Real Life Minimalists: Sherry Ott

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details. (Note: the schedule is now full through January — but if you don’t mind waiting, feel free to send me your submission!)

This week, I’m happy to introduce you to Sherry Ott. She’s a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcase to Backpack, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice, and one of the driving forces behind Meet, Plan, Go! events across the country to inspire more people to get out and travel.  You can find her on Ottsworld, her personal around the world travel blog, writing about her nomadic experiences.

Sherry writes:

ms-sherryott-225

Sherry Ott

Extreme Minimalism

Ever since I graduated from college I was on a quest; a quest to be ‘grown up’ and successful and to own furniture that doesn’t come with assembly instructions. I still remember the first piece of furniture I ever purchased – a couch from Sears. Then came a bed, some side tables, kitchen appliances, works of art, pottery, clothes, more clothes, shoes, and handbags. Somehow over 14 years, I moved from my apartment in Omaha, which was furnished with furniture from garage sales and posters framed in plastic, to a beautiful loft in Manhattan with real wood furniture and actual art on my walls. I had a real ‘grown-up’ life I purchased for myself.

Just when I thought “I’ve finally made it!”, a time when I could live in comfort and style, other parts of my life were out of balance. Work became my enemy. I disliked my job/career which funded my lifestyle. I looked around at all the stuff I had acquired through the years and realized it’s really my enemy. It’s holding me hostage. But who at 38 yrs old in their right mind gives it all up?

Me

I eased into a minimalist lifestyle in a way with the idea of ‘out of site, out of mind’. I quit my 14 year corporate IT career, and decided to sublet my apartment for 1 ½ years to travel around the world and find some clarity. I lived out of a suitcase while traveling to 23 countries; never once did I miss anything back in my apartment. I replaced my ‘stuff’ with travel experiences instead.

By getting out of the US and away from the constant barrage of ‘more is good’, I was able to look at consumption in a different way. In addition, I found that I loved traveling and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to find a way to make travel my lifestyle. When I arrived back to my apartment and looked around at everything I never missed, I knew what I had to do; sell it all. I needed to get rid of the ‘weight’ so that I could be free to travel and move around.

I sold 90% of my possessions leaving only some family heirlooms, art, and clothing in a small storage space. I sold my stuff off to my family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. Even though I knew it was what I wanted to do, it wasn’t an easy or comfortable situation. As I handed over the items I worked so hard to acquire I tried to think of it as if my couch was really shackled to me and now when someone bought it, it was now shackled to them, keeping them weighted down and unable to move. I on the other hand became lighter and practically lifted off the ground as my bed and last pieces of furniture and kitchen gadgets left my apartment. Now I was free to fly to Vietnam, Brazil, Kenya or anywhere else I wanted, and stay as long as I wanted.

That’s just what I did. For the last 3 years I have been completely nomadic, moving from place to place, staying with family, friends, villagers, renting short term rooms or apartments, and house-sitting. I lived and worked in Vietnam for a year, hiked the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, did a US road trip across the country, house-sat in Brussels, volunteered in remote villages, and simply connected more with my family. But my life fits in my backpack. Is this extreme minimalism? I suppose so, but for me it’s all about choices and determining what’s important in your life. I had to step away from my stuff and my own culture to realize what was important to me.

Do I ever miss my stuff? Sure, sometimes. But then I look out across the Gobi Desert and remind myself that this view is much better than sitting on my couch.

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

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33 comments to Real Life Minimalists: Sherry Ott

  • Chris

    Thanks for sharing, Sherry. Trudging back to work on another Monday morning, this was just the pick-me-up I needed to remind myself that I’m working for a purpose — early retirement in a few years so I can live the way I want to. Best of luck in your journey.

  • Thanks Chris! Keep your eye on the goal! I actually planned my getaway from my corporate life for 1 1/2 years before I actually left the first time. It’s a great time to start getting used to downsizing!
    Best of luck!
    Sherry

  • amy

    Sherry you continue to inspire! We have begun this process and today is the day. The realtor is coming over with paperwork for us to put our house on the market! Thank you to you and to Miss Minimalist and everyone else whose words inspire us and help us!

  • Yes! I felt like I was reading my own diary entry with this minimalist’s story. Thank you for sharing. I needed this after my weekend of selling most of my furniture and the fear that went with wondering if this is the right choice.

  • Loved this profile. Inspiring. I’m off to check out Sherry’s website.
    We’re hoping to do something similar but with baby in tow.

  • Jack

    Very inspiring Sherry. I’m in the save-up phase of trying to do something similar.

  • Deb

    Nice post Sherry,and good on you Francine for these Monday real-life posts.

    I can relate to your feelings of being held hostage by your stuff. That was exactly how I felt. I was literally making myself miserable and mentally unwell to have the life that everyone looking in from the outside thought was perfect. What worries me a little is what’s going to happen when more and more people realize the big con and opt out or don’t even bother going there in the first place.

  • Whoa, whoa, whoa, this was a great story! It’s also good to hear that it wasn’t easy to get rid of everything.

    • It was far from easy!! I did actually chronical it all on my website and took pictures. I can still to do day not really look at those pictures without having a little pang of sorrow. But I do know I’d rather be without all of it rather than being weighed down by it!

  • Kim

    I’m not hostage to my stuff. I’m hostage to my group health insurance plan.

    Moral of the story? Do this kind of thing while you are young and in good health.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience Sherry. You are inspiring! I felt the same way about being held to my couch and other heavy furniture. While I’m not yet as free as you are, I no longer have any of that furniture and it feels great!

  • Wow! Congratulations, Sherry! I have to agree that the culture of “more=better” is insidious in the US. And I love this country! But sometimes getting out of it gives some much-needed perspective. Thank you for sharing!

  • What a great inspiring story Sherry! And I’ll take experiences over stuff any day also!

    It’s so great to hear that more people are leaving jobs that don’t speak to them anymore and pursuing new callings. I’m getting ready to take a very low paying but wonderful job in non-profit working for a cause I care deeply about. I was so close to going back to the corporate world when I realized my spirit would just not allow me to do so. Reading about people like you are great support to those of us who are taking the plunge and trying something different.

  • Thanks everyone for such great comments! I had a great time writing about my journey from Upper West Side loft to suitcase. Such great encouragement out there! Also great to hear so many of you planning similar journeys! It’s really not as hard as you think.

  • Debbie

    Sherry thankyou so much for sharing your story. It speaks to my soul and makes me see that everyone has a choice in life. Unhappiness is simply a self induced state of mind. I am about to begin university so when i graduate i will have some skills to offer the world when i travel overseas. Until that time i will make do with short trips away and reading incredible blogs such as yours. Thankyou again from Australia!

  • Wow awesome post Sherry! I am seriously impressed! My wife and I dream of one day doing what you are doing now. We got a taste of it after we got married. We decided to backpack through Europe for 3 months on the cheap and loved every minute of it. Drinking wine on the French Riviera overlooking the Mediterranean, hiking a part of Camino De Santiago, and eating lunch on the Champ de Mars near the the Eiffel Tower in Paris all while living out of our backpacks! Your experiences are definitely inspiring. Thank you again and thank you Francine for starting your “Real Life Minimalist” series!

  • CoCoYoYo

    LOVE reading Sherry’s site! I’ve been thinking of taking a year to travel the US – today’s spotlight is definitely providing more motivation!

  • Janelle

    Go you! I am so proud of you and everything you’ve done. Perhaps I will be joining you on this quest soon…. :)

  • Ashley

    Oh wow!! I am super inspired by your story, Sherry. That’s exactly what I hope to do one day — hopefully within the next 5 years. I have a question, though, that echoes Kim’s — what ABOUT health insurance? Do you just not have any? I have to grudgingly admit that I, too, am “weighed down” by my need for the security of having health insurance. All the other stuff seems somewhat manageable! :) I’d love to hear your perspective on this.

    • Ashley,
      I just stopped back here and saw all of these comments – sorry I didn’t get back to you! It took me a long time to figure out what health insurance would work for my unique nomadic lifestyle, but I’m happy to say that I have finally found one that is perfect! A typical travel medical insurance didn’t work for me as in my life I’m always traveling somewhere and many times I’m in the US staying at friends/family since I no longer have a home base. However the main travel medical insurance plans won’t cover you in the US. Plus – Travel Medical plans don’t really cover preventative stuff – and I’m 40 yrs old so I can’t simply neglect regular doctor visits and tests. Long story short, I ended up getting an expat plan from HTH Worldwide called Global Citizen. It covers me anywhere in the world and when I’m in America it works under the Aetna PPO plan so I can see any physician in that. I won’t bore you with more insurance stuff – but know that I’m happy to provide you any more info. Just send me a note/comment on my blog and I’ll get back to you! Plus – my contact info is there too.
      Hope that helps!
      Good luck on your future travels!
      Sherry

  • Gil

    Sherry,

    Very inspirational. I’m nowhere near you as far as minimalism goes, but I have come a long way. I haven’t gotten rid of everything, but I have enough to fulfill my needs and make me happy. My wife is a bit more of a packrat than me, but I have been a huge influence on her. When she does buy something, she gives another item away.

    Additionally, things and the acquisition of them simply don;t mean much anymore, but life experiences do. Thanks again.

  • Very nice. This is what we long to do so badly, my fiancé an I. She was born in Australia but her heritage is from Vietnam. We’ve started travelling around and reduced what we own a huge amount. What you’ve done sounds like such a great goal to work towards. I’m a photographer as well so it’s naturally in me to want to see beautiful places.

    I think there are a few good reasons to be minimalist like this:

    – It helps the environment the less we consume.
    – We can only buy the products so cheaply and in quantity here because someone else in the world is forfeiting a proper wage, so essentially they are paying for it for us. To me this is slavery, just like in the past, but we’re removed from it. We don’t get rich from it, they don’t get rich from it, but a few big corporations stand to make a lot of money.
    – Your health and happiness increase as the burden of possessions comes off. They take up too much thought and time in keeping and acquiring.
    – We have much more time to live life the way we want when we’re not hoarding and constantly purchasing things.

    Sorry to ramble on, hopefully it makes enough sense, it’s very late here. I just wanted to put my 2 cents in.

    • Peter – I agree with your ‘rambles’! Especially about how much time/thought it takes to acquire things. I am so happy that I no longer have to shop for things like house cleaners, or even house decorations. I used to waste so much time doing that type of stuff. Now I just buy toothpaste occasionally!

  • Congratulations! How exciting and wonderful.

  • […] Real Life Minimalist Sherry Ott: A guest post I did for Miss Minimalist (one of my heros!) on how I gave up everything I owned to live out of a backpack.  Lots of great comments on this post – so take a look, add your thoughts, and poke around Miss Minimalists’s awesome site! […]

  • Juli

    Sounds like an interesting life but selling my limited stash of stuff wouldn’t get me through a month as a vagabond. :(

  • […] live as an expat in Vietnam, kiss corporate life behind, become closer to my family, learn how to live minimally, started a business, and basically simplify my life. Me and the magnificant Michaela Potter – we […]

  • Tina

    I love that you came to extreme minimalism and you are making it work. While I will never be an extreme minimalist, I see so much good in having fewer possessions to worry about. I am looking at more to give away, and more to recycle every day. In our family, we pass clothes around, so there is little reason to shop either.

  • Tina

    We are going on a cruise next month. I usually take very few clothes and lots of cheap, second-hand jewelry. We watch the people who bring huge suitcases full of things. Once we saw a woman bring 5 suitcases for a 3 day trip. So much to worry about. I don’t own enough to fill 5 suitcases.

  • Tina

    We noticed on this cruise fewer people bringing monster suitcases. Although some people still brought an awful lot and lots of fancy clothes. Business casual will get you in everywhere, I took a carry on and spouse took a 24″ because he brought his CPAP machine. Cruise was 8 days and we also spent a full day in Barcelona before, toured Pisa, stopped in Pompeii, Marseilles, etc. Last cruise we were on a much smaller ship around the Greek islands. This ship had more entertainment, more art installations on board. My husband is already planning our next cruise. My son watered the plants and cared for the cats.

  • Tina

    I have been getting rid of many things we don’t use. I have very few clothes and wear the same things over and over. My husband has a lot of clothes and every time he buys something he has to get rid of 2 things. There were a lot of extra dishes I donated to the local historical society for use as a fundraiser. They fill a cup or small bowl with a cookie or piece of biscotti and a tea bag and wrap it up. Then they sell it for $5.

  • Karolina

    Hi,

    like all the others, I wholeheartedly agree that your story is very inspirational. I love travel, and would gladly spend my whole life doing it. But I have to wonder – how do you support yourself? You still have to pay for the food, travel costs, accomodation and various other things, don’t you? Cheers!

  • Tina

    My goal is to get rid of about 1/2 of my things in the coming year. At two big give away bags every week it is doable.

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