Perhaps it was Edward Norton’s memorable line in David Fincher’s movie Fight Club that first reminded us “we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”
Colin Wright, a Missouri-raised minimalist travel writer, author and international speaker suggests that minimalism is achieved differently by everyone: “Minimalism is about focusing on what’s most important to you, and spending more of your time, energy and resources on those most important things.”
Minimalism should not be confused with deprivation. “It’s not buying expensive Scandinavian-design products. It’s not stark white walls and desaturated photographs. It’s not living in a cave without electricity. The point isn’t to own less, it’s to own exactly the right things for your own, personal priorities, and no more than that,” Wright says.
At first glance, “minimalism” relates to a style in art or design which embraces beauty or practicality through simplicity; whether this is expressed through the use of materials, colours or form. On a more basic level of understanding, a “minimalist” can also refer to an individual who approaches every situation with as little involvement as possible.Though qualities present in the former can somewhat be applied to a minimalist way of living, the principles behind minimalism as a movement are broader and more detailed in definition than that of their Oxford Dictionary counterpart.
No two minimalists are the same. What one might consider living minimally will not align with another’s interpretation. Despite this, the goals in sight are always the same: to prioritise passions, experiences and relationships over the brief contentment of material possessions. “The most vital work, hobbies and activities and relationships, those should get the majority of your time, energy and resources,” Wright says.
He believes we succumb to materialism as a result of either validity of status or the short bursts of dopamine it triggers. For many, a high income will enable expensive tastes; from a minimalist perspective, this isn’t unjustifiable, so long as each belonging adds everyday value. A pay rise allowing you to afford a sleek, new, high-quality car should not go amiss if it serves a long-term purpose.
If anything, being in a financial position that allows you to invest in good quality products is a positive aspect, because if it lasts longer, then its served a longer purpose, therefore, it has maximised the value it’s added to your life. Teachings of minimalism aren’t policing your choice between a £100 Le Creuset casserole tin versus a cheap supermarket alternative; when one lasts a lifetime, and the other constantly needs to be replaced, the decision is clear.
Buying five new Le Creuset casserole tins when you’ve already got the same set in a different colour, however, is the opposite of minimalism.
If we require less, we spend less, and if we pay less, we are less distracted by the need to be renewing belongings which needn’t be replaced. To practice minimalism correctly, one must eliminate possessions which do not add value, whether this is mental or physical.
Applying the same process to toxic or wasteful relationships with people will consequently buy you more time and energy to focus on aspects of life you are truly passionate about.
“Many of us, unfortunately, invest most of what we have in friendships of convenience rather than our significant others, and in stuff that we’re told will actually make us happy, rather than possessions that will allow us to do more of the things that actually do make us happy,” Wright says.Minimalism should not be categorised alongside shows like Marie Kondo’s original Netflix series, Tidying Up, which is known for Kondo’s catch-phrase-question: “does this item spark joy?”
Although similar, the difference lies within the goals of Kondo’s means of practising living with less. An item can spark joy and still serve no functional purpose or add value to your life, which makes the decision of whether or not to keep it a lot more difficult. While this question is helpful to some extent, using it to determine whether or not to purchase a new item could quickly lead back to square one.
Within the sphere of the same genre on Netflix, is Minimalism: The Important Things In Life, a documentary presented by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, originally inspired by Wright. Millburn and Wright primarily met online before meeting in real life, their first face to face encounter being an exchange of a mobile phone that Wright would use on his travels around the world.
Prior to becoming a travel writer, Wright occupied himself with graphic design and illustration work in Los Angeles. By the time he reached 24, he had realised the successful standards he was being measured by were not a reflection of his fulfilment. “By all of the standards I cared about, I was failing immensely. I wasn’t prioritising my actual priorities. I was focusing on money, rather than what I intended to do with it,” he says.
During a realisation that took place on a mini-holiday, Wright concluded there was no benefit to earning a sizeable income if he couldn’t spare the time to make the most of it.
“At that moment, I also realised that although I could always earn more money, I could never get more time. The former is a renewable resource — not always pleasant or easy to earn, but always more of it out there — while the latter is not. Once a moment is spent, it’s gone forever. Even if I had a billion dollars in my checking account, that billion wouldn’t buy me my 20s back, or my 30s, or any amount of time I spent doing things I didn’t care about,” he says.
After this awakening, Wright decided to “recalibrate” his lifestyle, which gradually saw him spend less, own less and have much more time to dedicate to opportunities that would expire much quicker than the ability to earn would.
The choice to chase this lifestyle was not a result of wanting to hop on the minimalism bandwagon, but because he actively tried and tested the positive impact of living with less mental and physical baggage.
“The process I was going through lined up perfectly with the process of minimising: not just in the sense of it streamlining one’s possessions, but in the sense of spending more of one’s time, energy and resources on the most vital things, in what you buy, the work you do, who you spend your time with, and so on,” he says.
Wright took the plunge to explore the world, four months at a time in a new location voted for by his blog’s readers. “I wanted to travel full-time, and as I recalibrated toward a lifestyle that would allow me to do so, I refocused everything about my life to ensure that it aligned with that (and parallel) goals. That recalibration is the purpose of minimalism: it often involves stuff and our relationship with stuff, but that’s just one facet of a much larger concept,” he says.
To see this through, Wright required himself to decrease the number of possessions he owned drastically; a process in which he discarded any item not suitable for either a duffel bag or carry-on bag.
“I didn’t want to put anything in storage. Beyond that, I wanted to have things that were versatile, resilient enough to survive my intended lifestyle, and things that would allow me to continue working from wherever I ended up,” he says.Each location, however, presented different challenges and therefore an ever-changing list of necessities. While this didn’t involve Wright spending on luxurious goods at a given opportunity; renewing and adapting could be justified if the purchases would add value and purpose to experiences during his temporary visits.
“It was process, refining what I carried with me, and it’s still something I change a whole lot, even as the amount of space I have to access changes, my location and priorities change, and my work changes. It’s the same concept regardless of how much real estate is available, and whose priorities are being used to guide what stays, what goes, and how you change your relationship with consumption moving forward,” he says.
Signals urging towards a minimalist lifestyle may have been present long before Wright’s mid-twenties realisation. In his youth, table-top-war-gaming and collectable cards created an identity which became progressively unsatisfying due to the pressure of maintaining an impressive collection.
“I spent so much money and time on those hobbies, and I don’t regret it, but I do remember having elaborate dreams where I was struggling to carry all these things I’d accumulated with me, while also trying to flee some unknown enemy. I felt burdened by these possessions, and the need to protect them, while also feeling compelled to increase the size of my collection,” he says.
Steadily making the transition since 2009 has seen Wright publish a series of books referring to different aspects of minimalism, has participated in four TED talks, The SXSW/Mercedes-Benz Me Convention and the Latin American Social Media Conference.
When not being hosted by a third party, he speaks to small and large audiences at ticketed events about a variety of topics- predominantly the journey of his life so far.“My talks, writings and everything else I do is on all kinds of subjects; there isn’t anyone consistent thing I talk about. At the moment, I’m on a speaking tour, and my main talk is about living intentionally, and a supplementary talk I gave at a podcasting conference at Harvard not long ago was about my favourite historical figure: a deceased German chemist who is often left out of textbooks because he’s too complex a character for any nation to claim as their own,” he says.
Formerly known as The Minimalists after the release of their Netflix documentary and self-help book, Everything That Remains, Millburn and Nicodemus have helped a further 20 million people by reflecting the fundamentals of minimalism that Wright originally demonstrated. Alongside their projects as a duo, Millburn and Nicodemus began a publishing company with Wright in which they print all of their books under the imprint Asymmetrical Press.
“Joshua and Ryan are amazing people, and I’m lucky to have them in my life. The three of us are good friends, and although we go our separate ways for long periods of time, we stay in touch, meet up when we can, and periodically tour together. We often cross paths with our other projects, as well. I’ve dedicated a book to them, they’ve dedicated one to me; I love those guys and admire what they’ve managed to build,” Wright says.
The outcomes reached by minimalism depend on every individual and the goals they want to accomplish. Through immersing himself in a breadth of cultures tri-annually, Wright was able to enhance the knowledge of the hobbies and interests he’d partaken in, long before becoming a minimalist.
“I’ve been playing the guitar and singing since I was 15, and the many places I’ve lived have influenced my music. My cooking has been influenced by all of these cultures in various ways, as has my writing. My entire way of thinking and living has been immensely influenced by all the people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had along the way,” he says.We see minimalism as a mentality that is positively selfish, but the reality is that consuming less could also benefit the wellbeing of our planet.
Emi Murphy, Climate Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, talks about the impact of our everyday material wastage: “Our planet isn’t a limitless bank of resources. We can’t simply dip into an overdraft and pay it back later – natural resources are being gobbled up faster than the Earth can replenish them. It’s also struggling to cope with the resulting waste and emissions. We take too much stuff from nature, make it into stuff we use – from chemicals to plastics to fertiliser to smartphones – and then dispose of it carelessly into the atmosphere, the oceans and the land.”
It transpires that the UK-based environmental campaigning community may have been unknowingly advocating the minimalism movement, but from a viewpoint that focuses on sustainability as well as personal growth:
“Changing our approach to resource consumption is critical. Our natural resources are as precious as they are limited, so we need everything from fashion to technology to be designed with longevity in mind – using resources far wiser. We also need companies to stop ramming the “I am what I buy” culture down our throats, so people are free to define their identity in a more meaningful way; through doing something they love such as sports, hobbies or community clubs,” Murphy says.Furthermore, a lifestyle that demands less stuff could prevent us from triggering mental health problems or ignoring the burdens which cause mind-fog, suggests psychotherapist Madison Webb, a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (MBACP).
“Acquiring possessions is a way of buying emotional distress from our past, or it is a means of distraction from emotional distress by providing a temporary relief as we bring each new item into our world. If you notice you that you constantly buy things to make you feel better because of emotional struggles in your life, this could be an indicator of emotion avoidance,” she says
Webb simultaneously intertwines the importance of avoiding this coping mechanism with one of the characteristics rewarded by minimalism, that is, investing time into relationships with people who push us to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
“Having a lot of stuff can stop us from engaging in building meaningful relationships with family and friends. In turn, this can leave us feeling isolated and unfulfilled. We are being led away from simpler things and being led to thinking that happiness can only come from the external acquisition of things,” she says.
Wright builds on these psychological benefits through both personal and shared experiences: “For most people, there’s a lot less stress, because you step off the hamster-wheel of consumption that requires you always to be acquiring more to get little bursts of dopamine, lest you find yourself feeling depressed due to a lack of consumption.”
The key to interpreting a minimalist lifestyle is accepting the gradual speed it takes to develop it. Trial and error are critical for building and refining the optimal environment we want to surround ourselves with, so making small changes is thought to be more effective than going from one extreme to the next.
“It’s helpful to focus on what you’re moving toward, rather than what you’re giving up. Because the giving up won’t seem that way later – if it does, then maybe you shouldn’t get rid of that stuff after all. Take it step-by-step, think it through, and allow your purchasing habits to change, as well. It’s all kind of pointless if you trim down your possessions, only to buy more of the same sorts of things,” Wright says.
Minimalism disagrees with the belief “money can’t buy happiness” circumstantially. Although the stereotypical minimalist would argue this goes against the movement’s nature, it’s important to reiterate that minimalism is not about neglecting ourselves of invaluable investments, but rather the impulsive ones that momentarily supplement other means of permanent pleasure.