Living With Less

Two advocates of a minimalist lifestyle discuss what it means to them and how it has changed them as people.

Americans tend to have a lot of stuff—closets full of shoes, garages cluttered with gear, basements stacked with boxes of who knows what. But for about as long as Americans have been stocking up on the latest gadgets and styles, there's also been a vocal band of dissenters, arguing for the merits of a simpler, less materialist life.

I recently spoke with two members of that band, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who are advocates for what they call "minimalism"—an approach to life that focuses on owning fewer things and prioritizing spiritual and personal growth. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Why don’t we just begin with the basics: Who are you guys and how did you get started down this minimalist path?

Joshua Fields Millburn: By age 27 (I’m 33 now), I was living the American dream. I was the youngest director in my company's 140-year history (a large, regional telecom) and had all the trappings of success: a six-figure salary, a big house in the suburbs with more bedrooms than inhabitants, and all the stuff to fill it. Everyone around me said I was successful, but I was only ostensibly successful. You see, I also had a bunch of things that were hard to see from the outside: My life was filled with stress and anxiety and discontent. And even though I earned good money, I had a ton of debt because I spent even better money—all in the pursuit of the American dream, all in the pursuit of this elusive thing called happiness.

Then, in late 2009, my mother died and my marriage ended in the same month. I looked around at everything that had become my life’s focus and realized that I was most focused on accumulation and so-called success.

A month later, on Twitter, I stumbled across minimalism and found an entire community of people who were living more deliberate, meaningful lives with less stuff.

Ryan Nicodemus: In 2010, I noticed a change in Josh. He was happy for the first time in a long time. But I didn’t understand why. We have known each other since we were fat little fifth graders, and we had climbed the corporate ladder together throughout our twenties. Up until 2010 he had been just as discontented as me. To boot, two of the most difficult events of his life had just happened: his mother’s death and the end of his marriage. He wasn’t supposed to be happy. And he definitely wasn’t supposed to be happier than me.

So I took him to lunch one day and asked him a question: Why the hell are you so happy lately? He told me about something called minimalism. He talked about how he’d spent the last eight months simplifying his life, getting the clutter out of the way to make room for what’s truly important. Then he introduced me to an entire online community of people who had done the same thing.

Can you elaborate on what minimalism is? What is the community like? How the movement has evolved over time?

RN: First, Josh showed me this guy named Colin Wright. He was this 25-year-old entrepreneur who traveled to a new country every four months, carrying with him everything that he owned. Then there was Joshua Becker, a 36-year-old husband and father of two, with a full-time job and a car and a house in the suburbs. And Courtney Carver, a 40-year-old wife and mother to a teenage daughter in Salt Lake City. Finally he introduced me to Leo Babauta, a 38-year-old husband and father of six (!) in San Francisco.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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