After moving across half the country I realized how much useless shit I owned. Having had to move a second time shortly after, and having had to carry all this junk again, I said to myself that I would never again go through such a move. I sold most of my stuff and adopted the minimalist lifestyle.
I think Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club said it best:
The things you own end up owning you.
It’s really difficult to downsize to a smaller, more affordable appartment if you own so much stuff that it does not fit into any of your prospective new homes. Likewise, it’s futile trying to find an appartment big enough to store all your stuff if there either are none in your area or you cannot afford them. Many people avoid this problem by renting a storage unit or sending their stuff to their parent’s home. For me, that wasn’t an option. Also, it would merely delay the need to take action. What if I wanted to move to a different state or maybe even to a different country? What if my parents themselves needed to move or, God forbid, died? When the day comes that your mother dies, you definitely have enough things to process and tasks to do. Deciding what to do with all these boxes in her basement, filled with your old Nintendo consoles or the joystick for the flight simulator you once used to play, should not be one of them. I needed to attack this problem at its roots.
This meant I needed to achieve two things:
- To get rid of my old junk.
- To stop acquiring new junk.
As with many problems, the solution was simple yet not easy. The first part was pesky albeit the easier one. As I had already realized, many things I owned were useless. Maybe they served a purpose once, but on this day, they didn’t. They were just sitting in some box stored away and prevented me from moving into the flat I really liked but had to pass on. If money (or the environment) weren’t a problem, I could have just thrown them in the garbage without any second thoughts. I wasn’t emotionally attached to my belongings, which made it easy. Obviously I didn’t throw them away but sold them on eBay … time-consuming but worth it. The far harder part, in my eyes, is resisting compulsory consumption, nurtured by ubiquitous advertising. That is a battle that will never end and that you have to fight for the rest of your life.
For starters, I highly recommend watching the award-winning documentary Minimalism. Here’s the trailer:
It definitely helped that, at the time, I was a broke college student in urgent need of money. I could certainly use the money that selling my stuff generated, and I couldn’t afford buying anything new anyway 😃
That’s also when I realized the following truth:
The things you dream of buying are only worthwhile to you because you can’t afford them.
Most of the times, as soon as I finally owned that thing I had been dreaming of for so long I already began dreaming of the next thing to buy. I wasn’t any happier than before that purchase. Or the one before that. That’s called hedonic adaptation and is one reason why I started a gratitude journal, in which I write down the things I am grateful for. All this time I had been fantasizing that I could finally be happy or that my life would drastically improve once I bought this item or that item. Yet I felt exactly like I had if I hadn’t bought that thing, except that I in exchange was broke again. It was a fool’s bargain.
Here’s a great tip: when you feel the urge to buy something, don’t buy it right away but wait three days or a week or so. After that time has passed, see if you still want it at all. Only then, allow yourself to buy that thing. However, if you find that you actually don’t really need it but would have bought it only out of an impulse, then transfer the exact amount this item would have cost to a separate bank account that you never touch. This way you can put aside some money that you can then use to pull yourself out of the debt trap. An impulse can be the feeling of boredom or because you had a bad day and wanted a dopamine kick to light your mood.
Around that time, I discovered philosophy, in particular Stoicism and Buddhism/Taoism, by way of folks like Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, and Naval Ravikant. I HIGHLY recommend you watch Joe Rogan interviewing Naval as well as Shane Parrish interviewing Naval, since Naval drops so much wisdom it is jaw-dropping.
Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.— Naval (@naval) March 28, 2017
I learned that the underlying cause of our unhappiness, the true problem, is greed and envy. As they say, comparison is the thief of joy. A gadget could make you feel like the happiest person on earth, but often as soon as you learn that somebody else has a better version, your own item suddenly is now a source of dissatisfaction. Robert Greene, one of my most favorite authors, has an excellent book on those darker emotions of ours, called The Laws of Human Nature. He’s brilliant and I highly recommend reading his books and watching him getting interviewed. Anyway, these problems are internal problems, and you won’t resolve your internal problems by looking for external solutions. That is, buying that new thing won’t satiate your greed. It will only shift your desire to the next thing. To find peace, you will have to deal with your internal state, i.e., with the desiring itself. One idea in Buddhism is that desiring is suffering. In order to end suffering you have to reject desire. That’s why so many Buddhists became monks and moved to monasteries to free themselves from attachments. And it’s true today just as much as it was thousands of years ago. Of course you don’t have to move to a monastery. You “just” have to stop desiring. While it’s near impossible to stop desiring the love of a dear human—even desiring to stop desiring is a desire—you can at least make the first step by stopping desiring a bunch of crap that will only end up in a landfill.
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” — Seneca
What I had already realized years before that was that I don’t need a TV. Cable TV is trash anyway. And while there are some good shows on video-on-demand services like Netflix, you don’t want to waste the short time you were granted here on earth by sitting passively on a couch in front of a black mirror for hours a day. I knew that I didn’t. Maybe you have more willpower than I have, but I find that having a TV standing there unmissably at all times, waiting to be turned on, is just too tempting to not turn it on. Instead of grabbing that guitar of yours and practising that song you’ve been meaning to learn for months, you spend entire days and weekends mindlessly watching movies, wasting precious spare time. I find this video by Jay Shetty to be a good reminder of how precious time really is and how carelessly we waste so much of it despite knowing better:
When asked, “What is the biggest mistake we make in life?” the Buddha replied, “The biggest mistake is you think you have time.”
Everyday 86,400 seconds are deposited into your life account. At the end of the day once they’re all used up, you get a new 86,400 seconds. We would never waste it if it was money, so why do we waste it when it comes to time? Those seconds are so much more powerful than dollars because you can always make more dollars, you can’t always make more time.
For the times when I actually do want to watch a movie, my laptop display is large enough for me. I don’t need a ginormous display and surround sound and what not. Thus getting rid of my TV helped me not only in freeing up my space, and thereby in gaining more freedom to travel / reducing my attachment to a specific location, but also in engineering a more meaningful life. Where my TV used to stand you will now find, e.g., a guitar or a bookcase or a yoga mat. (Check out the book Atomic Habits by James Clear to learn more about how to form good habits by making them as easy as possible.)
To be continued …
Some people unfortunately misunderstand what minimalism really means and consequently can’t warm up to the idea. To me, minimalism means living with just the minimum of things you need for a happy fulfilled live. In other words, owning just so many (or few) things that you can still say, “I have enough.” Minimalism does not mean that you have to get rid of everything, that you must get down to zero items, or that you are no longer allowed to feel joy. Thus, if you’d like it better, you could also call it Essentialism, which leaves less room for misinterpretation. That’s another great book recommendation right there: Essentialism by Greg McKeown.