Note: this originally appeared in my monthly newsletter, creatively titled “David’s Newsletter.” If you’d like to receive emails like that help you become a better reader, learner, and thinker (or just better at life), then subscribe here.
Greetings from my lovely hometown of Jericho, VT.
This is going to be a newsletter about minimalism.
Don’t worry. I will only quote the stoics once, and this won’t be some Mark Zuckerberg type of crap about wearing the same outfit every day to maximize productivity.
Rather, it’s about how traveling taught me to be content with less, and what that has taught me about happiness.
For those who haven’t followed me closely, since last May I have been traveling around the world with just my backpack.
I call this Urban Backpacking.
When I learned to live with less, I realized that excessive possessions are more of a burden than an asset.
The simple solution to many travel problems is to just have less stuff.
It’s easier to pack, I don’t have to worry about my over-stuffed backpack opening up in the airport security line, and I can walk through cities light on my feet.
Once I embraced living with little, I wondered why the fuck I still owned so much stuff.
Nobody cared if I wore the same clothes, and even my limited travel clothing provided ample style variation.
With my newfound mobility, I came to see that owning things has hidden costs.
Owning Stuff is a Negative Currency
When traveling, I saw how I can use my currency of minimalism and trade it in for other things.
I could save time in airport lines without checking bags. I could save money on taxis because I could take transit or even bike with a backpack.
This carries over to everyday life. Owning a lot of stuff means you may need to spend more on rent to get a big enough place. It may mean you’ll have to spend money on storage, or cleaning, or other maintenance of all your crap.
By owning less, I got back other currencies.
Mobility is its own currency. By tossing my stuff, I could travel the world without being tied down to something else. When walking city streets, carrying less is a currency I at times would have paid a lot for.
So I Threw Away 90% of My Stuff.
This week I came home to see my parents in Vermont and decided to clean out my childhood room.
I tossed all the clothes I will never wear again, and the ones I would wear occasionally if I had them, but which nonetheless add nothing to my life.
As shirt after shirt landed in the Goodwill pile, I realized that I have trained myself to emotionally enjoy having less.
It was as if everything I threw into the bin was like lifting a small weight off of my back. It felt like taking a bite of a pancake drizzled with Vermont maple syrup.
At this moment, I realized I have trained my brain to get dopamine hits from less. I’ve seen over and over the simple pleasure of living light and now on an emotional level, I crave less.
In a culture that celebrates the value in having much, traveling taught me the value in having little.
Living Rich by Subtraction
Children’s book author Jackie French Koller said, “There are two ways to be rich: One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.”
The process of traveling, and now cleaning, have trained my minimalism muscles. I have learned how to become rich via subtraction, rather than rich via addition.
Yes, I believe it’s a muscle to train. Building the skill of minimalism isn’t as simple as taking the advice of some tech-bro writing about minimalism from his massive San Francisco or Austin apartment. (Congrats, you wear the same version of that $90 t-shirt every day, this does NOT mean you’re living with less.)
It takes pattern recognition, like training in the gym or practicing your basic checkmates over the chess board.
I got in these reps without even realizing it.
Like many of us in our modern-day society, I used to desire more. Now, I find myself desiring less.
When it comes to writing on minimalism, there are plenty of personal development people adding quotes from Seneca to their newsletter like this one: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
While these quotes sound inspiring, I too had read a million of them and never did anything.
What helped me was finding ways to actually practice minimalism that have made me “rich” in the way Seneca means it.
After all, “get rid of your stuff,” but in practice isn’t so easy. Rather, think about ways you can begin the practice of minimalism.
6 Minimalism Exercises
Next time you fly, don’t check a bag.
I will start here both because I’ve written about it before, and because it’s low-hanging fruit.
If you’re just going somewhere for a few days or weeks, unless you’re going skiing you don’t need to check a fucking bag. I promise, you don’t.
Challenge yourself to travel with less.
If you already don’t check bags here’s your next task: don’t bring overhead luggage especially if it has wheels on it. Just go with a backpack.
Lots of airlines make you upgrade for an overhead bin. Push yourself to bring less, especially for short trips. They’re easy ways to show yourself how little you need.
If you buy something, throw something out.
If you buy yet another band tee like me, then you have to throw an old one out.
This applies to everything. Bought a new watch? Get rid of an old one. Buying another hat? There’s one in your house you’ll never wear again.
Use a “just in time” mindset instead of “just in case”
When we see something, whether to buy or to pack, we think, “well I might need this, so I should buy it.”
If we absolutely need something, like a white t-shirt or flip flops for the beach, you can buy it when you need it, “just in time.” If you need something “just in case,” there’s a great chance you don’t need it and won’t use it.
Clean for 15 minutes
This week, I added another skill of living with less by cleaning my room and giving away 90% of what I own. At first, I put this off because cleaning the clutter felt like a daunting task. My mom suggested I set a timer for 15 minutes. This felt relieving, and allowed me to break up a huge task.
So if you have a room you want to unclutter, start with 15 minutes.
Create a “maybe” pile to keep moving
In writing, we’re taught to make sloppy first drafts, getting all of your thoughts out onto the page. Anytime you can’t think of the right word, or need to find a quote, the typical advice is to keep moving and find it later.
When decluttering, I found the same to be true. Once again I was guided by my mother. Like a novice writer who deliberates over the right word choice on the first draft, I paused to make hard decisions. “Create a maybe pile,” my mom suggested. This kept me moving.
Then, like the editing process, I went back through to make my final, irreversible decisions. In this case, it was the decision on what to do with the “maybe” pile. I tossed most of it, like a writer knowing they need to kill their darlings.
If possible, try not to drive your car for a week. Bike, walk, take transit.
Obviously, this depends on where you live. However, I challenge you to test out your life for a week without a car. Can you bike to work? Is there a bus? I have taken public transit in the most unlikely of US cities (Denver, Austin, even Anaheim and LA), and have had great experiences.
You’ll either get some exercise (biking) or get the time back to read (public transit). You might realize you don’t even need a car at all.
These are just some ideas, obviously slanted to my personal experience. The practice of seeking to live with less is where I’ve found the most benefits.
Most importantly, having less has made me feel rich.
In our society, we typically view having more things as the path to true wealth. This is not the only way to define wealth.
Here’s what living with less means to me.
First, I don’t need to buy many things, in fact, I avoided buying things, because I know they come with hidden costs, like where the hell I’m gonna put something I’m never gonna use.
As a result, I don’t need to work as much to support my lifestyle. This means more free time. I can spend more weekdays at 1pm with friends, or evenings where I can read for 5 hours straight.
Relatedly, it means I can say “no” to more, since I know I don’t need much.
Third, I actually save more money. None of this means I’m not working, but it means I can have an aggressively average income, yet be “rich.”
Finally, it means I can give away more. In the Bible, the book of Matthew quotes Jesus saying “If you want to be perfect, then go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.”
In cleaning out my room, I gave it all away. Everything I found with my high school’s logo on it, I gave to a kid I used to train, who’s now a sophomore in high school.
The rest went to Goodwill. The Goodwill had some vintage gems, so I hope they put a smile on some stranger’s face.
What being ‘rich with less’ means for the world
A 2020 report by Oxfam International revealed that the world’s richest 1% accounted for double the emissions as the poorest half of humanity. It’s clear that a “wealth gap” correlates with the “carbon footprint” gap.
Of course, this is VERY complicated, and I’m not saying the answer is as simple as us getting rid of things. However, it’s clear that having more things comes with a greater cost to the environment. Bigger houses must be heated, more cars need gas, owning 50 pairs of shoes requires those to be made and shipped.
My personal minimalist journey has made me not even desire these. I’m hardly even “resisting temptation,” I’m simply choosing less as a way of life.
The point I seek to make here is not that it’s our fault, and that by owning less we’re solving the world’s problems.
Rather, I believe if we could shift the culture to celebrate the beauty of having less, then we could encourage (or better yet, put pressure on) the wealthiest and most powerful to reverse some of the damage.
With any discussion of restoring our planet’s health, it’s a multifaceted approach.
Nonetheless, an approach to wealth that celebrates other forms of currency, like mobility, flexibility, and giving away, can be 1% of that solution.
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