What brings you joy?
This is the question that Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn claim will change your life.
These two men, known as The Minimalists, have made their names helping others live more meaningfully with less, a lesson that lies in stark contrast against the consumerist vision of the American Dream—accumulating as much stuff as possible.
In recent decades, many have found that this mindset of more is not a dream at all, but a nightmare of debt, wasted time, and lost opportunities. It is a lingering feeling that something is missing, that there must be something more to our lives that what we’re experiencing.
That’s exactly where Nicodemus and Millburn once were—only a few years ago, they had six-figure jobs, huge houses, and all the stuff a human being can collect.
But it wasn’t enough. All the money, power, and status in the world cannot fill that all-too-familiar void in the human heart.
Fortunately, in 2010, they changed all of that, leaving their careers and embarking on a journey to live minimally, and to help others do so. In this, they’ve become incredibly successful, and their wisdom has been sought after at places as varied as Harvard Business School to the World Domination Summit
We were fortunate enough to speak with Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists—read on to find a brief introduction to minimalism, how to get started, and why these two men’s mission is so incredibly important.
Everyone seems to have a different idea of what minimalism is. What is your particular brand of minimalism?
“You know, minimalism, for me, helps us get past the things in our lives to help make room for life’s most important things—which aren’t things at all. I would say that minimalism is living deliberately.”
How do we live deliberately when we’re constantly being told what to want? How do people differentiate their own decisions from those decisions that have been imposed on them from the outside?
“First, I think everyone should, to start their journey with minimalism, ask the question: ‘How would my life be better with less?’ And everyone is going to have different answers to that. Some people will say, ‘Oh, well I’ll finally be able to see my bedroom floor,’ or ‘I’ll finally be able to get rid of that $200 a month storage unit,’ or ‘I can clean my house faster,’ or ‘I would enjoy my home much more if it was clutter-free’.
"It’s really hard to differentiate between what’s actually going to make our lives better and what’s being sold to us."
However minimalism adds benefit, I think that’s really where people should start—with asking that question. Because it’s too often we just jump into things without asking the ‘why’. And I think this question really helps us get down to that ‘why’.
And once we get there, once we realize that minimalism is something that is going to add value to our lives, well, from there, I ask a question with everything I do with my resources, whether it’s my time, my attention, or my money—and I would argue that time and attention are the two most valuable resources we have. The question I’m constantly asking myself is ‘Is this thing—this product or this person or this relationship that I’m bringing into my life—is this going to add value to my life?’ For me, adding value means ‘is it going to serve a purpose or bring me joy?’
That is really, I think, where minimalism helps people differentiate between the million advertisements they see a year vs. actually what is going to bring them happiness and bring them joy. Minimalism certainly helps us filter through all that.
It’s unbelievable—I saw statistics about a couple years ago in the New York Times that said we see over a million advertisements a year. It’s really hard to differentiate between what’s actually going to make our lives better and what’s being sold to us.”
Once people have that "why" behind minimalism, what’s a good starting point? How can people begin sorting out their lives?
“Again, I’d start with that question of how my life could be better with less just to get behind the ‘why’—that’s really what motivates us to do anything.
Let’s say you had a frozen lake in your back yard, and I said ‘Hey, go test that ice out for me and see if it’s thick enough for us to walk on, you probably would be a little bit hesitant. But if I told you, ‘Hey, your dog fell through the ice back there and you might want to go save him,’ you would run back there and probably jump into the ice without even thinking about it. That’s why the ‘why’ is so important
But after that, there’s a few places people could start. For me, I started with a thing called a packing party. It was a crazy idea that my business partner, Joshua Fields Millburn and I, came up with when I first wanted to dive into minimalism, where we literally packed up every single one of my belongings.
I had a 2,000 square foot condo—3 bedroom, 2 bathrooms, and 2 living rooms. I have no idea why I had 2 living rooms, but there they were.
We literally packed up everything in my condo, and then I unpacked things as I needed them for the next 21 days—for 3 weeks. That was a really good way to change my state. And I think anyone who is trying to make a major life change is going to have to change their state somehow.
But you know, I’ll tell you man, pitching that idea to a family of 5 may not be the best place to start. I’d call the packing party pretty far to one side of the spectrum—you’ll learn a lot, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
And then, on the other side of the spectrum, people could do what Josh did when he first started. He went and started to get rid of one thing a day—he committed to getting rid of one thing a day for 30 days in a row. And what he found was that the first day, he went to get rid of a DVD, and as he’s picking up the DVD, he’s realizing that here are about 20 DVDs he’s not going to use. So he ended up getting rid of a lot more than 30 items by the end of the month.
The middle of the road is the 30-day minimalism game. Josh and I have been doing this for about 6 years, going around and talking about our stories and helping people with living simple lives, and we know that de-cluttering can be boring. So we came up with a game where we basically added some friendly competition. Here’s how the game works.
So for the 30-day minimalism game, you find someone who also wants to de-clutter, and you both agree to start on the first day of the month. You both agree to get rid of one thing on that first day of the month, 2 things on the 2nd day, and 3 things on the 3rd day, and so on.
On day 1, day 2, day 3, it’s all pretty easy. But then you get to day 20, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I have to get rid of 20 things today!’
So the whole point is that whoever makes it to the end of the month, that’s who wins. Now, if both people make it to the end of the month, which does happen quite often, well really, both people win, because at that point they’ve gotten rid of about 500 items.
People can make it fun with betting, like with a steak dinner or maybe just taking someone out to a movie or just for a cup of coffee—the stakes don’t have to be too high. I find that to be a pretty good middle-of-the-road approach. If people search the hashtag ‘#Minsgame,’ they will see tens of thousands of people who have played this game and have been helped in getting a fresh start to this lifestyle.”
Do you find that there’s a link between minimalism and spirituality?
“You would be amazed at the people who come and see us—they will come up to us if we’re giving a talk or a book reading or something, they’ll wait in line for their hug or to get their book signed, and they will come up to us and they’ll say, ‘It’s so nice to see two young men going around spreading the word of Jesus. And then a few people later will say, ‘It’s so nice to see two young Buddhists going around and spreading the message of Buddha.
I don’t think that every single person who is a minimalist is necessarily a spiritual person, but there is certainly some crossover. When I think about some of the original minimalists, certainly I would think of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius—any of the stoics. But then there’s Buddha, there’s Jesus, there’s Muhammad. There are plenty of people out there who tied that idea of simple living in with their religious message.
That’s what I love about this whole movement. We literally will have a Christian Orthodox Priest and a Rabbi there for the same message, asking ‘How can we live a better life with less stuff? How can we live a more meaningful life with less stuff?’
The point is that it totally transfers over to those worlds, and that’s really what I love about this whole thing—it’s for everyone, really.”
What motivates you to get your message out to other people?
“We’re in a world right now where we have to change the way we view consumption.
At the end of the day, we don’t have enough resources to supply the earth with the consumption levels that we have right now. If everyone in the world was to consume like an American, we would need over 4 Earths to maintain our unchecked consumption.
It’s not just the environmental impact. It’s also the emotional costs that come with debt, that come with wanting things that we may be able to afford only with a plastic card or through a loan at the bank. It’s too often that we’ll do that to ourselves—I was certainly guilty of that—and kind of get ourselves in a downward spiral of owing money.
What motivates me to really propagate this message is that it is something that I have used personally to help me reclaim my time, to help me refocus my attention, to help me really give effort toward my priorities.
If you had asked me what my priorities were when I was 25 years old, I’d have said, ‘Oh, my priority is my health. I have to be healthy to be happy. That, and my relationship with my mother and my father.
But, you know, I gave those things lip service. Looking back, I didn’t actually act on those things. It’s too often that we give our priorities lip service, and I think, for me, minimalism has helped me re-prioritize my time and attention. I’ve been able to make my priorities my actual priorities.
But, you know, the other thing that really motivates me is that I was raised really, really poor. I was always having government assistance—I remember the government helping out my family with food stamps and welfare and so on. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘If I can just make that 6 figure salary, I could be happy and not have to worry about any of these problems.’
But you know, it’s funny that we’re raised with this idiom propagated in our society—’Money doesn’t buy you happiness’. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Even though we’re all told that, we just want to try money out for ourselves to make sure that it’s not the answer to happiness. When I got to that point where I was making over 6 figures a year, I was doing really really well, but I wasn’t happy.
My whole point of doing this, and even why we started our website, theminimalists.com, it was to tell people, ‘Hey, you don’t have to make this much money to be happy.’ If you can just really focus on your priorities and ask some important questions and make some deliberate decisions, you don’t need to make a million dollars to be happy.
SO I really hope that this message really helps those people who haven’t gotten to that point where they’re making 6 figures a year, to help them realize that until they’re happy with what they have currently, money isn’t going to make that much difference.
Certainly, if you go to a homeless guy and he makes zero dollars a year, studies say that there is a certain amount of money that will bring happiness. But at that point, it is basic needs of life making us happier, but that will flatline at a very, very low number.
People shouldn’t be asking the question of how they can make more money. They should be asking the question of how they can build better relationships, how they can serve their communities more, and how they can make the most of the time they have right now instead of thinking a corporate job and making a lot of money is going to be this fix-all for them.
Certainly, we all need to make money to live, and it’s nice to be able to go on vacations or to fix that transmission when it goes out without worrying about taking out a loan, but at the end of the day, it’s the people that are more important.
That’s really what Josh and I are after—showing how people are more important, and not the things in our lives.”
There’s something very human in the mission of The Minimalists—they’re taking people back to what makes them people. We’ve grown accustomed to defining ourselves by what we own, by our status, by our outward glamour, but that’s not what makes us us.
No—what makes us who we are, are the conscious decisions that make up a deliberate life, and the connections we purposefully forge with those around us. Notice those words—“deliberate” and “purposefully”. They are the keys to finding yourself within the pile of “stuff” you’ve accumulated over a lifetime.
Learn more about The Minimalists at theminimalists.com.