worked so hard to have the house, the car and the savings and then they see me throwing that all away. I think that is the reason people give me and others a hard time about this. Once I get to talk to those people, if they are reasonable, and I can explain that it is my thing, it was what I decided to do for me, I can usually calm them down. But there are some people that just want to make me wrong, so they will be right.
How do you handle getting rid of the sentimental things?
My girlfriend’s niece gave me this really nice card. It was very endearing and adorable. I put it on my fridge. Every time I looked at it I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do, magnet everything she gives to me?’ So I took a picture of it with my phone and I have access to it whenever I want. Every time I look at that picture it is as if I am holding it in my hand.