The Rise of Less, a Story of Minimalists

a cup of black coffee in a simple white mug, with saucer

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This is a tale of real life people finding greater happiness through simplicity.

It is not an attempt to push an extremist concept or pass judgement on the typical American lifestyle. It is purely an effort to show how actual people have delved into a way of life aimed at improving their own human experience. They have relieved themselves of the vast majority of their possessions, and in some cases taken huge pay cuts while quitting unfulfilling jobs in the process, in an attempt to find something we all so desperately grasp at, never quite able to hold. Happiness.

But while our goal here is in no way to blame anyone for their personal collection of “stuff”, their own share of America’s debt, or the choices they’ve made for their own lives, there is going to be some criticism. Namely, the fact that it’s undeniable that the American Dream is an expensive one.

According to the Boston Globe, in 2007, the average annual salary of a human being living on the planet Earth was $7,000. Only 19% of us humans made that, and literally over a billion people lived off of significantly less. In fact, if you ditched the top twenty or so richest countries, the average income would be closer to $2,000. Per year. Here in the United States, our average annual pay was around $45,000 at that time. Yet on average, Americans are in debt around $10,000 at any given time.

I personally find those statistics a bit scary, and admittedly, hard to really pin down. What can be seen though, by discarded McDonald’s wrappers cluttering our highways and the rush to purchase the new iPhone when the one we bought last year is more powerful than the computers that took men to space in the 1970s, is the reality that there is an incredible excess in our lives. This is not an article intended to scare anyone, but perhaps to remind us of how great we really have it even while, in this dubbed “Great Recession”, we seem to have it so bad. And how a growing number of people are doing something about it in their own lives.

There is a movement happening right now. Perhaps it’s been happening since the beginning of time. Perhaps pre-sliced bread and two cars in every driveway took over our minds and desires in the pursuit of happiness for a few generations. Perhaps the unhappiness so many of us find in our lives and subsequently try and fill with gadgets, gizmos and Gucci got in the way. I have discovered, on my own and to such a greater extent by talking with several extraordinary individuals living what most would consider extremely simple lives, that we can make a break from all of this debt, this consumerism.

It’s called minimalism.

Perhaps that is simply a name applied to a concept that has been largely self-evident for centuries. Spending the majority of your time earning money to buy more things than you can use with the little time you have left after working to make the cash to buy them, and then spending the remainder of your time reorganizing them rather than enjoying them, it seems futile. The sentence required just to describe it all is even baffling. But everything from television commercials to our President tells us this is what we must do: buy more to be happy, spend more to improve the economy, consume to fulfill. Saving your money and being content are values that we tout only in theoretical lessons occasionally taught by great-grandparents, relics from a bygone day where things were, as we all seem to collectively recollect, simpler. There are no commercials for the values of buying less. There are no leaders telling us to stay home and be happy instead of rushing to the mall to do your part to get us out of the recession. Each of our lives should be a personal journey toward finding our own happiness, but we have chosen, perhaps through the fault of an inundation of the lesson that consumerism is American, to allow a mainstream, mostly corporate-driven message to dictate how we live instead of putting the thought and effort into that fabled “pursuit of happiness” we’ve all heard was our inalienable right as citizens of the United States. It is a difficult trend to reverse, and I have been as guilty of following the path to more is more as anyone else.

Years ago, freshly divorced, depressed, living in a town I hated to keep a job I only partly enjoyed and finding myself with a too big house, paying too many bills, and driving a too expensive car for my personal needs, I got rid of nearly everything I owned. I traded a cell phone for just about every other bill I had, moved my son and I to a small apartment in Pittsburgh, and began riding a bike anywhere that I couldn’t walk or didn’t want to take a bus to. It was a personal choice, and some could consider it extreme, but it was the first step to becoming the type of person who could realize that living my various dreams was as easy as taking some action. It was my first taste of the rewards of minimalism.

This is not my own tale, though. Instead, this is the story of a rich man who’d climbed the corporate ladder and had no foreseeable ceiling in sight, but traded it all for the one thing he couldn’t seem to achieve through traditional hard work and mass purchasing: personal happiness. It’s the tale of a fresh-in-his-20s kid who became a world traveling entrepreneur. It’s the path a mother took from spending her days picking up endless piles of children’s toys, laundry and running never-ending errands to living a simpler kind of way, one where she could watch her child grow up, not just wish she had the time to do so. It’s about a family man living in Arizona as well as a single woman traveling through Asia.

It begins with Joshua Fields Millburn. Before we get into who he was, let’s discover who he is today. A published author of both fiction and non-fiction. A simple guy, living in an affordable apartment in Dayton, Ohio and typically wearing one of a few starch white button down shirts and blue jeans. He’s the type of person who is more interested in helping others than pursuing his own desires—though his list of accomplishments, such as doing a tour of 33 cities this past year where he and his cohort, Ryan Nicodemus, imparted their newfound love of life through minimalism to anyone willing and happy to attend, and having a following of over 100,000 folks on their blog—proves that there just may be some fact to that whole karma thing. Do unto others and, while you’re involved in all that doing, things are bound to happen for you as well.

“I worked at the same corporation for 12 years,” he tells me, and though our interview was via email, from the essays he writes on his website, I imagine him sipping black coffee, wearing his white shirt and staring thoughtfully into the bookshelves of a library’s free Internet access, “working my way up the corporate ladder to supposedly prestigious positions such as Director of Operations and Regional Manager.” That’s the beginning of his tale, one that would eventually lead him to apply minimalist principles to everything from his income to his daily lunch. He didn’t go the journey alone, though. The aforementioned Ryan Nicodemus was like a sidekick all the way, only it becomes hard to tell who was the Lone Ranger and who was Tonto. Such are always the best pairs, I find.

“I’ve know Ryan for more than 20 years—since we were fat little fifth graders—and when I got my first big promotion at age 22, I hired Ryan to come work for me (to share the misery, as it were). Like me, Ryan worked his way up the corporate ladder, and discontent filled our lives as we worked more and lost sight of what was important in our lives.”

Joshua Fields Millburn wears a black cardigan, jeans and boots as he smiles on the stairs of a building, Ryan Nicodemus slightly blurry in the background
Joshua Fields Millburn, foreground, and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists. Photograph by Adam Dressler

They lived that life for most of their collective twenties. Now 33, you’d probably never suspect Joshua to have formerly been a manager of 100 people in multiple locations around Ohio. Not because he doesn’t seem like a fine, upstanding member of society, but because his conversations seem more focused on personal happiness than us all joining together to make (usually someone else) the almighty dollar. Joshua’s apartment almost looks staged. A coatrack from which a single coat, hat, key and umbrella hang. The sparse furniture is reminiscent of a carton of eggs: white, clean, there to serve a purpose more than create an atmosphere. Against a brick wall hangs a leather jacket that he calls “a piece of clothing that’s transformed into a piece of artwork when I’m not wearing it”. The journey to this from that did not take as long as you might think, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an epic one.

“As my twenties twilighted, my mother died, my marriage ended, and I felt as if I wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my life. Everything that was supposed to bring me happiness wasn’t making me happy at all.” He was making six figures at this time, living in a gorgeous house, and was spending enough to gain access to each and any toy he might ever want. He’d earned it, mind you. Despite not having a college degree, he’d done his part, put in his 60, 70, 100 hours a week to get to where he was. It’s obvious even from his pursuits today, this completely different world that he lives in, that when Joshua wants to achieve something, he’s capable of putting in the time and brilliance necessary to make just about anything happen. But all of that effort and accomplishment wasn’t giving him the one thing he desired, just feeling good about himself.

“I was overwhelmed and stressed and depressed. Basically, I was looking for answers when I stumbled across this thing called minimalism. I spent the next eight months simplifying my life, and as I did Ryan noticed how happy I was and so I showed him what I’d been doing to simplify. It didn’t take much convincing for him to get on board; he too was looking to find a more meaningful life.”

Since then, they’ve co-authored two books on minimalism, and Joshua has written three others. He’s lost 70 pounds. He went a year without purchasing any new material possessions. His story is truly remarkable regardless of the light cast upon it, but the most important part was perhaps the single largest success: discovering happiness.

Joshua Fields Millburn smiling
Happiness found.

While there is no “Minimalist Bible”, no specific set of rules, the general idea seems to be “pair down, find fulfillment in yourself, not in stuff”. But does eliminating the tupperware containers full of things you haven’t used in over a decade mean automatic happiness?

Maybe the cast, but not necessarily the catch.

“I think you can get rid of all your material possessions and still be miserable,” Joshua continues. “Getting rid of the stuff is just the initial step. I found that once I got rid of everything in my way, it was much easier to focus on what was important in my life: health, relationships, pursuing my passion, personal growth, and contributing beyond myself.”

Contributing beyond himself. A noble idea indeed, and he means it. In fact, after reading his essays for the better part of a year, if there is one thing that I would say Joshua Fields Millburn is about more than anything, even more than minimalism, it is doing his part to help the world at large, to help others. He has made his journey, come out victorious, and rather than sitting back and enjoying the benefits of his newfound freedom and success, he’s decided to pay it forward.

“Two words: adding value.” That’s his response when I ask him why he thinks he and Ryan have become such wildly successful bloggers, with over 100,000 readers, when normally such a feat takes years and years or big marketing budgets—which there’s is set at $0—to achieve.

“We go way out of our way to add value to other people’s lives. I don’t know about you, but when I find value in something, I tend to share it. If you add value, people will want to read more.”

You could say he teaches by example. “The biggest way I ‘push’ minimalism is by showing its benefits. People constantly ask me why I’m so damn happy, why I’m smiling so much, why I’m so calm. I tell them I haven’t always been this happy; I had to simplify my life before I could discover what makes me grin.”

To pinpoint what minimalism is, though, and how it can help you find this “more meaningful life”, isn’t always so easy. To some, it’s about owning as little as possible. That path often begins as buying nothing new, and can evolve into a multitude of trips to Goodwill to reduce what is already owned. For others, it’s a complete way of life. Joshua states over and over again his former vexation with the state of nearly all of his affairs. But not all of us are seeking the meaning of life. Some of us simply want to find more time in the day. Some of us just want to be able to enjoy a life we’re already essentially happy with. Some of us want to be free of the weight so that we can travel.

When I asked him how he discovered minimalism in the first place, who he looked to for guidance or ideas, he continually repeated one name.

“I first discovered minimalism through Colin Wright.”

Colin is a remarkable guy. At 27, he’s been building and running his own businesses for eight years. He’s lived in seven different countries, from the US to India, Iceland to Argentina, as well as New Zealand, Thailand and his current whereabouts, Romania. Along with Joshua and Ryan, he runs a publishing company called Asymmetrical. He also writes a blog, and he allows his readers to vote on where he’ll move to next. Four months later, he tallies the votes, picks up his bag and goes.

“Definitely ended up discovering minimalism as a result of wanting to travel, and it was purely by accident.” Disheveled hair, the perfect smile, clothes that seem to imply he’s got a personal wardrobe supervisor, Colin comes across as a rock star. But even with all of his success, his good looks, his seemingly perfect life which he himself worked to create, he has something that most twenty-somethings, let alone rock stars, don’t have. Humility, and an incredibly refreshing amount of it.

Colin was living it up in LA, big house, lots of stuff, and a desire to travel, when he got into minimalism. “I got rid of some clothing I hadn’t worn in ages, and it felt great. Like, really great. I got rid of some more, then some more. Pretty soon I was culling everything I didn’t need, and the more I got rid of, the better I felt. I realized that good feeling was coming from no longer being responsible for guarding and maintaining and housing those things. I was freer and freer with every garbage bag taken to Goodwill.”

Planning on getting his stuff down to what could fit into a storage room before he set out on his yet realized world travels, he ended up taking it much further than most of us would think possible.

a young man wearing a green jacket and small bag hitchhiking
Colin Wright hitchhiking through New Zealand.

“I ended up only owning a little over 60 things in the whole world.”

It’s easy at this point to dismiss Colin as a kid with his whole life in front of him, plenty of time to backpack around Europe before settling down and “really making something of himself”.

“I do get the periodic older person saying something along the lines of ‘yeah, I used to do something similar when I was your age,’ sometimes followed up with a phrase that, when boiled down to the essentials, reads ‘but you’ll grow out of it like I did.’ I appreciate this kind of comment as part brushoff, part compliment, as anyone who’s lived longer than I have comparing me to a younger version of themselves are admiring you for the same reasons they admired themselves, but also trying to instill some deeper knowledge they feel they’ve learned since then. I’ve no doubt they have a lot to teach me, so hearing these kinds of things keeps me aware that above all else, one must be humble on the road; always ready to take in new information, and never sealing off any fount of knowledge.”

He says he’s not as interested in preaching his lifestyle, either travel or minimalism, as much as he is looking to learn from life.

On whether or not he’s a minimalist evangelist, and what he takes from people who disagree with him, he says, “Honestly, it’s been kind of by accident,” finding minimalism that is. “I’m a huge proponent of finding your own answers, and I don’t think one ideology or way of life is right for everyone. We’re all different, seems silly to think my solutions would be totally right for anyone but me. But if someone asks, I’m always willing to talk about what I do and why, because they may be able to borrow an idea from me and fit it into their ideal lifestyle somehow.” Then that humility kicks back in, always there as a cautious reminder that at his or any other age, none of us know everything that can be known, “…just as often, I find myself borrowing an idea from other people I’m giving ‘advice’ to.”

I ask him his opinion on what minimalism is, what the essence of it all boils down to. “Unfortunately, the minimalism thing has become as much a trend as anything else, so there’s a whole lot of misunderstanding about what it is, and most of the mainstream versions of it I’ve been seeing look more like a religion than anything else.

“Minimalism is about getting rid of the things in your life that don’t add value so you can focus on the things that do. Beyond that, it’s a person-by-person set of rules.”

Indeed, there are zealots easily found around the web who would have you believing that minimalism is a religion, a contest where you’re counting your stuff trying to get as close as possible to zero, or at least one or two things less than the next guy touting his lesser-than-thou approach to simplification. That you should spend your days sipping nothing but water and meditating and shunning all technology. Colin’s decision to whittle his life’s possessions down to 60 items or so was more out of necessity than a fierce determination to rid himself of as much as possible.

“The philosophy is one of practicality. Being a full-time traveler as well as a minimalist makes deciding what to own an easy choice. The more I carry with me, the less I enjoy and can focus on my travels. That makes sure my priorities are front and center at all times.”

Colin, as many people his age, embraces technology, in the face of a perception of a movement where folks shy away from minimalists when they hear about no TVs or giving up their Internet connection at home, assuming they’re all sitting around on armless chairs in empty rooms reading Walden.

“I’m not the kind of minimalist that shirks technology, though I understand why they do. Simplicity is the pursuit, and new tech tends to complicate as much as it simplifies. I love technology…but that’s really a ‘to each his own’ aspect of life. Someone without a fancy phone is no better than someone who has one.”

You may want to read that last statement again, for it’s seemingly completely backwards mentality. We’ve been taught over our years that the fancier something is, the bigger our homes, the faster our cars, the better they are. With minimalism, though, those who have the least, who make due with only the necessities they require to live fulfilling lives, are the ones aspired toward. Colin’s perspective, that to each his own in this attempt at finding happiness in life, is key to minimalism.

Yes, there is probably a line that could be drawn. If you’ve got two china cabinets full of extra dishes you never use or four cars in the driveway for a family of two, perhaps calling yourself a minimalist would be a stretch. But not all minimalists are young, single guys like Joshua Fields Millburn and Colin Wright.

Joshua Becker is a Christian, a home owner, a father and a husband. Stuffing his life into a bag and hopping on the next train to nowhere isn’t exactly on the agenda. His story is incredibly down to earth. It doesn’t originate from intense discontent with his job or even necessarily disgust with the consumeristic values that so many of his fellow suburbanites promote. He stumbled across minimalism through what I’d call a combination of neighborly chatting and common sense. While performing some of the average tasks your every day suburban father of two might be engaged in, he was chatting with a neighbor about the doldrum that is keeping up a house. She replied something to the tune of “That’s why my daughter’s a minimalist, she says I don’t need all of this stuff.”

It was that match Smokey the Bear is always talking about, the one that could have easily gone out on the forest floor but instead caught a wildfire.

“The first step was to get my wife’s opinion on the matter,” he tells me. “I sought her out immediately after the conversation (she was spring-cleaning the inside of the home). I told her about the conversation and asked what she thought. She was immediately intrigued as well. From there, I ran a simple Google search on the minimalist lifestyle. I was surprised to find an entire community of people online living this ‘minimalist life.’ And I was hooked…this whole time frame took roughly 15-20 minutes.” And though the idea was as quick as the match could light, the forest fire itself was a bit more of a slow burn.

“The actual process of downsizing our possessions and house took much longer. The initial sweep took us five to six months. The more difficult rooms,” their basement and garage, “ended up taking a few years. And it wasn’t until three years later that we actually moved into a smaller house.”

Becker and his wife are also the proud parents of two children. Anyone who knows what kids are like realizes that they come with a ton of baggage, and I’m not even referring to the teenage variety of emotional drama and the uncertainty of how good of a parent you are when compared to Cliff Huxtable.

“On some levels,” he speaks to having children and the plethora of newsletters, toys, and randomness they can bring home from school or find gifted by grandparents just wanting to make sure their progeny have everything they’d ever want or never need, “it makes it more difficult…much more difficult actually. It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff that kids bring home from school, church, parties, even just an afternoon at a friend’s house. To be honest, I never realized how much stuff until we started embracing minimalism.”

Joshua Becker, thick black hair, dark eyebrows, black shirt, stands against a wall that looks as though it has paint washing off of it
Joshua Becker, family man, minimalist.

Becker admits to his key difference between most of the other people who’s tales we’re recounting here: being a 20-something ambitious adventurer with no responsibility except what you choose to take on is a lot easier than trying to encourage a life of simple values to an entire family.

“Interestingly enough, this question actually gets to a tougher issue of minimalism as a family. Namely, the difference in opinion among the family members about ‘how minimalist’ we should become.” While a particular dad who’s looking to embrace the concept may be willing to toss the microwave, empty out the basement and move into an apartment, kids of all ages and wives have a way of coming pre-installed with their own opinions. “I usually say,” he continues, “‘If I was 80% in, my wife was 60% in.’ As a result, getting rid of the first 60% was easy. The difficulty came when we reached 61%…I wanted to keep going, but my wife was ready to be content. For a little while, it caused some strife in our marriage. One day, I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here? Removing our possessions was supposed to bring us closer, not push us apart.’ And I made an important decision: I could define my personal brand of minimalism wherever I wanted to draw the line, but I couldn’t draw the line for my wife. So I removed 80% of my possessions, allowed my wife to remain at 60%, and decided to stop being the ‘minimalist police’ around my house.”

Becker touches again on what I find to be one of the most interesting aspects of minimalism there. It’s not a religion, there are no Ten Commandments that must be followed or you’re not “in the crowd”. It’s a personal journey. It’s an attempt to relieve yourself from the burden that consumerism weighs our shoulders heavy with. I believe the basic principle is to learn to find happiness outside of possessions. To discover the simple joys of life rather than ignore them in an attempt to be the Kardashians. To finally get as close to that “meaning of life” as we might be able to get here in our human bodies.

In the battle against consumerism, though, how does getting rid of things you’ve already purchased make for saving more money, living simpler? After all, you’ve already purchased those. That money isn’t coming back, and taking the time to get rid of them seems almost counter-intuitive to finding yourself with more time to enjoy a happier life, one of the nearly universal objectives of most minimalists.

“I think you’ve hit on one of the biggest fallacies about the owning of possessions in America. Namely, that they don’t cost us anything once they are already in our possession. But they greatly affect our lives. We’ve just become so accustomed to things being in our possession, we don’t realize how much of an impact they bring.

“Consider this, every possession we own—whether it be a car, a t-shirt, or an extra set of China—takes up space in our lives. This can most easily be seen in a physical sense. They take up physical space. As a result, we build shelves to store them, we move them around, we sort them, we organize them, we clean them.” Becker recounts one of the early days in this minimalist quest of his on his blog, where he was on his way to a track and field meet one potentially rainy day. He wanted to grab an umbrella to take with him, but in the clutter of all of his random-everything-else, he wasn’t able to find his own particular umbrella, and so ended up sporting a bright pink girl’s umbrella while judging the largest track and field meet of the year. All of that “stuff” makes it more difficult to live on a practical sense. It’s not all hippy voodoo, it’s finding what you need rather than rummaging through what could literally be deemed the garbage dumps of our closets.

“Additionally, and what we don’t typically notice, is that each of these possessions also take up mental space. They own a little piece of real estate in our mind just like they require physical real estate in our homes. They are our responsibility to care for. Our minds remind us often of this responsibility. Now, if we are only talking about one extra set of China, this spatial and mental burden is pretty minimal. But the problem is, nobody owns just one extra material possession. Our closets are full of things we don’t need. Our cupboards are full, Our drawers are over-flowing. Our attics are full of boxes of ‘things we already own with no ongoing costs.’ Sometimes, our garage and storage units are filled as well. There is a very good reason why people who embrace a minimalist lifestyle speak of a new-found freedom in life. Not only has physical real estate been cleared of clutter, but mental real estate has also been cleared.”

Becker says that removing these things has a real, tangible effect as well. By de-cluttering their lives, they were able to move into a smaller house. Which came with a smaller price tag. That lead to some extra cash in their pockets, yes, but there’s more to it than that. Becker works in the non-profit sector, and a few years back an old friend offered him a job which he, though it was something he wanted to do, had to decline because it wasn’t going to be able to pay enough to cover his family’s bills. Years later, when the opportunity arrived, now with less bills, less stuff, more minimalism, he was able to accept. Both increased happiness and a lower cost of living are but two rewards Becker has found in life.

His is not the only family to have been successful at diving into minimalist principles. Rachel Jonat, mother of a three year old boy, Henry, and another due in January, and her husband Chris began embracing the concept of less is so very much more in their home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“We cut a lot of small things that added up to a lot of savings but our biggest help in paying off debt was simply not buying things. I had been purchasing baby clothes and popping into stores if there was a sale. No more. I also shopped with a list and stuck to it. This really cut down on impulse purchases.” When she talks about paying off debt, she’s referring to $60,000 of debt that she eliminated in the first year of their pursuit of minimalism.

a young boy, his father, and mother, standing on a cliff near the ocean
Rachel Jonat, along with her family.

“My husband was taken a back when I started radically decluttering. But he soon saw all the benefits of it and has been really supportive. Our bank account, our tidy home and our increased contentment is proof enough for him.”

During that time, they also sold all of their furniture, whittled their family’s possessions down to fourteen boxes, and had them shipped overseas to the Isle of Man, where her husband had been offered a job. Rachel continues to attempt to keep their lives simple, and finds doing so on the small island floating between Ireland and England to be a bit more natural.

“It’s been easier since our move overseas because we live in a small town on an island. There aren’t any shopping malls and choices are limited. There are fewer options for activities and entertainment. The attitude here is different: people work less and have more vacation time than in North America. It’s been a great move for us and we really like this slower pace of life here.”

Don’t brush that off as a reason why their family can do it where others would surely fail, though. They still find themselves in many of the same situations they would have back in Canada, or we might face here in the States. Having a young baby can mean big gifts from grandparents and other relatives come Christmas, birthdays, Flag Day…anyone with kids knows how this goes.

“Our family has been really supportive of our choice to live with less,” she says, but adds that they were also a bit skeptical of some of their choices, like choosing to live without a car. When it comes to gifts for Henry, though, “They ask if there is anything that we need, so their gifts are usually well loved and used. We also don’t buy our son much because we know his grandma’s gift him great toys and clothes for his birthday and holidays.” But of course they do receive sometimes more than they need, or even want. The solution? “We donate or return anything we don’t use. That way another family can put some use to the gift instead of it sitting around our home collecting dust.”

When I ask her about the effect all of this has on her young son, or will as he grows up and is introduced to the ways of the world, she’s optimistic.

“Well we don’t have cable television, we live in a town that doesn’t have shopping malls and we don’t have cereal in our home. So I think we have a good chance of instilling some traditional, non-consumer based, values in our son. Of course he will be influenced by his peers and I expect as he gets older we’ll have more discussions about why we don’t have a car, watch much television and have a lot less toys than the average family. I’m excited for those talks and ready for the challenge.”

She goes on to make a wonderful point. “I’ve already seen how older children have cell phones, GameBoys and what not. I didn’t have an iPod until I was in my 20’s – I think my son can survive until his teens without one.”

Personally, I find the greatest aspect of minimalism is that it affords you the ability to travel. You have less “stuff” just anchoring you to a specific location. You have fewer bills, and therefore more freetime and more cash on hand. I’m not alone in this desire, as we’ve seen with Colin Wright before, but the feeling is a rapidly spreading one.

Nina Yau has spent the past few years living and traveling around the Americas, the UK and Asia.

When she was six her father put her on a plane, all by herself, headed to Taiwan, where her mother was working at the time while he lived and worked near Chicago. She came home and grew up in Arlington Heights, a suburb of the Windy City, but the allure of travel never left her bones. Minimalism helped her achieve her continent hopping aspirations.

Nina Yau, in black and white, presses her fingers against a white wall.
Nina Yau, Truth Seeker

“Several years ago after work one night, my boyfriend at the time showed me an article by Zen Habits,” a blog run by Leo Babauta which focuses on minimalism. “I was hooked—to the idea, concept, philosophy and psychology of minimalism and simplicity. We discussed how we could both minimize our stuff and set off to it. It just so happened to be a period in my life where I really needed to let go of some things (not just the physical) in order to grow and evolve. The relationship has long since dissolved and so have many of my belongings, yet minimalism has remained a part of my life philosophy.”

Well into her journey she began seeking what she calls The Truth. “I was traveling throughout Southeast Asia. I saw depravity in the air amongst people of all colors and nations, I felt loneliness in the empty hearts of many, I listened to broken tales of lives never fully lived, I experienced what it meant to live under heavy bondage of the physical and spiritual realm. I also felt joy in the hearts of many, deep, unquestionable love that carried through generations of hardship and wars, the indescribable beauty of human life, the astounding nature of the universe — its perfections and imperfections, balance and imbalance, the life-and-death cycle—that is in every sea, mountain, village, city, heart and soul of every creature on earth. I saw it all through my own two eyes and I felt it deep within my soul. I emerged from that particular travel last year a new person and I wanted to share with as many people the urgency that I felt, the absolute need to be one’s own truth, to truly live one’s life.”

She wrote an article which essentially comes down to a simple, immediate need for all humanity: find your happiness on this earth while you have the chance, because 80-some years on this planet feels incredibly short just before it’s over.

On the topic of possessions, the lack of which have given her so much freedom, “I don’t think possessions themselves are the primary force behind much of the negativity and sorrow we experience. That would mean we’re externalizing fault in things, laying blame in something outside of ourselves, when it’s really the attitude and mentality we have of possessions that hurt us the most.”

Nina reminds me of the existential conversations heard echoing through the halls of so many universities. In our early twenties, when we’re first setting out on our own, to discover who it is that we in particular are, questioning life and the status quo seems natural. We want to make our own way. Somewhere along the road, though, we tend to fall into the stream of traffic barreling down the highway, probably because it’s so much easier than off-roading it to find our own particular mountain peak.

I ask her to expand on the idea of The Truth, what it means, where it can be found and what it can give us.

“The question I ponder quite often is, ‘What is Truth?'” she replies. “If the universe is me and you and billions of molecules and atoms and cells and water all coalescing in space and time, essentially, we are all interconnected, are we not? If we are all connected, and this is our reality, then does that mean we all believe one truth? Or that each person’s truth is the same as everyone else’s? What one person believes to be truth may be lies and absolute evil to another. We all have different answers to the same question. And we all believe our answers to be true.”

“Long answer short, I’ve no idea. And that is the truth!”

So will minimalism work for everyone? That is something we’ll never be able to know. None of the minimalists I’ve spoken to have asserted that their ideas are the perfect ones, none are attempting to be the Jesus Christ of a new world movement.

“At the moment,” Colin Wright adds, “it certainly feels like something I’ll adhere to in some way, shape, or form long into the future. But I’m also aware that my only constant is change, and if something better comes along, I’ll change without a backward look; maintaining the lessons I learned, but also pursuing new lessons in whatever happened to replace it.”

Back in Dayton, Joshua Fields Millburn is taking one of his daily three to eight mile walks. Or maybe he’s keeping himself incredibly fit through 18 minutes of exercise a day. Or perhaps he’s working on his next novel. I ask him what the biggest benefit of all of this simplifying has done for him.

“In a word, Awareness. For years I stalked the halls of corporate America like a ghost, unaware of my surroundings, unaware of what was making me so discontent, unaware of what was important. Minimalism allowed me to get back that awareness so that I could live more intentionally.”end of article