Wanting to Want

In my younger, more acquisitive years, I had a problem with “wanting to want.”

I subscribed to several magazines, and would page through them for ideas on new clothes to wear, new beauty treatments to try, and new things to decorate my home.

I received a mountain of catalogs each month, and would scour them for products I never knew I needed.

I would stop by the mall on my lunch hour and browse the racks, waiting for something to catch my eye.

The cycle went something like this: a particular gadget/outfit/book/decorative item/piece of jewelry would capture my imagination; I’d spend a few days or weeks wanting it; I’d acquire it; and then I’d look for something else to want.

Where did that leave me? With too much stuff and too little money. Not to mention a lot of time wasted that could have been spent on much more productive pursuits.

When I embraced a minimalist lifestyle, wanting to want was one of the first bad habits to go. I attribute this change in attitude to the decluttering process—after spending countless hours and much energy undoing my consumer decisions, I had no desire to start the cycle again. I canceled my magazine subscriptions, removed my name from all catalog mailing lists, and never set foot in a mall unless I absolutely had to.

When I stopped wanting to want, I experienced a wonderful feeling of lightness and freedom. The pressure to look for, research, desire, save for, and shop for new things was suddenly removed from my life. My stress decreased, my free time increased, and I became a happier person as a result.

In fact, after some time, I could once again look at magazines, catalogs, and stores—but with a completely different perspective:

“How many things are there which I do not want.” ~Socrates

I no longer saw a stuff-packed store as a treasure trove or minefield, but rather an unappealing (and sometimes overwhelming) place of excess and waste.

Such a change in thinking, of course, is easier said than done. Unfortunately, in our consumer-driven society, wanting to want is almost ingrained into our psyche—and reinforced every day by the countless ads, commercials, and marketing messages we see. It seems like everyone wants us to want something, and will go to great lengths to spark that desire.

How do you resist it?

Ignore it. In the beginning, it’s easiest to simply tune out the ads, commercials, and other temptations—which may mean turning off your TV, giving up magazines, avoiding retail websites, and not shopping for entertainment.

Analyze it. Recognize the techniques that marketers use to get you to buy—like making you feel inadequate or insecure, and positioning their product as the cure-all for your problems. Once you understand their tactics, you’re much less likely to fall victim to them.

Subvert it. Here’s where my love of consumer disobedience comes in! Do like Socrates, and take pleasure in discovering all those things you don’t want. Stick it to the man, and keep your hard-earned dollars out of the hands of big corporations.

If you’d like to reduce your clutter, save more money, and gain the time and energy to pursue your dreams, the solution is simple: stop wanting to want. It’s a tiny piece of advice that’ll transform your life!

Have you ever found yourself “wanting to want”? Do you consider retail environments a temptation or a turn-off? Please share your thoughts in the Comments!

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

Historical Minimalist: Saint Francis of Assisi

St. Francis statue in garden, via
Wikipedia

When I was a young girl, I attended Catholic elementary school (yes, complete with plaid uniform, oxford shoes, and nuns). I remember in first grade, one of the first orders of business was assigning each of us students a patron saint. The selection was based entirely on our first names, and would stay with us as we progressed through each grade; our responsibility was to learn more about our saint through various projects, and share their life story with the class.

I was assigned St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – October 3, 1226). After my 6-year-old self got over the initial irritation of not getting a “girl saint,” I realized how lucky I was. While other kids were dealing with heavy issues like persecution and martyrdom, my saint was known for wandering the forest and talking to animals. Score!

It was decades later before I realized the true fortuitousness of this assignment—and began to wonder how much it had actually influenced my life. For St. Francis of Assisi wasn’t just sitting around chatting with birds and chipmunks; he was one of the earliest and foremost proponents of voluntary simplicity.

Francis was born into a life of privilege, the son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant. His early years were carefree, and full of the worldly pleasures consistent with the prosperous class of which he was part. As a young man, though, he became disillusioned with this life; and on a business trip to Rome, decided to exchange his sumptuous clothes with that of a beggar. From then on, much to his father’s ire, he embraced the poor and destitute, distributing his wealth freely to them. Eventually, he renounced his inheritance, and went out into the world to preach with only the clothes on his back.

Within a year, Francis had eleven followers and founded a new religious order: the Friars Minor, or Franciscan Order. They earned their food with manual labor, never touching money or accepting more than they needed. They had no possessions, and preached a simple doctrine of voluntary poverty, and love for all living creatures. (Francis felt it was man’s duty to protect all nature—thereby earning him the role as patron saint of the environment as well.) What’s truly remarkable: Francis lived this life of simplicity and spread his message with such joy that, after eleven years, his following numbered 50,000 men and women!

Many followed in the footsteps of Francis, despising all the vanities of the world, so that the number of his followers, marvelously increasing from day to day, soon reached the utmost limits of the world: for holy poverty, which they took with them as their only procuratrix, made them prompt in obedience, strong to labor, and swift of foot. And because they possessed nothing earthly, loved nothing earthly, and feared to lose nothing earthly, they were secure in all places; troubled by no fears, distracted by no cares, they lived without trouble of mind, waited without solicitude for the coming day, or the night’s lodging. And from this their penury they reaped exceeding abundance, according to the counsel of the wise man, who chose less rather than more.
~ St. Bonaventura, 1221-1274, as quoted in Less is More by Goldian VandenBroeck

As a minimalist, I consider St. Francis to be a personal role model. Granted, I fall far short of his ideal—for example, I still feel compelled to have a financial cushion, and find it hard to trust that the universe would provide for me if I let everything go. However, I am eternally grateful for the lesson I learned from him early on: that true joy isn’t found in money or material goods, but in giving freely to others and living with less.

If you’re also inspired by Francis’s story, here’s five ways that following in his footsteps can help with your decluttering:

1. Be generous. Give your stuff away, realizing that someone else may need it more than you do. Why let something sit in your closet, unused and unloved, when it can make another person’s day? (Need ideas on where to send it? Here’s 101 places to donate your stuff.)

2. Embrace “just enough.” You don’t have to give up all your possessions and wander the world barefoot; but it’s very liberating to reject excess, and live with only what you truly need.

3. March to your own drummer. Francis took a lot of flack from his friends and family for giving up his material wealth. Similarly, don’t be afraid of what others may think of your minimalism—you don’t need to own a couch, TV, or houseful of tchotchkes just because your peers expect you to.

4. Celebrate nature. When you find pleasure in the natural world (taking a walk, going to the park, growing a garden), you’ll have much less need for commercial entertainment and its accessories.

5. Be an example. Francis inspired others not just by words, but by “walking the walk.” If you want to gently nudge your partner or kids onto a more minimalist path, lead by example; when they see the joy you find in a newly-decluttered space, they may very well follow suit and embrace the idea of paring down.

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

Exorcise Your Clutter Ghosts

We all have some clutter skeletons in our closets—purchases and behaviors that have junked up our homes, emptied our bank accounts, and perhaps even chained us to an unsatisfying work-spend treadmill.

And despite our best intentions, some of these demons continue to haunt us, sucking the space from our homes, the money from our wallets, and the joy from our lives.

In the spirit of Halloween, I propose an exorcism: let’s call out each of these clutter ghosts in turn, and banish them once and for all!

Novelty. If you find yourself idly browsing retail websites, paging through catalogs, stopping by the mall every weekend, or otherwise looking for things “to want,” the ghost of novelty may be haunting you. We all know, however, that the rush from acquiring a shiny new item is usually short-lived—and often followed by buyer’s remorse. Instead of shopping for entertainment, read a good book, go to the park, or have coffee with a friend.

Excess. Blame this demon for your overflowing closets, shelves, and kitchen drawers. Sometimes we go overboard in acquiring certain items—as if one more pair of shoes, or electronic gadget, will make our lives complete. The best way to exorcise this one is to consolidate and make an inventory of your “problem” categories; discovering just how many t-shirts or DVDs you own can be downright scary, and inspire a major decluttering session!

Sentiment. This ghost keeps us holding on to things we don’t want in the name of “memories.” We feel that if we let go of the object in question, the person, place, or occasion associated with it will vanish forever from our thoughts. We have to remember that our memories don’t reside in that thing, but in our minds—which is a much better place for them, as they can never be tarnished, stolen, or taken away.

Guilt. The ghost of guilt sure is a scary one! It keeps our attics stuffed with unloved heirlooms, our closets with unworn clothes, and our drawers with unwanted gifts. This monster can take several forms: guilt over failing to preserve our family history, wasting money on an impulse purchase, or getting rid of presents from loved ones. How to exorcise it? Realize that letting these things out into the world, where they’ll be loved and appreciated, can do more good than hoarding them away.

Laziness. Does the thought of your clutter keep you glued to the couch? Ignore this ghoul, and your problem will become all the more terrifying. The solution: don’t feel you have to tackle everything at once. Start small—a One-a-Day Declutter takes little effort, but can be incredibly effective.

Fear. Ah, the ghost of just-in-case and might-need-it! Think about all those things you’re squirreling away because you’re afraid they’ll be useful someday (even though you haven’t used, looked at, or even thought about them for years). Ponder what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t have that item on hand. You’ll likely conclude that it’s far from the end of the world, and hardly worth hoarding a hundred items in the slim chance you might need one of them.

Insecurity. If you’re buying stuff to show your “status,” or in an effort to keep up with the Joneses, you may be possessed by the ghost of insecurity. Always ask “why?” before you buy something—is it because you really need it? Or because you think it’s a symbol of your success, or similar to what your peers or neighbors have? Foil this demon, and free yourself of conspicuous consumption.

So while the kids are trick-or-treating this weekend, keep an eye out for ghouls and goblins of the clutter kind. The sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can dispel them—and the less frightening it’ll be to open your drawers, your closets, and your bank statement! 

Is a particular clutter ghoul haunting you? Let’s do some ghost-busting in the Comments!

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

Get Your Mujo On

One of the central tenets of Zen Buddhism is the concept of mujo. Mujo means impermanence, transience, ephemerality—in other words, everything is changing in every moment, nothing ever stays the same.

As minimalists, why is it so important that we get our mujo on? Because when we see that everything is impermanent, we become less attached to possessions and consumer goods.

When we embrace mujo:

* We let go of sentimental items and other reminders of “who we used to be,” instead of clinging to our past.

* We accept that our bodies change, and don’t hold on to the clothes that no longer fit us.

* We accept that our little ones grow up and leave the nest, and don’t preserve every item they used, wore, or created.

* We let go of long-lost hobbies and interests, instead of squirreling away their equipment and supplies.

* We pass on impulse purchases, knowing that they’ll have no lasting impact on our lives.

* We give freely and generously to others, rather than grabbing all we can for ourselves.

* We celebrate the cherry blossoms the two weeks they’re in bloom, knowing that they’ll soon fall to the ground.

* We are deeply grateful for every moment, without becoming attached to it.

* We are comforted that a bad situation will pass, rather than fixating on our troubles.

* We avoid frustration by going with the flow, instead of trying to control everything around us.

* We let people, possessions, and ideas flow into and out of our lives naturally, instead of grasping or hoarding them.

* We accept that our loved ones change, and encourage them in their growth and development.

* We realize that it’s often easier to embrace change when we’re not dragging around a lot of baggage.

* We welcome the person we are becoming, rather than trying to freeze our appearance, relationships, interests, or ideas in time.

Embracing the concept of mujo helps us live lightly and gracefully, approach each day with joy and wonder, and never take anything for granted. It motivates us to rid ourselves of distractions, and focus on what truly matters—because our days are as impermanent as the cherry blossoms, and just as beautiful.

How are you getting your mujo on? Please share in the Comments!

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

Minimalism and Religion

(Photo: Helene Samson)

I’ve always been fascinated by the philosophical aspects of world religions. As I mentioned in a previous post, I see many more commonalities among different doctrines than I see differences—and one of those happens to be their emphasis on simple living.

Across the board, the great spiritual leaders were not known for their riches or worldly possessions; rather, they led simple and humble lives, rejecting material goods in favor of teaching and service.

Jesus, usually depicted as owning little more than his robe and sandals, is quoted as saying, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Moses gave up “the treasures of Egypt” to lead the Israelites’ Exodus across the Red Sea. He relied on faith, not wealth or power, to sustain his people as they wandered in the desert, and they were bestowed with “manna from heaven.”

The prophet Muhammad is said to have lived with few material goods, patching his shoes, mending his clothes, and eating and sleeping on the floor. He advised, “Wealth is not in having vast riches, it is in contentment.”

Gandhi, the great Hindu leader, died with less than ten earthly possessions—including his sandals, watch, eating bowl, prayer book, and spectacles. One of his most famous quotes: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was an Indian prince who renounced his worldly possessions in search of spiritual enlightenment. He taught that desire is the primary cause of unhappiness, and that “joy comes not through possession or ownership but through a wise and loving heart.”

The Chinese sage Confucius abandoned a comfortable life as Minister of Justice to teach his doctrine of ethics. He said, “”With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bent arm for a pillow—I have still joy in the midst of all these things.”

Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, championed simplicity and humility with such quotes as “Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires” and “He who knows he has enough is rich.”

So I can’t help but wonder: if so many people subscribe to these religions, and their leaders were such powerful proponents of simplicity, why are consumerist lifestyles so prevalent?

Now I know that starting an internet discussion on religion can be a dangerous thing. We all have our own beliefs, and we’re often quite passionate about them. However, I trust that we can share our knowledge here without resorting to “my religion is better than yours” or “my religion is right and yours is wrong.”

I’d like this discussion to explore the threads of simplicity that are woven throughout the world’s religions. I’m not an expert in any of them, and would love to hear quotes, stories, and other examples of minimalist living in different faiths. Above all, I’d like to celebrate this beautiful philosophy that so many religions share.

So if you’re game, tell us something about simplicity and your faith in the Comments. (And for those of you who don’t follow an organized religion, please feel free to chime in with how simplicity plays a role in your own brand of spirituality—be it centered on nature, the Universe, etc.)

Just please, please, please do me one favor: refrain from any negative comments on others’ beliefs, and focus on positive ones about your own! :)

The Thread of Connection

I spent last New Year’s Day in Bangkok, participating in the Thai tradition of visiting Buddhist temples and making donations to the resident monks. At one of the temples, a monk blessed me with a sprinkle of holy water and tied a simple white cord around my wrist. Eight months later, I’m still wearing it.

I’ve since googled this Thai tradition to find out its meaning. Apparently, the white thread is called sai sin, and is meant to represent the Buddhist Sutras (the word sutra is Sanskrit for “thread”). As such, it’s a constant reminder to act according to Buddhist principles—treating every living thing with respect, kindness, and compassion. (I love how this lines up with the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual figures; I think religions have many more commonalities than differences.)

The symbolism of the thread helps me remember that we are all connected. Everything I say, write, do, and purchase ripples out to affect the world around me. Therefore, I try to be extra mindful of the choices I make.

I’ll pass on the trendy top to avoid the possibility of sweatshop labor, and the leather handbag to avoid the slaughter of an innocent animal. I try to smile and speak kindly to everyone I meet, even if I’m feeling rushed or short-tempered. I try to write words with an uplifting message, rather than rants or complaints. In short, I try to make each interaction with the world a positive one, knowing that another person, or animal, or the planet itself is on the receiving end of my actions. I’m not always successful, but my little bracelet reminds me to try.

As Herman Melville wrote:

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”

The science geek in me likes my bracelet for another reason as well: it makes me think of superstring theory (in which all of matter is thought to be composed of tiny vibrating strings), and how I am ultimately connected to the universe—from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vastest galaxies. There’s something incredibly peaceful about knowing you’re part of such a grand and beautiful whole.

In turn, these thoughts have strengthened my minimalism. I’ve found that buying and desiring less is a wonderful way to exist harmoniously in the universe—it’s one of the easiest ways to avoid harming the planet and other people. Buying less means consuming fewer of the Earth’s resources, and protecting them for future generations. Buying less means decreased dependence on cheap and exploited labor. Buying less means less “one-upmanship” with peers and colleagues, and more serenity and satisfaction all around.

But above all, this little white bracelet reminds me of the essence of minimalism: that it’s not material things, but our connections—to friends, family, strangers, plants, flowers, animals, atoms, stars, faith—that are our true treasures in life, and most deserving of our time and attention.

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

Minimalism Around the World: Danshari

(Photo: TANAKA Juuyoh)

When I first started writing about minimalism, I thought of clutter and overconsumption as primarily an American problem. However, from the emails and comments I received, I soon learned that many in the UK and Europe were struggling with similar issues.

Still, I considered it mainly an affliction of the Western world, and never imagined decluttering would have much relevance in the Far East (which has a long cultural heritage of simplicity and restraint).

However, according to an article by Michael Hoffman in The Japan Times Online, there’s a new trend sweeping Japan: danshari.

Kanjiclinic.com included the word in its “2010 New Words” list, and defined it as follows:

断捨離 Danshari – “de-clutter.”
The three kanji in this compound mean “refuse – throw away – separate.”
Self-help author Hideko Yamashita, drawing on yoga philosophy, promotes a three-step system for de-cluttering one’s life (both physical and mental) in Japan:
1) refuse to bring unnecessary new possessions into your life;
2) throw away existing clutter in your living space; and
3) separate from a desire for material possessions.

I love it! One beautiful little word to sum up so many of the concepts we talk about here. Let’s break it down into its components:

断 dan – to refuse
This part is about being a good gatekeeper, and stopping the inflow of stuff into your home. How to put this into action?
* Practice minsumerism
* Seek alternatives to gifts
* Eliminate your junk mail
* Refuse freebies
* Engage in consumer disobedience

捨 sha – to throw away
Here we get down to the brass tacks of decluttering: eliminating all unnecessary items from your life. Some ways to do this:
* Purge at least one item each day
* Let go of heirlooms and sentimental stuff
* Pare down your wardrobe
* Streamline your kitchen
* Donate your castoffs to charity

離 ri – to separate
The final part involves cultivating a sense of nonattachment to your possessions. To achieve this, try the following:
* Break up with your stuff
* Realize you are not what you own
* Embrace the concept of enough
* Cherish space over stuff
* Live like a butterfly

Dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri–it’s quite poetic, isn’t it? I think it would make the perfect chant while cleaning out a closet, or passing up an impulse purchase. :)

Anyway, it’s encouraging to see minimalism rising in popularity in the East, as well as the West. According to Hoffman’s article, books and seminars on the subject are quite popular in Japan, as people seek freedom from consumerism and the clutter that accompanies it. He quotes Yamashita:

What’s more important, my life or my things? “Things” are not necessarily inimical to “life” — or are they, when they’re not life-enhancing? Ask yourself this, she says: “Does my present self need my present possessions?” If not, why can’t I ditch the possessions, all that stuff accumulated over years and still accumulating? What binds me to them? Is it that “things” have the upper hand over “life”?

Danshari refers not just to physical clutter, but also to mental and emotional clutter. It holds the promise that once you’ve disposed of the excess and the unnecessary, you’ll have the space, time, and freedom to live more fully.

Hoffman cites its conceptual ties to a traditional Japanese virtue called wabi, which is defined beautifully by Zen master Daisetsu T. Suzuki (1871-1966):

“Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats . . . and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall. . . .”

(Ah, so peaceful and serene…I can’t imagine a lovelier way to describe the simple life.)

I’m thrilled that the idea of living with less is spreading throughout the world, and fascinated to hear how the concepts of minimalism and decluttering are taking form in various countries and cultures. I’d love it if some of our Japanese readers can elaborate on danshari, and other international readers on similar movements/trends in their own countries. Please share with us in the Comments!

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

A Haiku Life

I’ve always been a big fan of haiku, the ultra-compact poetry of Japanese tradition. I appreciate its elegant form, its economy of expression, and its emphasis on limits: 17 syllables total, in lines of 5, 7, and 5.

Here’s a few of my favorites from the wandering poet Basho (of course, the English translations differ in syllable count):

I like to wash,
the dust of this world
In the droplets of dew.

The temple bell stops.
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

Year’s end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept.

Wake, butterfly -
It’s late, we’ve miles
To go together.

Skylark on moor –
Sweet song
Of non-attachment.

Haiku typically celebrate the natural world and our intimate relationship with it. They show sensitivity to the changing seasons, and an appreciation for nature in its smallest details. They remind us that the most beautiful things in life have nothing to do with money or stores.

In a haiku, every word is precious, evocative, and chosen with the utmost care. As a minimalist, I can’t help but wonder: what if we put the same effort into choosing the words we speak, the activities in which we participate, the possessions we own?

With that in mind, here’s some key principles to living a haiku life:

1. Limits. Take inspiration from haiku’s seventeen syllables, and embrace the concept of limits. For example, if five pairs of shoes are adequate, limit your footwear to that number. Do the same for books, gadgets, plates, cups, shirts, pants, etc.—even your activities and commitments. Consider extending this to the written and spoken word as well, expressing yourself as succinctly as possible (ie., sending a short and sweet text instead of gabbing for hours on your cell phone).

2. Curate. When you limit what you own, every item counts. When you limit what you do, every action counts. When you limit what you say, every word counts. Therefore, it’s important to choose your possessions, actions, and words with deliberation and care.

3. Quality over quantity. Haiku is a wonderful example of “less is more.” Making these poems longer or wordier would detract from, not enhance, their artistic merit. When it comes to haiku, it’s a matter of striving for the right words, not more words. Similarly, when it comes to our households, we should focus on the right possessions (what we need, love, or use regularly) rather than more possessions; and when it comes to our schedules, the right commitments (what we find fulfilling) rather than more commitments.

4. Beauty. Haiku isn’t merely a handful of words with the right syllable count; it’s a mindful selection and arrangement, meant to evoke beauty in its expression. I feel similarly about minimalist living: it’s not about living with 100 items, but rather stripping away distractions to reveal the inherent beauty of life. It’s not about counting your possessions, but rather using your extra space and time to discover what delights your soul.

5. Humility. Haiku is never flashy or showy; it’s modest and humble and down-to-earth. We should similarly strive to live without pretense. Instead of flaunting status symbols or keeping up with the Joneses, embrace a life of simplicity. If we’d all stop one-upping each other, we’d live significantly more serene and pleasant lives.

6. Nature. Seek beauty outdoors, instead of in shopping malls. Realize that trees, flowers, and clean air and water are extraordinary gifts, and do everything in your power to respect and preserve them.

In summary: a haiku life means being mindful of every possession, word, and action in our lives. It’s living lightly and gracefully, and celebrating beauty in everyday experience. By following the spirit of these exquisite little poems, our lives too can be sparkling jewels, full of meaning and with nothing superfluous.

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

Minimalist Inspiration from Millionaires

A few days ago, a reader sent me a wonderful article from The Seattle Times: Young tech millionaires keeping 1-bedroom lifestyle. It focuses on some of Silicon Valley’s most successful young entrepreneurs, and how they’re rejecting traditional status symbols like mansions and luxury cars. Why? They find more value in funding startup ventures and social causes than engaging in conspicuous consumption.

For example: Aaron Patzer, the founder of Mint.com, who sold his company in 2009 for $170 million. He lives in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, and recently replaced his 1996 Ford Contour (with 150,000 miles) with a $29K Subaru Outback.

Another one: Joe Greenstein, cofounder of Flixster, which was purchased by Time Warner for $80 million. He’s happy living a “modest life” in his studio apartment.

The two founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, are also featured. According to his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg’s interests include “minimalism” and “eliminating desire.” Moskovitz has a similar philosophy:

“Things can’t bring you happiness,” Moskovitz said. “I have pictured myself owning expensive things and easily came to the conclusion that I would not have a materially more meaningful life because of them.”

What a refreshing alternative to the typical lifestyles of the rich and famous! I love the message these guys are sending: that wealth can be put to better use than big houses and fancy cars. And that just because you’re wealthy, doesn’t mean you must have those things.

When I first started this blog, I occasionally received emails and comments to the effect of, “I’m sorry, you must live that way because you’re really poor” or “I lived like that when I had no money, too”—as if someone with suitable finances would never choose to live without rooms full of furniture and giant screen TVs.

Similarly, when my husband and I first started living minimally, acquaintances didn’t know what to make of our lifestyle. While peers in our income bracket were buying McMansions, we bought a small, fixer-upper bungalow. While they were leasing luxury cars, we drove our old, high-mileage cars into the ground. While they were shopping for home theater systems, we chose to give up our cable.

Why didn’t we indulge in such things if we could afford them? We simply had different priorities. It’s not that we didn’t spend money—it’s just that we spent it on experiences (like travel) rather than stuff, or saved it for things that really mattered to us.

Which led to an interesting dichotomy: while some people were concerned about our financial well-being (“you’re welcome to the couch in our basement”), others suspected we’d had some sort of financial windfall. We’d hear, “Oh, it must be nice to be able to jet off to Europe!” or “I wish I could afford to quit my job and write all day.” Well, yes, you can do those things when you don’t have a $400K mortgage, a $50K car payment, and tens of thousands in credit card debt. ;-)

I’m certainly not saying that our choices are better than anyone else’s—they’re simply different. They’re what’s right for us, and what makes us happy.

And that’s why I love this article. These young millionaires are completely uprooting the notion of keeping up with the Joneses. They’re subverting the message that Madison Avenue has been sending us for decades: that success equates to status symbols and conspicuous consumption. They’re setting an example that you can want less, no matter what your net worth, and use your money in ways that are important to you (rather than as society expects).

So what does that mean to those of us many rungs below on the economic ladder? Use your resources in the ways you find fulfilling, no matter what anyone else thinks. Don’t hesitate to keep driving your old junker, and spend your paycheck on art classes instead. Feel free to put money into your kid’s college fund, rather than upgrade your living room furniture. Live your dream of travel, instead of taking on a big mortgage. Donate to your favorite charity, instead of splurging on the designer handbag all your friends have.

Bottom line: whether you have $10 or $10 million, there’s much more to life than things.

[Note: the one issue I have with this article is the quoted assertion that "being concerned with appearance, shopping for clothes and decorating your house are feminine values." I think that's an unfortunate stereotype we can do without.]

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

Without All This Ado

(Photo: mctroutman)

Yesterday, the property manager of my current sublet told me she’d be showing the place to potential tenants that afternoon. (We’re only here for the summer, as we don’t want to sign the required one-year lease.) I feel awkward hanging around during showings, so I planned to take my iPod Touch to the park for some reading. As I headed out the door, I realized I forgot to charge it—so I grabbed the book by my husband’s side of the bed (Hard Scrabble by John Graves) and took that instead.

What a fortuitous choice! For on the very first page was the following passage (from Thomas Traherne’s The Centuries):

It is storied of that prince, that having conceived a purpose to invade Italy, he sent for Cineas, a philosopher and the King’s friend: to whom he communicated his design, and desired his counsel. Cineas asked him to what purpose he invaded Italy? He said, to conquer it. And what will you do when you, have conquered it? Go into France, said the King, and conquer that. And,what will you do when you have conquered France? Conquer Germany. And what then? said the philosopher. Conquer Spain. I perceive, said Cineas, you mean to conquer all the World. What will you do when you have conquered all? Why then said the King we will return, and enjoy ourselves at quiet in our own land. So you may now, said the philosopher, without all this ado.

Granted, most of us don’t entertain notions of world domination—but I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for the insatiable wants that can consume our lives.

How often have you thought, “Life will be better when {fill in the blank}.” You get that bigger house, nicer car, newer gadget, or hipper clothes. The better job, fancier title, or more advanced degree. More money, more power, more fame, more respect.

In our winner-take-all society, we’re conditioned to keep striving, and striving, and striving for more. But where does more end? What exactly are we striving for? Is it possible to have everything—and if so, what happens then?

Wouldn’t it be easier to just sit back and enjoy things as they are?

Let’s forget the luxury cars, and simply celebrate the auto, bike, train, bus, or legs that currently provide us mobility. When it’s rainy and cold, let’s be overjoyed to have any roof over our head. Instead of working ourselves into the ground for that promotion or corner office, let’s feel lucky that our current job provides for our needs. Let’s stop browsing shops, websites, catalogs, and magazines looking for things to want, and be satisfied with what we already have.

Okay, so no one will ever praise my ambition or invite me to speak at a motivational seminar. My idea of achievement has nothing to do with money, status, or lofty goals, but rather redefining achievement to be not-so-lofty. In other words, instead of expending great effort to get more, I find it infinitely easier to want less.

Because even if we made a fortune, shot to fame, or conquered the world, who guarantees we’d be happy? Perhaps we’d wish for the simple, quiet, humble life we’d left behind.

I have nothing against reaching for the stars, except when it blinds us to what’s in our grasp. If we re-focus, we may see that contentment, happiness, and fulfillment are sitting right in front of us, there for the taking.

To me, that’s the beauty of minimalism: setting our sights on what’s enough, and enjoying life without all this ado.

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