Like Henry David Thoreau, but with Wi-Fi
For Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, “minimalism” is much more than a simple, spartan ethos. The 31-year-old Ohio natives have spent the past couple of years paring down their possessions and reordering their priorities. In the process, they’ve accumulated thousands of virtual followers.
The quest of “The Minimalists,” as Nicodemus and Millburn call themselves, is to cut through the clutter — both real and figurative. Through their website, theminimalists.com — which has 100,000 monthly readers — they chronicle their quest and offer regular essays on everything from self-help to meditations on the essence of being. They also travel, mentor, lecture, and recently published a book, “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.” The initially 300-plus-page volume (“You can taste the irony, right?” Nicodemus quipped) was pared down to half that, and serves as a sort of “how to” on living contentedly with the least stuff possible.
“What we focus on is living more deliberately,” said Nicodemus, who, with Millburn, recently gave a talk at the Harvard Business School as part of their “Holiday Happiness Tour,” a journey that took them to roughly a dozen cities from New York to Vancouver in a little over a month’s time.
Minimalism is a concept that can be seen as “subversive” or even “radical,” Nicodemus said, but it’s a spectrum, with a different flavor for everybody. It’s not about convincing everyone to do it — and it’s also not about deprivation.
They, for instance, have cars, cellphones, laptops, cameras, furniture, art, and books. And Nicodemus is a snowboarder (with the equipment that goes along with that). But, as he explained, getting out on the trail “adds something to my life,” thus making its accoutrements much more than just “things.”
“It cleared the path to allow me to focus on more important things in my life,” said the tall, skinny jean-wearing Millburn, with an easy smile, a hint of a Southern accent, and a blond, James Dean-like pompadour. Which includes, most notably, writing, which he now does prolifically — sometimes 12 to 13 hours a day. He and Nicodemus, friends since childhood in Ohio, have released essay compilations, and Millburn has penned two novels.
Today, the two reformed consumers greet everyone they meet with a hug and identify the five most important things in life as health, relationships, cultivating a passion, growth, and contribution.
But getting to that point encompassed their own journey through materialism. In their early 20s, they were sure they had the formula for happiness: Making $50,000 a year. Soon that became $75,000. Then $100,000.
Eventually, they each had six-figure jobs in corporate sales. Nicodemus boasted a 2,000-square-foot condo with a two-car garage. Millburn filled his three-bedroom house with “all the gadgets,” a luxury car, Brooks Brothers suits, and Allen Edmonds shoes.
For Millburn, a revelation came after two stunning losses — a death and a divorce. In 2009, when his mom passed away, he was tasked with clearing out her home, which he described as being full of “three apartments’ worth” of items.
It turned out to be a cleansing experience. He began to realize that the memories he had of her weren’t in the things, they were in him. So he got rid of everything, except for some family photos.
Then, not long after he returned home, his marriage ended.
“I didn’t know what was important in my life anymore,” he said.
So, he began to comb through his own organized clutter, slowly discarding everything “superfluous.”
Eight months later, he’d gotten rid of about 90 percent of it.
The result? “Everything in my life became my favorite thing.”
For Nicodemus, it was a little more impulsive. In December 2010, he had what he called a “packing party.” That is, he packed up everything he owned — except he wasn’t moving. Instead, after work, he simply unpacked what he felt he needed for the night.
As time went on, he took out fewer and fewer items.
After 21 days, he realized that he wasn’t using 75 to 80 percent of the precious and just-in-case possessions he had collected and carted around with him — so he sold, donated, or threw away most of them.
“Here was all this stuff that was supposed to make me happy, and it wasn’t doing its job,” said Nicodemus, who, with a beard and shaggy hair, a baggy T-shirt and jeans, is the casual answer to Millburn’s crisp look.
Eventually, they both quit their jobs. And recently they relocated to a mountainside cabin in a Montana town with a population of 820 — an experiment they likened to “the Thoreau thing with Wi-Fi.”
Their base of followers continues to grow, which in part prompted them to embark on their multi-city tour. (In keeping with their lifestyle, they loaded into a car and made a 12-hour trek up from Washington, D.C., battling both New York and Boston traffic along the way.)
A diverse crowd of about 40 gathered in a classroom at Hawes Hall at Harvard Business School to ask about balancing minimalism with materialistic jobs, handling the overwhelming onslaught of digital clutter, social responsibility, and how to be minimalist in suburbia.
The authors stress that they don’t judge anyone for having a particularly large library of books with un-cracked bindings, or an extensive Hummel collection, for that matter. They don’t spurn society. And they concede that they do cherish some stuff.
Minimalism, as they espouse it, is as much about de-cluttering the mind as it is about physical items; assessing what’s most important — and shedding what isn’t.
“It’s OK to have a lot of stuff,” said attendee Laura Moore of Concord, who runs Clutter Clarity and assists people with “letting go” of things. “It’s not OK when you’re physically and emotionally disturbed by your stuff.”
The Minimalists imparted much the same advice: “There’s nothing wrong with the things,” said Millburn. “The problem is the meaning we give to them.”