The bare necessities

Dayton natives do more with less

By Rusty Pate

Photo: “I thought the reason we were discontented was just because we didn’t make much money.” – Joshua Fields Millburn


The brilliant comedian George Carlin once had a routine about “stuff.” While the multi-layered genius could never be conveyed on this written page, the crux of the bit was our culture’s fascination and obsession with obtaining stuff. It was a biting criticism of 1980s consumerism, and like all great works, is as true and vibrant today as it was all those years ago.

Much has changed since the 1980s, but our seemingly insatiable desire to pursue happiness through material goods has only become more ingrained in our society.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus once bought into that way of thinking. They found success in the corporate world right here in Dayton. They made and spent money. They incurred debt. They followed that road to its logical end and found themselves surrounded by stuff they thought would bring them happiness.

“It took getting everything I ever wanted to realize everything I ever wanted wasn’t actually what I wanted at all,” Millburn said.

Millburn worked in the corporate retail world. He quickly built his career, eventually becoming director of operations for 150 retail stores.

He had power and a six-figure income. On the surface, it sounds like the American Dream, but fulfillment eluded him.

He earned $50,000 when he was 19, but he was spending $65,000. Promotions would come and go, but more income seemed to only produce more debt until it hit six-figures at age 27. He was a compulsive buyer. He found himself pursuing a “template” for happiness. He had the beautiful downtown loft. He gobbled up the latest gadgets.

Then, about three years ago, the breaking point presented itself.

“My boss came in with a plan two weeks before Christmas to shut down eight retail stores, which is something we had done in the past,” Millburn said. “He came to me and said, ‘There will be 42 people that will be impacted and I need you to put together a plan to get rid of these 42 people. You have two weeks.’ It took me two days to put together a plan and my name was the first name on the list. I said what we’re doing no longer aligns with my values and beliefs.”

Granted, the wheels had been set in motion well before that day.

Millburn’s mother died in 2009. He went through a divorce. Suddenly, he found himself questioning everything in his life. He came across the concept of minimalism online through a writer named Colin Wright.

It was a gradual process. Concepts were incorporated and steps were deliberate, but the closer Millburn looked at his life, the more he knew he needed to change.

Millburn and Nicodemus now publish books on the subject and maintain a blog that has been read by millions of people.

“I grew up fairly poor and I thought the reason we were discontented was just because we didn’t make much money,” Millburn said. “When I went to the corporate world and started making good money, the problem was I was still making the same poor decisions with my money, it was just on a larger scale.”

Add in the fact our culture feeds these insatiable needs, and it is easy to see how these holes get so deep, so quickly.

Millburn talked about how marketing shifted in the mid-20th century from fulfilling need to creating false need. Over time, salesmen get better and better at convincing buyers happiness lays a mere credit card swipe away. Outlets like allow consumers to buy from the comfort of their homes.

Millburn said stuff isn’t inherently bad – just don’t live beyond your means. Find the things that provide value and cut out the rest.

These are far from new concepts.

“It’s funny, when people come up and say, ‘It’s great to see a couple guys spreading Jesus’ message’ or we’ll get someone else who comes up and says, ‘It’s great to see a couple young Buddhists out there really spreading the word,’” Millburn said. “It’s a new reaction to this consumerism, this type of consumption we’re faced with.”

Ultimately, all stuff can be a virtue or a vice. The difference lies in how that stuff is used.

“I find quite often our attention gets sucked up in a lot of vapid or meaningless stuff, but if we’re careful about it and curate it, then we can actually use it to our benefit,” Millburn said. “They are wonderful tools if used correctly. It’s like using a chainsaw – you can use a chainsaw to cut down a tree that’s about to fall on your house, or you can use a chainsaw to hack someone up. It’s about how you decide to use that tool, for good or bad.”

Joshua Fields-Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus will present “The Minimalists – Everything That Remains” tour at the Dayton Visual Arts Center, 118 N. Jefferson St. on Sunday, May 4 at 6 p.m. Tickets are free. Their new book “Everything That Remains” will be available for purchase at the event, and also can be found at major retailers. For more
information, please visit 


Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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