Living With Less

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

Thomas Peter / Reuters

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.

Although all these people were living considerably different lives—people with families or varying work situations—I noticed that they all shared at least two things in common: First, they were passionate and purpose-driven; they seemed much richer than any of the so-called “rich” guys I worked with in the corporate world. Second, they all attributed their more meaningful lives to this lifestyle they called minimalism.

JFM: Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

As Ryan stated above, there are many flavors of minimalism: a 20-year-old single guy’s minimalist lifestyle looks different from a 40-year-old with six kids. Even though everyone embraces minimalism differently, each path leads to the same place: a life with more freedom.

This obviously isn’t a new philosophy. Be it millenia-old religions or Thoreau, these ideas have been around for a while. What’s different now is the particularly anxiogenic culture in which we live. Sometime around the 1950s, advertising began making a shift from offering solutions to real problems, to providing solutions to false problems (which, in effect, created problems that didn’t actually exist).

To what extent is minimalism about reducing material consumption versus other changes one might make in his or her life, such as in relationships or work?

JFM: It’s worth noting that we’re not anti-consumption; we’re anti-compulsory consumption. For me, jettisoning the superfluous stuff in my life—the things that weren’t adding value—was merely the first step. The material possessions were a physical manifestation of a deeper problem—an internal clutter (mental, emotional). I spent eight months questioning the possessions in my life, asking one question repeatedly: Does this thing add value to my life? It turns out that more than 90 percent of my possessions didn’t add any value to my life. So I got rid of all those things. Now, as a minimalist, everything I own serves a purpose or brings me joy. And everything else is out of the way.

RN: But of course you could rent a giant dumpster, throw away all of your stuff, and be miserable. Perhaps even more discontent after removing all of life’s pacifiers. Clearing the clutter from my life allowed me to regain control of my focus, my time, my finances.

Why do you think so many of us build lives full of clutter? Why is it so easy to look for happiness in all the wrong places?

RN: Expectations. We’ve been given a template and told that it is the template for happiness. There’s nothing wrong with the American dream—for some people. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is a path, not the path. The truth is: there are many paths. The key is to find a life (possessions, relationships, experiences, passions, habits) that align with your values and beliefs. That’s happiness: aligning your daily actions with your long-term values.