I was talking with Leo Babauta a few weeks ago. The topic of the conversation was his new book, focus. But of course I am not good at focus. So here is a picture of a book I just bought that is not Leo’s book, but I really like it: The Selby is in Your Place. It’s full of photos of people who turned their apartments into art. Totally eccentric, often over-furnished, but always totally interesting.
I would not have bought the book if it didn’t match my house so well. More on that later.
I told Leo I thought it was BS that he is Mr. Minimalism and he moved to San Francisco. I told him that the biggest cultural shift for me from New York City to the farm is the surprise shift to extreme minimalism. So I am sure that his move to San Francisco means he is tossing in the minimalism towel.
Leo has great resources on his blog about leading a minimalist lifestyle. But I think minimalism is lifestyle porn. It’s something that people think would be nice to dream about for their lives, but in fact, there is the dirty flip side to minimalism: It’s scary boring, which, I think, is why Leo moved his family to San Francisco—to expand what’s available to his kids.
I have thought often about the slippery slope from minimalism to boring even though I don’t write about my own minimalism issues that much. First of all, my own minimalism is totally accidental, so I didn’t even know I was a minimalist until recently. Second, I think a minimalist life is a product of many small decisions rather than a single big one. (For example, losing all my possessions to bed bugs.)
Plus, I discredit all straight men who do not have a wife or kids and claim to be minimalists. They are not minimalists, they are just bachelors, programmed over thousands of years to use sex to accumulate possessions rather than shopping.
And anyone who is doing minimalist experiments—like not buying anything for a year, stuff like that—isn’t really a minimalist. It’s like doing a dog trick. People clap, and then you go back to stealing from plates on the dinner table.
Sustainable minimalism requires a few things:
1. A job that does not require a lot of face-to-face contact. (For face-to-face contact you need transportation, clothes, and stuff that makes you fit easily in the flow of a business work day.)
2. Kids who are not exposed to a lot of advertising. My kids almost never ask to buy anything because they never see anything to buy. These same kids, living in NYC, asked for something in every window we walked by.
3. A social circle of people who are minimalists. There is no point in getting rid of everything if you must also get rid of your friends. So if not having stuff interferes with relationships, I don’t see the point.
Finally, before I tell you about my own minimalism, let me say that it’s not that fun to talk about because people get defensive. Like, if I tell people I have never had a TV, they need to tell me about their own TV habits or lack thereof. But I don’t care. I don’t have a TV because I never had one as a kid. I just don’t understand the TV thing. It’s not a high-and-mighty cultural decision.
You have never met a minimalist like the farmer, before he met me. He didn’t have a phone, or Internet, or a car. He seldom left the farm, and he hadn’t bought clothes for himself in maybe a decade. The result was extreme loneliness, and over-dependence on his parents, which were the only people who could make their way into such a closed-off life.
A lot of what we buy is stuff to facilitate connections. Like gifts, wine glasses, replacing a doorbell.
So, here’s what I do not have:
Anything that is not functional—no tsotchkes in the house, besides books.
Loose toys. Any toy on the floor I throw out. The kids are constantly asking me if I threw out something they are looking for. This will scar them for life.
I sometimes even throw out their books. Or mine, if they are a too ugly. I am starting to think of books as objects to look at.
I mean, I’ve already read them, and it’s easy to read them on a Kindle or, if you want to hold them, use the library. So the books have to be nice to look at in my house. I think we can no longer say books are functional, so I want them to be beautiful or fun and now I see them as an extravagance. But it’s not coincidence that the extravagance I allow myself is connected with exposure to new ideas.
On the farm it’s easy to own very little. I don’t miss it because we are on our own—no keeping up with the Jones. We have no blender, no microwave, no toaster oven. Our fridge is very small, and we have no kitchen cabinets because I didn’t want to fill them.
We each wear the same four or five outfits over and over again. If we haven’t worn something in a year, I throw it out.
If we bring something besides food into the house, we have to throw something out.
You’d be surprised how little you miss.
When I lived in NYC I felt a constant pressure to buy stuff. Keeping kids clothed like other kids, having birthday parties like other kids (great birthday party link here —thanks, Natt), having adult clothing like other adults. The reason you can spot a tourist in ten seconds in NYC is because people who don’t live in NYC don’t spend nearly the time and money that New Yorkers do on their appearance.
Life on the farm is slow. Very slow. No one here has an iPad. People don’t know who Jon Stewart is, they don’t know the difference between The New Yorker and New York magazine. The opportunities are very limited. I have to be very careful to make sure my kids understand the world beyond the farm.
So I’m not saying Leo’s move from Guam to San Francisco is bad. I get the reasoning. I just think it’s the antithesis of minimalism. I think that Leo’s latest book, in the wake of his move to San Francisco, is sort of an ode to what one gives up when one seeks out diversity, interestingness, and intellectual stimulation.
And I wonder, do we need a guide to minimalism, or do we need a guide to understanding where our own sweet spot is on the continuum between minimalism and interestingness?