‘Love people and use things. Because the opposite never works.’
Joshua Fields Millburn
Last weekend, on my Sunday run, I enjoyed listening to an interview with self-proclaimed minimalist, Joshua Fields Millburn, who was speaking on the Rich Roll podcast. Millburn, who along with his fellow minimalist Ryan Nicodemus, has written a number of books on the subject of living with less, has also more recently produced a documentary film, which reflects on his life and lifestyle and on our relationship, as a society, with material things.
What I really like about Millburn’s approach to minimalist living is his openness and his pragmatism. For him it’s not as dogmatic as throwing away all of your possessions, or as extreme as reducing your annual waste to the contents of a mason jar. Rather, he looks at the gradual stripping back and rationalisation of things; a process of simplification, not only of the objects around him, but also of his digital and mental clutter. His approach posits that by simplifying all elements of your life you are able to ascertain greater degree of freedom from these physical trappings and, as such, a greater degree of clarity.
The problem, as Millburn sees it, is not consumption per se, but rather our compulsiveness to always want more. What a minimalist approach to life allowed him to see was that his happiness couldn’t be found in material things and that everything he thought he ever wanted wasn’t actually everything he ever wanted. For him, minimalism was about a process of taking back control of the world around him, of not being told what he should want or how a particular thing should make him feel. And what began as a process of unshackling his relationship to material things culminated in his finding a way of creating more by consuming less and a means of prioritising experience over accumulation.
Millburn’s approach to life really struck a chord with me, not least as while I was listening to him speak I ran past two houseboats on Regent’s Canal which, due to recent bad weather, were sinking into the murky waters below, taking with them all of the material possessions of two families. Sobering indeed.
In fact minimalism has appealed to me ever since childhood, when an irrational fear of losing all of my toys in house fire (a fear which, I may add, had no basis in any real event) led me to take many of my possessions to a charity shop, a decision based on the premise that you can’t be sad to lose the things that you don’t have. This detachment from things was joined, in later years, by a love of neatness and general order, creating the perfect storm for discarding and de-cluttering.
While I’d be anxious to call myself a minimalist in the purest sense (not least as I do have my fair share of things and, in a shared living space, I’ve learned that it’s not quite as acceptable to just throw items away as when you live alone), I am quite selective about the things that I take into my life. I like to audit my books, clothes, shoes, paperwork and general bits and bobs on a regular basis, finding something very therapeutic about throwing things away or giving them to charity. I try to operate on a ‘one in one out’ basis, something which my husband finds slightly severe and difficult to understand. When I do buy new things it is often after much agonising, although I do then find that I keep hold of them until they fall apart or, as is more often the case, until they find themselves being held together with safety pins and I’m shamed into throwing them away. It’s not that I don’t like new things, or stuff in general, it’s just that too much of it, its disorder, or its redundancy makes me anxious and uncomfortable.
With Black Friday today and Christmas on the approach and with the prospect of an influx of stuff on my mind I’ve begun with a whole new round of ‘rationalisation’ and am trying to encourage my husband to do the same. At a time we all seem to fixate on things, I’m trying instead to organise spending some time with the people I love and whose company enrich my life more than any object ever could.
If you have time to listen to the podcast or to watch the documentary these can be found here and here, but if not, perhaps just take a step back away from the material world to reflect on the virtues of focusing on life’s most important things—which actually, aren’t really things at all.