Two Daytonians get out of the clutter and pen an inspiring book on minimalism in our maximized world
By Annie Bowers
“I have nothing to wear,” I thought to myself as I stood staring at the racks of clothes hanging in my closet. We’ve all been there — surrounded by so much clutter that it seems overwhelming to make even a simple apparel-related decision. I looked dumbfounded at rows of skirts, pants, sweaters and shoes, and realized how ridiculous it was that I couldn’t find something to wear, and how much of it I didn’t even need. That’s when it began … in the middle of my closet on a rainy November morning, I started the process of whittling down, weeding out and de-cluttering. My overstuffed closet was a metaphor for my life — there were so many things jammed into it and so many distractions fragmenting my attention that I was struggling to focus on what truly matters.
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two Dayton minimalists, couldn’t agree more. Over coffee, exuding contentment and positive energy, Millburn and Nicodemus shared their insight, explaining that living like a minimalist isn’t just about having fewer things, it’s about changing the way you think about your life.
“I used to be the ‘buy the latest tech stuff’ guy,” said Nicodemus. “Being less tethered to possessions in general, and not relying on certain possessions to make me happy, I feel freer.”
Millburn agreed, “It’s about having a conscious awareness of my surroundings. Before, I didn’t have time to think about anything outside of my day-to-day life. I make decisions consciously now, instead of going with the flow.”
Millburn and Nicodemus, longtime childhood friends who both turned 30 this year, realized at different points over the past two years that they simply weren’t happy. They had everything guys their age were supposed to want: high-paying corporate jobs, the latest gadgets and busy schedules — yet they felt unfulfilled and began asking themselves what was missing.
When Millburn’s mom passed away in late 2009, he struggled with what to do with her possessions — and there were a lot of them. Initially, he decided to rent a storage unit and found comfort in the idea that his mother’s belongings would be there just in case he ever needed them. But then he discovered he could honor her better, and remember her just as vividly without hanging onto things that were no more than just objects she had accumulated, so he donated all of her belongings to people and organizations that could benefit most from them.
It was during that process that Millburn started questioning the “anchors” that were supposed to make him happy in his own life. As he candidly put it, “Why in the world would I continue to do something I felt like I had to do that’s going to make me unhappy?” Part of Millburn’s motivation for changing his lifestyle came from Colin Wright, a travel writer and minimalist whose readers vote on where he’s going to live next. Inspired, Millburn wrote to Wright, met up with him, and was intrigued by Wright’s ability to pursue whatever he is passionate about.
Millburn realized that the first step toward living a more meaningful life was to get the stuff out of the way that prevented him from focusing on the five most important things: health, relationships, pursuit of passions, growth and contribution.
“I once had 70 dress shirts and a dozen Brooks Brothers suits,” said Millburn. “‘Consumption fills the void’ seemed to be the belief, but I don’t subscribe to that anymore.”
After eliminating all but 288 possessions, and experiencing a major paradigm shift, Millburn finally feels as though he can focus on what’s really important. He spends time building relationships, shares his passion through writing, and volunteers through various pursuits and organizations that allow him to do the opposite of consume — give back.
Nicodemus’ transition into minimalism was slightly different, although spurred by similar feelings of emptiness and discontent. With Millburn’s’s help, Nicodemus held a “packing party,” and packed all of his belongings into cardboard boxes. Over the next month, whenever he needed anything, he had to find it in one of the boxes. The same held true for his furniture: he covered couches and tables with sheets, and if he wanted to use something, he uncovered it. This forced him to pay attention to only those things that were truly necessary, and at the end of 30 days, whatever was still packed left permanently.
To share experiences, advice and passion for minimalism with others, Nicodemus and Millburn launched their website, www.theminimalists.com on December 14, 2010 and according to Nicodemus, “It’s been a good ride so far…” The site has received an incredible response, with readers in 151 countries and over 100,000 monthly followers gaining interest and wondering what makes minimalism so different.
Millburn clarified, “Minimalism is about getting rid of stuff to focus on what’s important. De-cluttering is just getting rid of stuff. Period. And then that empty feeling comes again.”
Many interested readers wonder how to start transitioning, feeling overwhelmed at the prospect.
Nicodemus acknowledged, “Everybody’s different. There’s not one set answer. I go from my own personal experience … if it gives you more time, makes your life easier, keeps you organized, and you actually use it, you should keep it, but ultimately it’s up to you.”
Millburn’s advice is to be patient: “There isn’t a fast path — it’s much quicker than you think, usually by making subtle changes, but there isn’t a magic answer.”
When I shared my closet clutter conundrum and the resulting desire to pare down, Nicodemus’ response was, “Sure, try it out … start with one room at a time. Remember it’s not just about de-cluttering — ask yourself why you’re getting rid of those things. The ‘why’ is so much more important than the ‘what.’” Millburn also cautioned me to be wary of the “just in case” items — hanging onto those things I “might need some day” can be the culprit for the majority of clutter. “You’ll find if you get rid of the extra stuff, what’s left is the good stuff.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how to simplify your life, eliminate unnecessary clutter and focus on the good stuff, check out Ryan and Josh’s essays at www.theminimalists.com. They also just started a 33-city book tour, promoting their new book, “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life” which came out December 8 and is available to read digitally on PC, Mac, Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.
Reach DCP freelance writer Annie Bowers at AnnieBowers@DaytonCityPaper.com.