Achilles heel of minimalism: It’s boring


We took a trip to NYC because I was worried that we are were not being exposed to enough visually stimulating inputs. I want the kids to see new things, do new things, and I wanted to see the Barney’s Christmas windows. The theme was foodies. I was stressed that I was not up on Food Network enough to get the high-brow insider references. Still, the windows were gorgeous.

I was talking with Leo Babauta about minimalism. Well, actually, we were talking about his new book, and his minimalist process of promoting it, which I will now contribute to with this link.

It’s ironic to me that Leo, the king of minimalism, just moved his family from Guam to San Francisco, and I, the queen of interestingness, moved my family from NYC to a farm. It’s ironic because the farm is forced minimalism: There are no restaurants, no stores beyond the very basics, nowhere to wear nice clothes, and traveling anywhere is difficult. It’s a sort of forced minimalism. We wear the same four outfits all week, I cook three meals a day and we eat them together, and because we don’t have a TV, we are rarely exposed to advertising, telling us we need something.

Leo, on the other hand, moved to San Francisco to give his kids more opportunities, expose his kids to more things. In the process of that, Leo needs to earn more money, he needs to keep track of a more complicated family schedule (because there’s more to do) and he deals with the inherently complicated world of living in a city full of choices.

To live on a farm, I gave up New York City, where I was already on an accidental path to minimalism. But now, on the farm, where I truly understand what minimalism is like, I know you’re not really doing it until you start worrying that your life does not have enough inputs.

I know I don’t want to live in a big city because the pressure it puts on one’s career—you always have to have a great way to make money—is not in line with me constantly adjusting my career to fit what I want from my life. Career change is very very hard with a high family burn rate. And keeping a low family burn rate is all relative. (All financial well being is relative.) The farm family burn rate is relatively zero compared to a NYC or SF family burn rate.

So we were walking down Fifth Avenue when my five-year-old announced that he has to go to the bathroom. Public bathrooms in New York are notoriously elusive. You really have to know the ins and outs to be able to find one. My son saw me struggling and he pointed to the Plaza Hotel: “I could just pee in the trees in the front yard of that building.”

We went to Trump Plaza. The line was insane, and I felt like even though it was only my first day back in NYC, I was going to get claustrophobia.

By the second day, I was done with the crowds. I couldn’t take it. So I got my son a haircut. The woman who cut my son’s hair brought her own son to work with her that day. And both boys realized they had Pokemon on their DSi’s. So they played together for an hour.

It was a New York City day that made me happy. My son made a friend, and I read magazines while they played.

So I question whether I really want interesting. Or what an interesting life means to me. Because I have only about a day’s tolerance for New York City. And the minimalism of the farm actually comes easy to me. I want nothing around me because my head is so cluttered and spinning.

Still, I worry that maybe someone like Leo won’t even talk with me if I’m not interesting. And I worry that Muriel Spark abandoned her son. Did you know that? She was such a great writer; she understands the female psyche so well. But in order to craft that life of a writer she disowned her son as an unnecessary distraction.

What is interesting to her? I’m not sure. And I’d be lying if I told you that my sons don’t distract me. They do. For example, at ABC Home I wanted to soak up all the interior design ideas that are floating around the store. So I told my son to just sit down and play his DS. “Don’t talk to anyone,” I told him.

“What if a homeless person asks me for money?”

He is fascinated by the homeless people. I think he likes that he can help a grownup.

“Don’t give money when you’re not with me,” I tell him. “And if someone wants you to go with them…”

“I know, I know,” he says, “Kick and scream and if they tell me to be quiet then I scream louder.”

So I leave him in a corner, absorbed in his DS.

And I don’t know if I’m getting ideas for what I can do with my house, or I’m getting an appreciation for the fact that really, there is very little in my house, and I like it that way.

56 replies
  1. James M
    James M says:

    To me, you are born to be a minimalist (or vegan or other movement) and eventually you will discover what feels natural or you will do something without really knowing what it is. Out of everyone in my family, I’m probably the most difficult to shop for birthday presents because I don’t really need or want anything. I just bought a new pair of shoes after my previous pair had holes in them – after five years of wearing them. I didn’t have to adapt a lifestyle to do this. It’s just who I am.

    If I were to try to talk my girlfriend into giving away some of her purses and shoes to adapt a minimalist lifestyle, she would fail at it because it isn’t who she is. She needs to have five different purses and how many pairs of shoes to feel comfortable with her life. She’s fully aware that she has too many, too, and has stopped buying them. If minimalism aimed to stop people from buying unnecessary items, it may succeed, but trying to have people give up a lot of what they own is like asking many people to give up coffee and chocolate. It’s difficult to do, and most will end up going back to the coffee and chocolate at the end of the experiment.

    Also, I don’t know you personally, but based upon your writings, I would say you are far from being boring.

  2. dl
    dl says:

    Penelope, your photography gets better and better all the time. These photos are so expressive and story-telling. Way to go!

    • Chiron Armand
      Chiron Armand says:

      i totally second this. your great photography is becoming a powerful part of your storytelling.

  3. Sketch Country
    Sketch Country says:

    I can agree that minimal input could be ‘boring’ – diverse input creates a sort of mind-gumbo, a great big soup of thoughts that produces moments of inspiration when ideas collide.

    It appears that (particularly from media and advertising), too great a saturation of ideas (especially in rapid fire bursts) conditions the brain to dance about like a mayfly and makes concerted thought harder:

    There seems very little point in having all that great input if you never have the space to settle, focus, and actually *process* that information.

    I suspect that even whilst physically disconnected from big-city life, the internet can provide that saturation of input, and where better to process it all than the ‘minimalism’ of farm-life?

  4. tamar
    tamar says:

    Is that the amazing Yefet in the photo? Please, Yefet, come visit Tel-Aviv/Yafo (Jaffa) for a walk down Yefet Street. Nary a boring centimeter as we inch our way along its path of fascinations. My friend’s 13-year-old is now in counseling partly perhaps due to over-scheduling.

  5. Earth Girl
    Earth Girl says:

    Perhaps if you tried to find the interesting in the farm and the natural life that surrounds you, it would help. This would require keen observation and context, just as you needed context for the foodie window. If you do not know what is “normal” in nature, how do you know what is interesting? Every day I find something interesting to share with my husband when he gets home from work, for example a bird shows up that should not be here, the red fox tracks in the snow, an unusual fungus, or a new wildflower identified. I need to go to the city only once a year to get my fix of crowds, architecture, food, etc.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, it’s true that the farm is very interesting if you look closely. Seeing the same land, season after season, year after year, teaches a person to look closer and closer and closer. I love that about the farmer — he sees things that I completely don’t see. I love hearing him tell me what he sees.

      But I think everyone needs different types of input. Not just, for example, nature. And not just advertising. But a range. I am trying to figure out where my range is. Where my kids’ range is.

      And, I think one of the reasons the farmer married me is that he needed more input than just the farm.


  6. Will
    Will says:

    If the farm is too slow and the big city it too fast, then you can always move to the South. Our major cities provide a faster pace but with a slower feel. Atlanta, New Orleans, Mobile, Louisville, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Nashville, and Memphis all provide the amenities of a big city, without the hustle or the mortgage or the rent of one.

  7. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Penelope, you are like everyone else in that you want it all: the peacefulness and quiet in order to process all the input; AND the stimulating ideas and the rush they create for the creative mind.

    Don’t you think we all swing (wildly at times) between these two needs? I certainly do.

    But you and I have made a conscious choice to make the quieter life our predominant style.

    I am learning huge and unsettling lessons from my daughter who is a minimalist. She will probably read your blog and comment on her own. There is a lot to be said for minimalism. My daughter says it has been liberating . . .

    The point is to be open to the lessons to be learned from each swing back and forth.

    P.S. I think there is tremendous opportunity for input on a farm, for the kids. There is so much natural beauty and learning the patterns in nature, in weather, in animal behavior. Think about Temple Grandin, the autistic professor, who found a stage for her great wisdom and contributions on the farm . . .

  8. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    I love your blog posts on interesting life, it has taken me a long time, and a failed marriage to realize that is that is what I am searching for is “interesting”. And the thing about it is you need to constantly keep searching because once you find “it” it is no longer interesting and you need to start searching again. Somewhat of a never ending battle. I battle this in relationships and my career. You may have seen this article but it really hit home for me. Thank Penelope, I love all your posts!

  9. Margaret Goerig
    Margaret Goerig says:

    I’m pretty sure that the process to contentment is ongoing and never-ending, that you could be in the most perfect place for you but that if you only ever stayed there, even it would become tired and stifling and so, to remain fulfilled by it requires constant maintenance of the sort that places you outside your habitat, making you almost always aware of what you have. I struggle with how to do this outside of physical travel, which is the most direct but also most expensive route. Reading has its limits and I do not like television, either, but recently, radio has started providing a lot of perspective, namely podcasts, like This American Life and The Moth, or Fresh Air and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. I’m actually not sure how I ever lived without them. I don’t think you have to worry about being a boring person, Penelope, as long as you are in engaged in life around you.

  10. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I am fascinated by your journey to find an interesting and/or happy life, because I feel that that is a similar journey that I am or trying to take. And minimalism fascinates me too, because I feel like really that is what essentially makes you interesting and/or happy: not too many distractions, not too much to tie you down, not being forced to focus internally on your own life and your own things so that you have the freedom to turn your focus outwardly to the people and the world around you, and its goings-on and how you can be a part of that. That’s a constant struggle for me, because I am near-addicted to online shopping: there seems like there is no escape and I feel so disappointed by knowing I am the kind of person that wants to make money just to spend it. So I try to take my own advice and focus my attention outwardly. I did this yesterday by yelling at my boyfriend in the middle of Best Buy for wanting a $2000 GINORMOUS television (totally unnecessary, I said, when there are people starving, I said, and we have a perfectly good TV already) and then pointing him towards the West Elm next door to look at the really expensive bedding that I want, instead.

    Like I said, it’s a constant struggle. So now I’m thinking, maybe we should just have a bed (with nice linens, of course) and a ginormous television and no other furniture, and we’d both be happy and could consider ourselves minimalists? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m going to have to continue to work on this one.

  11. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    You know, there is middle ground between the farm and NYC/SF. There are small towns, small cities… I live in a college town with about 115,000 people in it. We don’t have *all* of the amenities, but because of the presence of the Big Fucking University, we have a lot of arts and humanities and entertainment you wouldn’t ordinarily find in a town of this size, not to mention a more diverse and educated population (and better schools) than the rest of the state.

    I am a big believer in college towns. High quality of life factor.

  12. Beckie
    Beckie says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I love how you include the most interesting links in your posts. I’m not familiar with Muriel Sparks’ works. Is there one in particular you would recommend for a novice Sparks reader?

    • Sophie
      Sophie says:

      “The Girls of Slender Means.” One of those small novels that is perfect in itself. I would also recommend “A Far Cry From Kensington” which is hilarious in that understated British way.

  13. Shanna Duvall
    Shanna Duvall says:

    Thank you for the blog post, but I find it ironic that a blog about minimalism then has a photograph of two young boys described as participating in a form of “playing together” as they sit and stare at their mini computer screens. Where is the interaction? Where is the activity that “play” is traditionally associated with?

    I acknowledge that running around and chasing each other is not always appropriate, but I also remember playing more stationary games as a child like “Miss Mary Mack” and other such games ( Perhaps if you got rid of your television parents should have that include videogames! These clapping games are also a great way to train cross-crawl patterns in children which has been shown to improve neurological development.
    Just a thought.

    • Harriet May
      Harriet May says:

      You can link DSis! It’s new-age interaction, and I’m sure it prepares today’s youth for corresponding with colleagues via email, Skype, and IM. I’ve never met half of the people I work with.

  14. chicsinger simone
    chicsinger simone says:

    I swooped on this title because as an artist I find it difficult to create with fewer options. Feathers, ribbons, bits of jewelery, flowers, general foofery (a millinery term of my own invention!). I want to see it all and then choose what I want to complete each project.

    Minimalism has its beauty, but the creative process (for me) involves abundance. “Less is more” does not fit in with my aesthetic sense. I am starting to accept this and stop beating myself up over it.

    Well put post! Lots to chew on here. Thank you.

  15. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I am in Leo’s A-List Blogger’s Bootcamp. Not that I’m A-List of course, but it does mean that I have attended a lot of web talks that he gives. I am now so distracted by trying to integrate my concept of Leo with my concept of Penelope that I can’t pay attention to your post. I would love to see that discussion in situ. I keep wondering, although you are so different from each other, do you get along? Do you enjoy the conversation?

  16. Naomi
    Naomi says:

    I think the city is a beast you have to learn to tame. Some people do a great job at taking advantage of the city and not letting themselves be taken advantage of. These people tend to have stable relationships, jobs they love (or, at least not hate as much), and high levels of maturity (good self control and not letting themselves be swayed by others).

    I think people should move to NYC after they’ve found love, not moving to a city in order to find some.

  17. LJ
    LJ says:

    I absolutely love the advice you gave your son about kidnappers. Kick, scream, be a brat, and don’t feel like you have to do anything the person says just because they’re an adult.

  18. LJ
    LJ says:

    (Er, wasn’t being sarcastic there. I just think it’s good advice, and having grown up in a small town, advice I wish I would have gotten drilled into my head, complete with roll-playing exercises with my parents about just how loud a child being kidnapped should scream).

  19. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I find it somewhar frustrating to see that some people think that the larger the town/city they live in, the more interesting life is. All one needs to do is open your eyes & mind to find interesting people, places & ideas no matter where you live.

  20. blogster
    blogster says:

    Have stumbled across your blog, when – surprise, surprise – searching for Tim Ferriss! I’ve been travelling around Europe and found your blog fascinating (even if i don’t always agree with your point of view) and the sheer depth and breadth of topics and insights.

    I think along with the social anxiety you indicated regarding your recent party, perhaps you are also introverted in nature?

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Minimalism can be boring. The same thing can be said for diets and exercise.
    Creativity and looking at things in different perspectives help to alleviate the boring aspect but that usually only goes so far.
    That’s why it’s okay to occasionally splurge and reward ourselves (and it helps if we can be working towards and meeting our goals at the same time).

  22. Jenn Sutherland
    Jenn Sutherland says:

    It’s good to know what your limits on city life are. 1 day in NYC is enough – you’ve got that now. I grew up on an overgrown Christmas tree farm in the middle of a state park in Michigan and I was never bored – I loved watching the seasons, and being outdoors and wandering the wilderness with the dogs. Somehow, I’ve landed in Chicago and I love it here, too. I still need the stillness and quiet, which is why I live at the Lakefront where I can let the sound of the waves calm me and I need a dog in my life to get me outside for a couple hours of wandering each day…you can have stillness & minimalism in a city, but you have to make it a conscious part of your life.

    Now that you’ve got life on the farm, it sounds like you just need to visit a city every few months to get the jolt you need. Come on down to Chicago more often, and see if the pace is more tolerable for short visits with the kids…and you don’t need a plane to get here.

  23. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    It may be just an aging thing. I grew up in a huge city and when I was younger I thought I could never live in anything with fewer than 1M people, the more the better. Much later, having experienced cities from 100K to 10M, I moved a city of .5M and found it to be about the right size for me.

    • Francie
      Francie says:

      I totally understand how you feel. My husband and I moved from Atlanta to Augusta, Georgia several years ago and have found great contentment within a smaller population. And, we’re close enough to Atlanta if we feel we need a little more culture than Augusta can provide. But my new hometown has plenty to offer, if one looks closely enough. Peace.

  24. Lydia
    Lydia says:

    Thanks for the link to the Muriel Sparks article, and thanks for the book recommendation above. She sounds like she’s fascinating to read and I’m excited to start…

    I also really needed to read this:
    “You are writing to a friend,” she said. “Write privately, not publicly, without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published – Don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along – Remember not to think of the reading public. It will put you off.”

    All of the best writing is unself-conscious, and I have to keep reminding myself of this. It’s how my best blogs work, and why yours is the only one I read every time it arrives in my inbox.

  25. Dale
    Dale says:

    The minimalist can often become the gourmand. Things change as one matures. This includes one’s palate for food, things, people and situations. Psychologically we’re seldom the same people we were years before unless we’re doing something wrong:)


  26. Chris Fixie
    Chris Fixie says:

    I really do a go, but I couldn’t write it in the same precise way. That picture with the apple in the mouth: awesome example! Minimalism – I mean the meaning of the word says what I think of it :-)

  27. Atlanta Honda
    Atlanta Honda says:

    Personally, as a person who doesn’t want to have a family, I like an “interesting” life. Interesting to me is the city; Los Angeles, Hollywood, bright lights, tall buildings and sometimes excessive consumption. I like minimalism in some ways (sometimes I hate crowds as you do) but for the most part I feel more alive in the city; I strangely like being stuck in traffic. I live in Orange County and I already feel like I’m in the boonies and I could never live without a tv. I like my life complicated and a little messy.

  28. Dean
    Dean says:

    Great post Penelope – this one really got me thinking! After writing three responses, all coming from different angles, and then tossing them all…in the end I think Mike W. said it best above…he is close enough to find the balance of challenges and excitement from the big city that he needs, but also has a place to return to for quiet, solitude and re-energization.

  29. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    No KIDDING you can’t find a bathroom to save your life; can no one in NYC figure out how to profit from a solution to such a glaring problem? $1 toilets? Hell, $5 toilets?

    There’s a whole world out there. Working in 3 different small town school districts taught me that not everyone knows that. There is so little tolerance of “others” or diverging viewpoints. And I have so little tolerance of intolerance. I know that not every small town is like that…but I found that the appeal of simplicity quickly disintegrated in the midst of small-mindedness.

    Being back in Iowa after living in Austin for a year feels oppressive. Here I feel pressure to be like everybody else again. If the city is big enough, people are too busy living their own lives to give a damn about why their neighbors aren’t exactly like them.

    • Sophie
      Sophie says:

      I will repost this here since it is such important information and I feel really bad that it seems to be a big secret. I have lived in midtown Manhattan for 8 years and I know this to be true – I use the info at least once a week:

      All Starbucks will let you use their restrooms. All of them. Without buying anything. If any of them don’t, there will be another one on the next block. But they all do. We may hate Starbucks for all sorts of reasons but by company policy they have provided Manhattan with public toilets on every block.

  30. michael keller
    michael keller says:

    as an architect i have been working on an crafting what i believe to be minimalist americana, this is a lifestyle change for myself as well as an architectural style. for one, i’m done with enormous private residences, form a lifestyle point of view, i’m done with filling my life with needless busy busy. i’ve slowed it all down, i still love the city, i love people and the endless chatter of coffee house. but my mind is more quiet today. my life more fulfilling ….

  31. Reggie
    Reggie says:

    Hey I like the interesting article you created — it’s different. I can see what you mean in some aspects and I think you bring up great points from your own experience. My counter is also that minimalism itself isn’t boring or exciting, it just provides the freedom (both physically and mentally) to have the OPTION of making things exciting (or boring).

  32. Quyen
    Quyen says:

    Have you been to Minneapolis? Low cost of living, great city. You don’t have to “keep up” with anything here.

  33. Carl Sanders
    Carl Sanders says:

    We completely adore the recommendation a person provided your personal boy regarding kidnappers. Stop, shout, be regarded as a brat, and don’t appear like you’ll want to do something the individual states basically due to the fact they’re a grownup

  34. Skeptic
    Skeptic says:

    Penelope, I’m a new visitor to your blog, but I feel an enormous kinship with you. I am ASD/ADHD and forever looking for ‘interesting’ in life. In some ways I am more successful than you, in others I am much less. Reading your stuff is both interesting and more challenging than what I typically read.

    My SID/ASD/ADHD made minimalism a great option for me. I arrived at it on my own and found some real benefits. I did find that it can boring and that has its downsides. I have a finance background and there are some strategies that I have ported from finance to daily life.

    I try to be mostly minimalist aka mostly risk averse. This makes much of the quotidian boring or at least very predictable. But my trick is to use the minimalism and predictability to give myself lots of wiggle room.

    I use the “wiggle room” maybe 10%-20% of my time and effort to do things that are way, way out there. I don’t read popular books or magazines, I even avoid most popular movies and TV. But I do search out very exotic stuff, stuff I KNOW my neighbors, friends, and colleagues don’t touch. I also search out experiences they would never pursue. I eat at very traditional ethnic restaurants in fair off neighborhoods. I travel to places no one I know has ever heard about and do things they would never do, i.e. hitchhike across Uzbekistan.

    All of this “outside the box” stuff stimulates and actually makes the quiet of minimalism appealing again. Minimalism is meditative and I can take my odd experiences and work them over in my head. The minimalism is almost just a great “womb” to return to when I need recharging. Honestly that happens often. But if the recharging is strong enough, I can then venture out far from where everyone else goes and get my fix of extreme stimulation.

  35. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    FYI for the next time you go to NYC: All Starbucks will let you use their restrooms. All of them. Without buying anything. If any of them don’t, there will be another one on the next block. But they all do.

    We may hate Starbucks for all sorts of reasons but by company policy they have provided Manhattan with public toilets on every block. I’m so sad you didn’t know this when you needed it.

  36. Troy Stephen Augustine
    Troy Stephen Augustine says:

    After I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there an easy method you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

  37. Amy
    Amy says:

    To me, minimalism is about letting go of that which doesn’t make your life better: schedules, relationships, beliefs, stuff.

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