Full Interview with Joshua Fields Milburn

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The following is our full article with Joshua Fields Milburn, one of the minimalists featured in our article The Rise of Less, The Story of Minimalists.

Wand’rly
You talk a lot on your site about formerly making big bucks and working very, very long hours. Did Ryan and you work together in your previous six figure positions? Were one or the other of you the impetus for diving into minimalism at the same time and how do you think that made it easier, if it did, to make the transition?
JFM
I worked at the same corporation for 12 years, working my way up the corporate ladder to supposedly prestigious positions such as Director of Operations and Regional Manager. 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. Then 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. In fact, the opposite happened: I was overwhelmed and stressed and depressed. Basically, I was looking for answers when I stumbled across this thing called minimalism (via a guy named Colin Wright). 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.
Wand’rly
When you talk about finding happiness within yourself and not through the attempt to acquire possessions to fill the void so many of us experience in life, do you think that it’s possible to find happiness in life without necessarily foregoing the culture of consumption? How exactly do you see minimalism helping a person to discover their own happiness?
JFM
I think you can get rid of all your material possessions and still be miserable. 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.
Wand’rly
How difficult is it to live this lifestyle when the rest of America is so very focused on consumerism? Even our liberal President constantly touts the need for America to grow, to produce more, to get people to buy more stuff. Is it a constant struggle to lead a minimalist lifestyle or do you find that it just comes naturally after awhile?
JFM
Economic stimulus seems rather occult to me. It seems to me as if we’re attempting to fix the problem with the problem. That said, it’s pretty easy to live this lifestyle. I tout the benefits of minimalism, not the details. When people see the benefits—when the see how happy I am—they tend not to question it. Or they want to know how I do it. I’ve never been happier and it shows.
Wand’rly
In that vein, do you think the world would still work if everyone began living simply and we ditched the entire concept of a consumerist, capitalist society?
JFM
The world would still work, albeit differently. What you’re talking about, however, is the terminus of minimalism (i.e., if everyone were to embrace it), and I’m not attempting to get everyone to embrace minimalism; just the people who are looking for something more meaningful. If someone’s happy working their 9-to-5 florescent-lit-cubical job and buying stuff they don’t need, then who am I to tell them to stop? If you’re not happy though, then maybe minimalism is worth a shot.
Wand’rly
Your site is a bit of a rarity in that in a short time you’ve exploded in terms of readership. What do you think is the biggest contributor to this…minimalism itself as a subject, the fact that you’re published authors, something else?
JFM
Two words: adding value. 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. When our readers find value in one of our essays, then tend to email it to a friend or share it on social media. If you add value, people will want to read more.
Wand’rly
Can you tell us about the actual process you went through from deciding you wanted to live a minimalist lifestyle to getting to the point where you thought, “Okay, I’ve achieved it, I am a minimalist.”
JFM
My mother’s death was the impetus of my journey. Once I started questioning everything in my life, the stuff was the first to go. I had to get rid of the clutter so I could find out what was important. I had honestly gotten to a point in my life where all I did was work and I didn’t know what was important. There wasn’t a point where I said, “OK, I’m a minimalist,” but there was a point when I realized I could be happy without the stuff.
Wand’rly
Is it an ongoing process? Are you always figuring out new ways to do more with less or are you kind of just “there” now?
JFM
It’s an ongoing process in terms of questioning my stuff. That is, I’m constantly questioning my material possessions, making sure I’m not giving too much meaning to my things. There’s nothing wrong with owning a couch or a toaster or a nice car, but when I give too much meaning to those things, then they get to run the show, and I don’t want my possessions to be the boss of me.
Wand’rly
How do you feel when you see a commercial? I realize you don’t have a TV and probably don’t watch much TV in general anyway, but it’s hard to go to a bar or listen to the radio in a car without hearing or seeing a commercial. When you watch a company trying to put an emotional bond to a product, what does that make you think?
JFM
It’s funny, whenever I see a TV commercial now, I’m sucked in instantly. Commercials do such a slick job of captivating us. We don’t notice when we’re watching them every day, but when you step back for a while and then see one, it’s pretty amazing. There’s a reason advertising agencies pay scholars of demography hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to create their advertisements. They are paid to manipulate us. It’s that simple. Advertising no longer serves our needs; it works hard to manufacture the need.
Wand’rly
Can you give us an idea of your bills? If you’re not comfortable discussing dollar amounts, that’s completely fine, I’m more curious about what kinds of bills you had before transitioning to minimalism, and what you have today? What did you consider okay to spend money on and how did you come to the decision that the other stuff had to go?
JFM
I spent two years paying off the vast majority of my debt: credit card debt, student loans, medical bills, and the like. Then I paid off my car and sold my large house and moved into a small, $500 per month minimalist apartment. Then, over time, I gradually got rid of nearly all my bills. No more internet at home: Instead, I now find more productive things to do with my time, focusing on my health and my relationships and the more important things in life. When I need to use the internet, I go to the library or a coffee shop and I use it deliberately, no longer wasting hours of my life “surfing the web.” Living my dream doesn’t allow time for such pillory. No more TV: Instead, I read or write or go to a concert or a movie with a friend, creating meaningful, lasting experiences instead of channel surfing my life away. Living my dream doesn’t allow time for such passive nonsense. No more expensive gym membership: Now, I walk more than ever, and I exercise 18 minutes each day at home or in the park. And at age 31, I’m in the best shape of my life. No more extra bills: No new, expensive cars. No more satellite radio. No more expensive cellphone plan. No more Netflix. No more magazine subscriptions. Living my dream makes these ephemeral pleasures pale in comparison. And now my only bills at this point are rent, utilities, and insurance. Everything else had to go. I decided that pursuing my dream was worth it.
Wand’rly
You sold your house in exchange for renting as part of this entire process. How do you see renting vs. home ownership, from a minimalist perspective?
JFM
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with owning a house. I, however, didn’t need one—especially not the massive house I owned. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with not owning a house, especially if you value mobility and freedom. Taking care of a house is hard work; as a former homeowner, I speak from authoritative first-hand experience. It seems to me that we’ve been told that home ownership is part of this so-called American Dream. That Dream seems broken to me.
Wand’rly
Can you tell us how your mind works when the time does come to exchange cash for goods? How do you avoid impulse purchases? What goes through your head when you need a new pair of shoes or when some new gadget like the iPad (or whatever applies to you) comes out that you might think “man, I’d like to have that”?
JFM
I went a year without purchasing material possessions. That year completely changed my thought process around purchasing. I no longer have that impulse. Now when I buy something, I do so deliberately, I make sure it adds value to my life, and I always ask myself one question: Is this worth $XX.XX of my freedom?
Wand’rly
Is there something you can say minimalism has done for you more than anything else?
JFM
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.
Wand’rly
Outside of your books and website, do you “push” minimalism in everyday relationships and conversations?
JFM
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.
Wand’rly
Do minimalists forego eating out at restaurants or going to bars or coffee shops? Does owning less stuff translate to purchasing less in general, in your opinion?
JFM
I ate at the local burrito place today. I spend my money more cautiously now, but often eat at restaurants. I’m less concerned about the money, and more concerned about what I’m eating: Is it healthy? Does it add value to my life?
Wand’rly
I ate at the local burrito place today. I spend my money more cautiously now, but often eat at restaurants. I’m less concerned about the money, and more concerned about what I’m eating: Is it healthy? Does it add value to my life?
JFM
No, I don’t think there are any rules. Ryan and I have joked about publishing a 500-page Minimalist Rulebook wherein all 500 pages are blank. The bottom line is that my minimalism might look different than your minimalism. And that’s alright. Some of my favorite minimalists own homes and have children, and thus their lives look appreciable different than mine. If a sports car adds value to your life, have at it. But if you want one because you think it’s more meaningful than, say, your relationships, then you should think again. How long will you have to work to buy that sports car? Is it worth giving up that much of your freedom?
Wand’rly
I’m originally from Pittsburgh, and I think Dayton and other cities in Ohio, Western NY and Michigan share a lot in common with my own former city. Namely, that most people think they’re run down, past their prime places that aren’t exactly on people’s bucket lists. You talk about loving Dayton on your site. If you were the official Dayton tourism advocate for a day, what would you stress as some of the city’s shining points?
JFM
Dayton, Ohio—like many of the rustbelt cities you mentioned—is blue-collar and unpretentious. It’s a normal place, and I find that it’s hard to cultivate normalcy. Not to mention, I’ve been to 40 states during our book tour, and the best coffeehouse in the country (Press Coffee Bar) is a few blocks from my apartment, as is the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten (Thai 9).
Wand’rly
How did you go from wanting to be in the music industry when you were a teenager to wanting to be a writer? Could you have become the successful writer you have today without embracing minimalism?
JFM
I don’t know that I’ve ever admitted this publicly, but I was really into hip-hop music during the 90’s (my teenage years). I always liked the wordplay. I graduated high school early and went to audio-recording school where I learned how to record all kinds of music, from hip-hop artists to acoustic singer-songwriters. I started to fall in love with the words of singer-songwriter music shortly thereafter. I could never sing, so I decided that I might be able to write prose instead. I wrote literary fiction throughout most of my twenties, but I never published anything (I have a stack of rejection letters to prove it). After writing haphazardly for roughly seven years, minimalism allowed me to reclaim my time so I could focus more time on writing fiction. After embracing minimalism and simplifying my life, I’ve published two bestselling literary fiction books. I wouldn’t have had the time to put that much effort into those books without first embracing minimalism.
Wand’rly
I know you’ve said that you aren’t particularly drawn to traveling, but when you do travel, such as during your recent multi-leg tour, how does minimalism apply to being on the road, finding a place to stay, exploring a city, etc.?
JFM
We were pulled over on I-70 in Kansas for going seven—yes, seven!—miles over the speed limit. The officer asked to search are car (I don’t blame him; Ryan is a suspecious-looking fellow), and when he saw our trunk he said, “I thought you boys said you were traveling for three weeks—how come you only have two small bags?” True story. I don’t particularly like traveling, although I’ve traveled more in the last year than the previous 30 years combined. I’ve learned that a weekend bag with a pair of shorts, a bunch of underwear, and a handful of teeshirts can last for weeks (as long as I can find a washing machine). I’ve also learned to stop packing just in-case items. If you forget something it’s not the end of the world—virtually anything you need can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes from where you are. When I travel, I focus on the people. We’ve had 1,900 people attend our 33-city tour, and I have enjoyed their perspective. Minimalism has allowed me to live in the moment and better enjoy my interactions with others, be it on the road or back in Ohio.
Wand’rly
Who are some of your favorite minimalists? Who did you look to for inspiration?
JFM
I first discovered minimalism through Colin Wright, who travels to a new country every four months based on his readers’ votes. Colin exposed me to the writings of Leo Babauta and Joshua Becker, two family men with completely different stories than Colin. Those two guys made me realize that there’s a different flavor of minimalism for everyone—travelers and homebodies alike. I also like what Courtney Carver is doing with Project 333. I approached all four of these writers as a fan, and since then I’ve been lucky to develop a friendship with each of them. I’ve even started a publishing community with Colin called Asymmetrical that I’d invite you to visit if you’re a writer or creative type looking for some direction. I’ve learned a lot over the last couple years and I’d love to add value to your life if you’re interested.

JOSHUA FIELDS MILLBURN left his corporate career at age 30 to become a full-time author and writing instructor. His essays at TheMinimalists.com have garnered an audience of more than 100,000 monthly readers. Millburn is the bestselling author of two fiction and two nonfiction books and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, NPR Radio, NBC, FOX, and Zen Habits. He was born in 1981 and currently lives in Dayton, Ohio.