Joshua Millburn is a self-described minimalist, and although Millburn is an aspiring novelist, the label doesn’t apply to his work.
Along with his childhood best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, Millburn founded The Minimalists, a blog that details the duo’s lives “living with less money, less stuff and more meaning.” Once so-called corporate world cogs, Millburn and Nicodemus earned six figures and lived in the material comforts that accompany such an income. Now, Millburn and Nicodemus boast more than two million readers in 156 countries, and they write about their newfound way of life — pursuing passions and purging possessions.
On February 11, Millburn and Nicodemus will speak at Church Street Coffee & Books, promoting the release of their new book, Everything That Remains. Millburn took time out from their 100-city book tour to speak with Weld about the principles of minimalism and whether or not those principles might apply to people from diverse backgrounds.
Weld: What was your life like before minimalism?
Joshua Millburn: Before minimalism, five years ago, when I was 27, I had everything I ever wanted, everything I was supposed to have. I was living the American dream and had all the trappings of the American dream as well. I had a big three-bedroom house…a couple of luxury cars, closets full of expensive clothes. … I kept chasing this thing called happiness, but it seemed like the closer I got, the farther away happiness was. Instead of happiness, I had debt. I had stress and boatloads of discontent. I was depressed.
When I was 28, my mother died, and my marriage ended in the same month. And it turned out that because I was focused on achievement through attaining things, I was accumulating this identity that I had. I was the director of operations for 150 retail stores, and I realize it’s ironic now. … I was unhealthy. My relationships suffered. When those two things happened, I looked around at everything I had supposedly achieved and asked myself: Is this everything you’ve been waiting on your entire life? And clearly, the answer was no.
Weld: How’d you come to minimalism as the answer?
JM: I inadvertently stumbled across this thing called minimalism. I stumbled across this guy called Colin Wright. He’s a young entrepreneur. Everything he owns, he carries with him. He travels to a new country every few months. While that sounds cool, it wasn’t for me. I like owning a kitchen table, a couch. I don’t want to be some peripatetic writer. I found people with somewhat more conventional lives like Joshua Becker who has a home and car in suburban Vermont and a family and kids.
All these people were leading radically different lives, but they’re passionate and purpose-driven, and they attribute that to this lifestyle called minimalism that allowed them to clear the clutter in their lives and clear a path so they could focus on the most important things in life, like heath, relationships and pursuing your passion.
Weld: You say minimalism isn’t about counting your stuff, but is instead about appreciating what you have. So how do you go about appreciating what you have?
JM: It starts with the stuff because that’s a representation of how cluttered are lives are. Getting rid of the stuff is like a bite at the apple. … I asked this question of everything I owned: Does this item add value to my life? … In the course of eight months, I got rid of 95 percent of my possessions. … Past the material items, it bleeds over into all the other areas of life. There’s certainly mental clutter or emotional clutter or relationship clutter. I had to re-prioritize my relationships from the past four years and figure out which relationships I encourage and both get something from, and more importantly, give something to.
Weld: A big part of what you’re doing on the blog, apart from writing about your own experience, is writing about how others can live a life of worthy experiences. Do you think social media makes experience “materialistic” in that people use Instagram, Twitter or blogs to broadcast “meaningful” experiences?
JM: Have you read Dave Eggers’ new book, The Circle? In it, the ultimate thing is that you have to share every experience that you have. While that seems like an absurd idea to me, and I know it’s supposed to be a parodic exaggeration of where we are now, but it also didn’t seem that far off. I can see where we might try sharing everything and trying to one-up each other, keeping up with the Joneses by social media. And what I would say is that I treat social media the same way that I would treat material possessions in my life. I’m asking that question: Is this going to add value to my life? Someone else’s life?
We don’t have a ton of social media followers, but we have tens of thousands, and I want to know if I’m adding value to their lives. I have to ask that question; otherwise, it’s masturbatory. I have to avoid that. I don’t want to share what I’m doing for the sake of sharing. I want to share for the sake of contributing to other people. I might tweet a joke. I think laughter is phenomenal value. Maybe it’s a tip, a de-cluttering tip. Some self-help advice. Whatever it is, I want to make sure I’m contributing. We’re talking about having a well-curated life. Not a perfect life, but a simpler life.
Weld: You’ve blogged about living without TV, internet and your cell phone for periods of time.
JM: I don’t think minimalism is about deprivation; however, I like doing little experiments from time to time that are temporary moments or spurts of deprivation. The TV I got rid of that because I watched it all the time. It was on like a fireplace. I’m not very good at multitasking. I got rid of it for a while and I was more productive and happier without it. I still watch TV sometimes, but it’s more deliberate now. … It was not about depriving myself of those things but about learning how to use those things. You find out what’s necessary when you get rid of something for a while.
Weld: You called abstaining from those devices a social experiment. What do you say to folks who say, “Well, I live without these things because I can’t afford them?”
JM: It’s amazing to me, because I thought the same thing when I first started. There are a lot of people who can’t afford it. I grew up really poor, on food stamps, and the situation we grew up in was not a great existence. And knowing what that world is like personally, we weren’t minimalists. My mom hoarded everything still. We held on to everything. We weren’t living very deliberately. We have readers in 156 countries now. We’ve gotten a lot of emails and messages from folks who may not have access to those things, but the things they have in their lives, they’re still living with the same issues. How can I live more deliberately? I’ve seen that not just overseas, but in this country. Our last book, we did a 50-city tour over the course of a year and a half. What I found was there were a lot of different people from different backgrounds and different socioeconomic statures.
CEOs and lawyers showed up to our events. We had Occupy Wall Street folks. We had people who had been homeless show up who were struggling with that. What I found is that we all have the same underlying problems, the same underlying challenges. They just manifest in different ways. … We’re all dealing with these same frustrations in life, and a lot of them have to do with our material possessions.
Weld: Minimalism comes from choice, though. People must have the option to choose to be minimalist — to choose which items are necessary and which are not. In order to say “no,” you have to have the opportunity to say “yes.” Would you say this way of life is only for the privileged? For instance, many Birmingham residents live in low-income neighborhoods. Is this book for them?
JM: It’s about asking quality questions. No matter what situation you’re in, good thought comes from asking better quality questions. That’s what I had to start doing in my own life. When I grew up, we grew up poor in a crappy little neighborhood. The house I grew up in is boarded up now. We didn’t have a lot of money, so by the time I left the house when I was 18, I realized, you know what, I don’t want to live that way, and I assumed the reason we were unhappy and had so much discontent in our lives was because we didn’t have much money. I didn’t really realize that the time, half a lifetime ago, was that the reason we were poor wasn’t that we didn’t have much money. We didn’t have much money, or we were poor, because we were making poor decisions consistently.
I don’t have a college degree, but I teach a writing class now. There are plenty of things that are possible to do if we ask the questions. What steps is it going to take in order for me to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be? The cool thing about that is that we’re all always working toward the ideal version of ourselves. There’s going to be this ideal version of yourself on the horizon. … Here’s the thing: once you get to the horizon, there’s always a new horizon. That’s what life’s about: constant and never-ending improvement.
Weld: What questions should your family have asked when you were young?
JM: Why am I giving so much meaning to this stuff? We give a lot of meaning to things. There’s a lot of discontent around that. Time and money. Those are the two biggest seeds of discontent in my life. How can I better spend my time? The money thing was a seed of discontent when I was young and a bigger seed of discontent when I was making $200,000 a year. I didn’t have control of my time. I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. I didn’t have control of my finances because my expenditures exceeded my income. Is this purchase worth one dollar of my freedom or one hundred dollars of my freedom? Or is this car worth $50,000 of my freedom? That’s what we have to ask.