There’s one comment that Joshua Fields Millburn gets a lot: You don’t look like a minimalist. “Different people have different conceptions about what minimalism is,” he says. “When I say minimalism to some people, it sounds subversive and stark. It conjures up all kinds of images of deprivation or monks living in a monastery. But I’m talking on a phone right now, wearing a shirt and pants and shoes. I have a comfy bed and a couch. It’s not about consuming nothing, it’s about consuming the right amount for you.”
It’s been seven years since the 35-year-old from Ohio decided to downsize his life, sell or trash 90 per cent of his belongings and follow a minimalist lifestyle. It was a change that led him to quit his corporate job and launch a blog about his experiences, taking him down an entirely new career path. Since then, Joshua and Ryan Nicodemus co-founded The Minimalists and have made a living from owning minimal possessions.
Their blog has led to several books, a podcast and a documentary. They’ve toured the world speaking at events, book signings and TEDx conferences. Their mission? To inspire other people to harness the principles of minimalism to reduce the stuff in their lives, to consume less and create more, to question what things add value to their life, to experience freedom and generally feel more fulfilled.
“It’s not about consuming nothing, it’s about consuming the right amount for you.”
“I first stumbled across minimalism when I heard of a guy, Colin Wright, who owns just 52 items he can fit in one backpack,” says Joshua. “I thought it was admirable, but I didn’t aspire to live in that way. However, I did have an urge to simplify my own life, if I could create my own recipe for minimalism.” This was back in 2009 and, at the time, Joshua and Ryan were earning six-figure salaries working at a telecommunications corporation, with luxury cars, big houses and expensive clothes – an abundance of stuff. But the American dream wasn’t living up to its promise.
“The subject of happiness kept coming up in our conversations,” says Joshua. “With each promotion at work, with each award or fancy trip we won, with every nugget of praise we received, the happiness accompanying those things quickly came and went.” Around this time, Joshua’s mum died of stage 4 lung cancer. “Sometimes it takes a jarring incident to make us step back and question our life focus,” he says. While sifting through his mother’s possessions, he learnt important lessons: we are not our stuff, our memories are within us, old photographs can be scanned, you can take pictures of items you want to remember, and letting go of things is freeing.
“Their mission? To inspire other people to harness the principles of minimalism to reduce the stuff in their lives, to consume less and create more.”
After sorting through his mother’s home, he turned to his own. Over the course of 30 days, Joshua let go of one item a day, either selling it, throwing it away, or gifting it. When his best friend Ryan heard about the experiment he decided to join in, although he followed a more extreme method. Ryan boxed up all his belongings as if he were moving house, from his toothbrush to his toiletries and clothes, and draped sheets over his furniture. During the next 21 days he only unpacked items he genuinely needed to use. By the end of his experiment, 80 per cent of his possessions were still in boxes – so he got rid of them.
“The blog was Ryan’s idea,” says Joshua. “People at work kept coming up to me and asking why I seemed so much happier, so much calmer, so much nicer. We never set out to prophesy. We just wanted to share our message and share our story.”
Their journey to minimalism became addictive reading and, within nine months, their website went from having 52 visitors in December 2010, to more than 100,000 monthly readers (it now has more than 4 million). It documented their decision to downsize to smaller apartments, get rid of home Wi-Fi and ditch their ‘just-in-case’ items. (If you do ever need a ‘just-in-case’ item, the duo say it can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes. So far they’ve ditched hundreds of these things and had to replace them – combined – less than five times.)
“I first stumbled across minimalism when I heard of a guy, Colin Wright, who owns just 52 items he can fit in one backpack.”
“My initial plan was to write fiction and be a barista at a coffee shop two blocks from my apartment,” he says. “I knew that, in order to do that, I had to change my lifestyle to make sure I didn’t have a lot of overheads. I was scared [of leaving my job]. But I was more scared of becoming the people above me on the corporate ladder who seemed so miserable.” The blog itself doesn’t make money, but has led to book deals, documentaries and other financial opportunities (Joshua teaches a writing course and Ryan is a mentor).
It hasn’t always been easy, as the documentary following them on their US book tour shows. Many early events had just two attendees. But, gradually, rooms begin to fill – and then overflow.
“I have noticed a shift in people’s attitude,” says Joshua. “It was sparked by the [financial] crash in 2008, although it took a while for it to catch fire. The crash made people realise we are living way beyond our means, and wonder if minimalism is the answer.”At one book signing in Las Vegas, a man in the crowd confronted them. “You’re the type of people that Wall Street fear,” he said. “But you’re removing yourself from the war. And that’s not going to change the world!” But Joshua believes the minimalist movement can infiltrate big business and banking.
“People at work kept coming up to me and asking why I seemed so much happier, so much calmer, so much nicer.”
“When you see the people at our events, they’re very much in that world,” he says. “We have Wall Street brokers, CEOs, lawyers, accountants. I wouldn’t sacrifice my own wellbeing to stay in that world. But, there are people of all genres taking certain ingredients from our minimalism recipe.” Part of that recipe is numbers. There’s the 90-90 rule, asking yourself, ‘Have I used this in the last 90 days?’ and, if not, will you use it in the next 90? If the answer is no, then let it go. Having trouble seeing why you may be better off without ‘things’? Try the 10-10 material possessions exercise: write down your 10 most expensive material possessions you’ve purchased in the last decade, then write down 10 things that add the most value to your life. The two lists, the guys point out, rarely have anything in common.
But what if you run a product-making company. “Does that make you a bad guy?” says Joshua. “Only if you’re doing something that doesn’t align with your values. I ask people to step back and say, ‘Is this the best version of me?’. If you’re producing a product does it add to people’s lives in a positive way, does it serve a purpose or bring people joy?”
Now that he has a partner and young daughter, Joshua has adjusted his minimalism a little to suit them. (His home still has bare walls, no coffee table and unadorned flat surfaces, but there is a cartoon-patterned shower curtain, plus a rug, a small collection of books and a couple of functional ornaments in his daughter’s room.) He’s also more money-minded, as a cut of the profits from The Minimalists’ books and documentary goes to charitable projects. They’ve constructed an elementary school in Laos, installed clean-water wells in Malawi and funded a high school in Uganda for a year.
As they’ve discovered, living a minimalistic life isn’t about throwing out your dreams – it’s about making space to unpack them. “My long-term values centre around health, relationships, creativity, personal growth and contribution,” he says. “I don’t hope for a perfect life or even an easy life, but a simple life. If the internet blew up tomorrow, I’d be happy going back to making coffee.”