My Meeting with the Minimalists

A couple of weeks ago, the Minimalists were in town promoting their book “Everything that Remains”, and held a free talk which I went to. The Minimalists, in case you haven’t heard of them before, are two Americans (Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) who both had successful corporate careers, earning 6-figure salaries and living the American Dream (read – buying lots of stuff; gadgets, cars, huge homes, getting into debt) and who both gave it all up, becoming minimalists and embracing a slower, simpler, more meaningful way of life.

My husband has been following the Minimalists for a while. He feels he can relate to their story. He finished university and secured a good job straightaway, and progressed through the ranks. He spent his money on nice furniture and fine dining (he even bought a brand new car…and waited five months (!) for it to be available in the specific colour he desired). But despite the money and stuff, he wasn’t particularly happy. After getting rid of most of his stuff, travelling overseas and working as a volunteer (and meeting me!) he came to the same conclusion as the Minimalists – money doesn’t buy you happiness. Experiences, connections and living with meaning are what are important.

I can’t really relate to the Minimalists’ journey, because it has been very different from my own. I’ve never had the big six-figure salary. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever earned more than (or even the same as) the national average. When I got my first job after graduating, in 2005, I earned £12,000 a year. (In 2005 the UK national average was £22,411.) I never had the spare cash to spend on fancy gadgets. That said, I still saw shopping as a form of stress relief, and I still aspired to have/earn more – because more would make me happier, wouldn’t it? I had a few epiphanies in my late twenties and early thirties that have led me down this minimalist path – stories I’ll share with you another time. My conclusions have been the same as the Minimalists, however – stuff doesn’t make people happy. Neither does money. We may have followed different paths to get here, but we have the same philosophy.

Well…partly. I have my big zero waste/sustainability focus, which can be at odds with the minimalist philosophy. (Get rid of it. You can always buy another one if you need it. Something I struggle with!) A friend came with us to the talk. “Look around you!” she said. “None of these people are into sustainability!” People everywhere around us were clutching plastic water bottles and takeaway coffee cups. She was genuinely surprised. Another sent me a text: “Are you going to the talk by those Minimalist guys with the enormous ecological footprint?”

But minimalism isn’t about avoiding flights or bringing a reusable cup, it’s about living consciously. Living with meaning, rather than living on autopilot. Building relationships. Giving back. Recognising what is important – and what is important is different for each of us. Joshua and Ryan aren’t dictating a lifestyle. They aren’t telling anyone what to do. They are just sharing their story in the hope it will inspire others.

As someone very familiar with the idea of minimalism, the most inspiring thing for me was a room packed out with people who wanted to know more…but others were so moved they left in tears. It’s a reminder that each of us are a different point in our journey. I could easily have rocked up three years ago with a takeaway coffee cup in hand, without a second thought.

The Minimalists’ Perth talk was their 100th tour date – their final one. In the time they’ve been touring, their popularity has grown and there were a thousand people queuing around the block to see them. In order to avoid turning people away, they held another talk straight afterwards as the venue could only accommodate 400 people! I love that they genuinely tried to reach as many people as possible. Ecological footprints aside, these guys have a mission, and a great message to share.

The Minimalists have critics, of course. Not just my friends! People say it’s easy to eschew money when you’ve had it. If you’ve been rich, then isn’t it hypocritical? But minimalism isn’t about advocating poverty. It’s about recognizing what is enough.

Did the Minimalists come to a city near you, and did you have the chance to see them speak? What did you think? Do you like their message? Or is minimalism something that you just can’t embrace? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please leave me a comment below!

25 replies
  1. MargotBarbara
    MargotBarbara says:

    They came to my city (Leeds) but I missed the talk – despite being a founding member of the Leeds Minimalist Group! It’s a tricky thing to sell (be minimalist, but buy our book!) – and flying around the world isn’t exactly sustainable, this is true. However, like you, I realise that everyone is on their own journey and at a different place along the way. What’s minimal for one person isn’t for another and we all have differing priorities. But I think overall, their message is a positive one of living more mindfully. Like you, I’ve never had the chance to ‘downsize’ because I’ve never had a wealthy lifestyle to give up! But I do live more mindfully & minimally than ever, and it’s having positive results. Even though I did decide to skip their talk!

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Hey Liz! Sorry to hear you missed the talk, but I think you’d be pretty familiar with the ideas already! Actually if you read the book (borrow it from the library!) you’d get a good feel for what they talked about. It was a book reading, pretty much. Glen bought it before the talk (I went mad – we NEVER buy books! – and oh, the irony!) but he plans to lend it out to all our friends once we’re done reading it(figured I probably should read it as we have it). So long as we don’t keep it…

      It’s so true that’s what is minimal for one person certainly isn’t minimal for another! I could never do the ‘man with bag’ thing, for example…I like my cooking equipment too much! : p

      Less is definitely more, and it’s definitely a positive thing : )

  2. Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke
    Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke says:

    It would be nice to attend one of their talks. My husband used to read some minimalism blogs. At first I was skeptical (why having so few clothes if you can have more?!), but slowly I learned to appreciate the concept of less is more. Soon I leave China (where I am for work) and go back to the Netherlands where a dozen boxes are waiting for me in my mother’s storage room. Although I sold and gave away a lot of things before I left the Netherlands, there are still some things that I could easily live without. So as soon as I get back, I will sell and give away some more stuff, starting with my books :) Less is more!

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      There are some very good minimalism blogs out there : ) I don’t follow the Minimalists but I do follow Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) and Joshua Becker (Becoming Minimalist). And a few others…

      I think the realisation that it’s not about going without, it’s about having what you need and nothing unnecessarily, was key for me. Less stuff equals more freedom. Less time sorting, looking, tidying, moving, despairing! Moving country is definitely a great way to minimalise – I had the same thing as you, and I still have boxes at my folks’. I should get rid of them as I haven’t needed the stuff in 3 years but I find it hard to let go. Hard, but getting easier…

      When are you going back?

      • Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke
        Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke says:

        I have read some blogs at Zen Habits. Stopped reading because I find minimalism a daunting task, so I can only take so much at a time. I want to implement things before I continue reading on.

        Yes, it’s all about having what you need and not more than that. I will leave China in three weeks… to meet the boxes in the Dutch storage room! :

        Thankfully I managed to not accumulate stuff while in China. We still have quite some luggage (3 x 23 kilo) to check in, but considering it has all kinds of winter, summer, spring, autumn, sports, and formal outfits, I think that is acceptable for now. Perhaps next time I could go with less stuff.

        • treadingmyownpath
          treadingmyownpath says:

          I agree, it’s so easy to get bombarded with info and ideas and then feel totally overwhelmed! For me it is a slow process too. Very slow!

          Good luck with the move – I’d be intrigued to hear how much of the stuff you have in storage you had completely forgotten about!

  3. Harriet Coombe
    Harriet Coombe says:

    Hi I’m a new reader :) I was at the minimalists talk in perth too. I was one of the 1000 queuing around the block (with my reusable water bottle!) but caught the second talk. I thought the talk was ok but nothing new if you’ve read any of their blog. The biggest takeaway for me was the local meetup group. I can definitely embrace the minimalism concept but my goal is for realistic minimalism. I think there are so many minimalists out there who are all about numbers and it becomes a competition over who has the least. I’m so far from minimalism but on a gradual journey to consuming less :)

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Hello and welcome : ) Yes, I agree – nothing really new for me, except that so many people were interested in hearing about it! Sometimes it feels like it’s just a couple of us against the world!

      I haven’t had the chance to look up the meetup group but I thought it was a great idea. One of the things to add to the list!

      Yes, I don’t like the numbers game much either. Some things I know I could manage with less (like my wardrobe – work in progress) but other things – like my baking tins – give me too much joy to reduce! I still want to have less, and minimalise further, but I’ll never be at the stage of fitting everything in one holdall!

      I agree… it’s a gradual journey!

  4. Hoarder Comes Clean
    Hoarder Comes Clean says:

    It’s so interesting to see that there are several facets of minimalism — thanks for a thoughtful look and insight into them. And you can always try re-selling that book on amazon. OR – here’s an idea from my brother. He likes to support bookstores and authors, so buys his favorites when they first come out. He usually donates them to the library or trades on paperbackswap, but at Thanksgiving we were hanging out at the bookstore reading, and he had the book he’d bought the week before with him. He’d finished it, and noticed that it looked like new, so he put it back on the shelf! “I donated it to Barnes and Noble,” he said, “I hope that doesn’t confuse someone at check-out.”

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Haha, I like that story! Quite a few of our friends were at the talk and a few of them have asked to borrow it, so I don’t think it will be hanging around for long! Glen would have got it from the library had it been stocked there, but I guess it’s too niche, and it wasn’t. Plus you are right, it’s nice to support artists, authors etc by paying for their work. The bookshop Glen got it from was a local independent one : )

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  5. thalassa
    thalassa says:

    I prefer the idea (and the term) simplicity. Most of what we own has been thrifted. When we find that we don’t need something any longer, we take it to the thrift sore as a donation. When we know we will use something, we save up and buy the very, very best there is so that it can last a long time. We respect our belongings, repair them when they break (when we can), and reuse them until they have exhausted their use for us.

    My problem with minimalism is the idea that *things* are something to eschew just because they can’t make you happy, and therefore they have no real value. I think *things* can have value, just as much as experiences (if for no other reason than you often need things to have experiences). The problem is that (in our modern life) most of what we own today has a planned obselence. Most of what we own today is cheap, unrepairable, not made to last, and lacking aesthetic merit–plastic crap. But a well made, and cared for *thing* that lasts is the symbol, the tangible representation of ourselves beyond our life time…something that can be passed down to our children (or just another person that will honor it).

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Yes, me too – simplicity is a better description. Minimalism seems like the flamboyant older cousin. Minimalists’ stories can be very reactionary and dramatic: have loads of stuff, have epiphany, discard the lot in a week and now live out of a holdall. My own journey has not been like that!

      I don’t like the part of minimalism that says get rid of it if it’s easy to buy again/cheap to replace if you find you need. I want the balance between not having anything unnecessary, and not having to buy things I used to own but discarded in the name of minimalism. There needs to be balance. Reusable KeepCups and bamboo cutlery aren’t minimalist but I like that I don’t send unnecessary waste to landfill : )

      I agree with you that things can have value, and our disposable convenience-oriented society takes value away from things by making them cheap, disposable and obsolete…

  6. Lois
    Lois says:

    No, the Minimalists didn’t come to my area but I probably wouldn’t have gone if they did. I checked out their website early on in my minimalist learning and while I liked some of their early stuff later on it just didn’t speak to me and I haven’t been back.

    I think the problem we run into is in assuming a definition for minimalism. Minimalism while often is, isn’t the same as eco-conscious. I think any message of paring down and living with less is good and often it will lead to more eco-friendly decisions later on in a person’s journey, but again not always.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      I haven’t really read their site in that much detail. I’ve seen a few posts that Glen has shared via Facebook, but not enough to comment. That said, I’m reading the book and I’m liking it so far. But I’m only at Chapter 3!

      There’s definitely a lot of ideas about the definition of minimalism! Even amongst minimalists – there is definitely some competitiveness there about who can have the least! I worry that it encourages disposable living, which I don’t like.

      But we’re all on different journeys…

  7. Emily
    Emily says:

    Hi Lindsay, I was at the talk in Perth too (and got there VERY early to secure a spot!) and enjoyed the talk… although like Harriet said, it was identical to their blog/Tedx talk so I didn’t get much more out of it. I am an avid follower of lots of minimalist blogs and like you said, they aren’t about pushing the movement, just sharing their story. I don’t tell many people about my own minimalist journey but try to show how to live purposefully through my actions. Some people have noticed and asked me about it… better to live through example!

    I also try to live mindfully of my impact of the environment. I don’t believe minimalism will always lead to more sustainable life choices, but I do feel that if we are aware of our impact on this earth, then we will automatically be drawn to ‘simpler’ lifestyle choices.

    The most meaningful message I have ever received in print was the Annie Leonard book “The Story of Stuff’. Rather than pushing a ‘trendy movement’ of sorts, it gives the story of our consumerism as is and makes you think for yourself. I know everyone who reads this blog has probably read it too!

    I’m so glad you’re back Lindsay :) I have missed your wise words, clever suggestions and inspiring thoughts!

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Hi Emily, thanks for your comment! I noticed later that the homepage of the blog is exactly how they introduced themselves at the talk, and the third chapter of course, was read on the night. I don’t know enough about their stories to have been frustrated but I imagine if I did follow them I might have found it disappointing.

      I think it’s hard to explain your lifestyle to people if it doesn’t fit with convention. I’ve been at my job nearly three months and I’ve only just started explaining that I don’t buy things in plastic. They know I always bring my lunch and only have takeaway coffee in my glass KeepCup – but they don’t ask questions, they just think I’m weird. Ah well. At least over here most people understand me!

      I’ve never actually read Annie Leonard’s book! Of course I’ve seen Story of Stuff a bazillion times, but read the book? Nope. I really should as everyone says it’s amazing. I just wish our libary stocked more of these kinds of books!

      Thanks so much for your kind words! : )

      • Emily
        Emily says:

        Hi Lindsay, I originally stumbled across the book at the Cockburn Library. I loved it so much that I purchased it myself :) In the spirit of minimalism I would be more than happy to lend you my copy if you ever want! Just email me :) Emily xx

        • treadingmyownpath
          treadingmyownpath says:

          I’ve just re-checked my local library and they still don’t have it. Yes, I would love to borrow it! I have a few books to get through first but I’ll email you in the New Year! Thanks : )

  8. SarahN
    SarahN says:

    I don’t think I realised the minimalists were coming to Australia. To be honest, i find their posts a little hard to digest, similar to zero waste home, as they all seem to have ‘made it’ and the process is often forgotten – the struggles, the compromises, the battles against the norm. So it’s just the lack of approachability. If someone links to their posts, i tend to look at them though.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Glen booked the tickets back in February I think – it was months ago. He generally has far more idea of what’s going on than me – I think I’d miss out on a lot more if he wasn’t so observant!

      There are a lot of blogs written by people who’ve “made it”, as you say. Some of them are very good of course, but I sometimes wonder why it’s so hard to find the “during” stories. Sometimes I think I need to live a few more years and come out the other side before I can write about it! But actually, I’m not quite sure there is another side… : /

  9. ahhthesimplelife
    ahhthesimplelife says:

    Hello Lindsay,

    I know of the Minimalists, but have only read a few of their blog posts.

    Of course there are many “brands” of minimalism, and that’s fine, It really depends on your motivations.

    Here is an exceerpt from my blog post “Why minimalism? What’s Wrong With More”

    I’d like to point out some of the things that many of us like about the minimalist lifestyle. I’d also like to make you aware of some of the things that are “wrong” with “more” (“more” as in consumerism and a consumer-driven economy).

    In a way it all comes down to capacity. You and I can only “fit” so much into our lives. The more time and energy we devote to the accumulation of material things, the less time and energy we have for the things that truly matter (such as family, relationships, personal passions).

    If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves. ― Pope Francis

    Then, looking at it from Mother Earth’s point of view, she has only so much life- supporting natural capital for her inhabitants.

    Let us simplify our lives so that we may live in peace and harmony with nature.
    Tread lightly with soft steps and whisper like a child…― handcraftedtravellers

    So glad that you are back! I really enjoy your writing.

    Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!


    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Hi Carol, thanks so much for your comment. I popped over to your blog to read your post – goodness you do a lot of reading! It would take me the whole weekend to get through all those links! I’ve bookmarked a few and will get back to them when I have more time.

      I love both the quotes you shared : )

      For me, minimalism is about freedom – to do what I want with my time. Connecting, experiencing, learning, growing. And buying things not only takes my time from me in the purchase and then the maintenance of the stuff, but also our money is our time. We exchange our time for money when we work. The less I buy the less I need to work and the more freedom I have…

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

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