The Minimalist Movement
It’s time to take on minimalism with Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
We live in an age of hyper-consumerism. In addition to billboards, television spots and other forms of traditional marketing, consumers are inundated by increasingly personalized and targeted advertisements on their Instagram and TikTok feeds (or even in their Google search results). Their message is incredibly effective, but deceptively simple: You. Need. More. As a result, people are hungrier for consumption than ever before, and yet, measures of dissatisfaction and dislocation have never been higher.
Enter The Minimalists. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood best friends, have dedicated their lives to helping others heal their “relationship with stuff.” As they explain it, “By dealing with the excess stuff first, we start to see some calm, and we remove that anxiety and stress in our lives, so that we can make room for more. And that more looks different for everyone. It’s not more stuff; we already have too much stuff right now. Maybe it’s more time, more freedom, more contentment, more peace, more joy in our lives, more empowering relationships and letting go of the excess stuff is what makes that room.”
We spoke with one of The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn, on his personal journey to discovering minimalism and how we can add more to our lives by consuming less.
Q: What do you believe you were born to do?
A: You know, I think it’s fascinating, and we see this all the time, at universities, career fairs, self-help advice, where people tell you to follow your passion. On the surface, it seems great, because, what’s the alternative to that? It’s like, “Don’t follow your passion?” But I think we get really confused, because following your passion sometimes presupposes as though you were born to do one specific thing. I think when we’re born, we have the capacity to be passionate about dozens of things and so I think, maybe, the more useful question for me is, “What do I value?” and then, “How do I align my short-term daily actions with what my long-term values are?”
Fundamentally, what I’m doing now, what I really value is helping people heal their relationship with stuff, with consumerism, and there are other relationships that need healing as well, but as one of The Minimalists, I think quite often it starts with our rather unhealthy relationship that we have with stuff.
Q: How did your childhood help shape the values you carry today?
A: That’s a good question, because I sort of went through two phases in my life. I grew up really poor. We were on food stamps and then on government assistance. I lived in a very poverty-stricken neighbourhood, but then, there was a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse in our home, physical abuse as well. Ryan, the other minimalist, grew up in very similar circumstances. We’ve known each other since we were fat little fifth-graders. I think one of the things that we thought, that we misunderstood growing up, is, Oh, you know why were so unhappy; it’s because we don’t have any money, and so when I turned 18, I went out and got an entry-level corporate job, and I spent the next 12 years climbing the corporate ladder.
By the time I was 30 years old, I had sort of achieved everything I ever wanted, everything I was supposed to have: the big house, the luxury cars, the walk-in closets full of designer clothes, all this stuff, all the trappings of a consumerist lifestyle, and I was sort of living the American dream. I was living the American dream, but it wasn’t really my dream. And so, in a weird way, it sort of took getting everything I thought I wanted throughout my 20s working 60, 70, 80 hours a week to accumulate stuff or status or the trophies of success to realize that, Oh, maybe this isn’t meaningful. Maybe this isn’t fulfilling? Maybe there’s a different way to live? Money is not bad, stuff is not bad; the constant pursuit of these things, quite often, makes us miserable if we don’t know why we’re pursuing them.
Q: Can you tell me about how being a minimalist doesn’t mean less; it’s actually making space for more?
A: When we think of minimalism, we often think of our material possessions, and I think that’s great. We sort of start with the stuff — it’s sort of the initial bite at the apple, it changes everything. But really, the reason we start with our stuff is because our material possessions are a physical manifestation of what’s going on inside of us. If I look around my house and I have a lot of material clutter, it’s probably because I have a lot of internal clutter, emotional clutter, spiritual clutter, psychological clutter, mental clutter, career clutter, relationship clutter, calendar clutter — those things that we hold onto that we try to amass, they are a representation of a far greater problem.
By dealing with the excess stuff first, we start to see some calm, and we remove that anxiety and stress in our lives, so that we can make room for more. And that more looks different for everyone. It’s not more stuff — we already have too much stuff right now. Maybe it’s more time, more freedom, more peace, more joy in our lives, more empowering relationships, more contentment — and letting go of the excess stuff is what makes that room.
Q: You’ve known Ryan since you were a “chubby fifth-grader.” What do you love about Ryan? Why does your working relationship work so well?
A: Because we’re so different. I mean, we are literally the exact opposite. If you look at our personality test like Myers-Briggs, I’m an ISTJ; he’s an ENFP. They’re literally the exact opposites — yin and yang. They’re almost like a parody of each other, and so in a weird way, we have a mentor-mentee relationship. He is my mentor and mentee, and vice versa, and so not only are we able to help each other, but we’re also able to learn from each other. And I’ll tell you the other reason, because both of us really understand what love is. To love someone is to see them for who they are without trying to change them. I’m never trying to convince him of anything; I’m not trying to manipulate him. He’s not trying to manipulate me, convince me or persuade me of anything. We have different political views. We have different religious and spiritual views. We have different medical views. We have all these different views; they’re just different beliefs. But we have similar values that bind us together. We just have these different paths to get to those values.
Q: Do you think marketing and advertisers are to blame for our need to want more?
A: The average person sees about five to 10,000 advertisements a day, according to Forbes magazine, and so we’re steeped in advertising. I think part of that is, well, we can agree to pay for certain things to remove ads. There’s a premium version of YouTube or a premium version of Spotify. Or you can pay for Netflix, which is advertisement-free, so you’re paying for certain services. But if you’re not paying for it, you become the product, and they are now using you to aggregate your eyeballs, so that they can sell you their products and services. So, are advertisers to blame? I mean, yeah, sure, there are statisticians and demographers and scientists who are paid millions of dollars in order to make you feel inadequate. Even the word “happiness,” the concept of happiness was invented by marketers to make you feel unhappy, so that you could buy things to increase your happiness, the pursuit of happiness. We’re often told, “If I buy this thing, I’ll be a better version of myself. I’ll be a more complete version.” But you are already complete, even in an empty room, and if we realize that, the power of advertising has less of a pull on us.
“By dealing with the excess stuff first, we start to see some calm, and we remove that anxiety and stress in our lives, so that we can make room for more” — The Minimalists
Q: What are some of the things you’d like to teach your daughter as she grows up?
A: This is going to sound a little weird, but I think I probably learn a lot more from her than she does from me. When we grow up, we sort of get programmed in a way to be discontented. We’re often told that we need self-improvement, that we need to improve ourselves, that we have to grow, we have to do better, we have to compete, but you never say that to a baby. You’re never like, “What are the three ways to improve your baby?” That sounds like a crazy person — no one would ever say that. And yet, we’re doing that with ourselves all the time. The thing that I’ve learned with her is that happiness is not external, and so if I can help her continue to understand that, then that’s the best I can do. Happiness is always inside. The problem is that we cover it up with stuff, with obligations, with expectations, with toxic relationships, with societal norms. And so if I can help her understand that we can pursue the things that are already inside us — that peace, that joy — you don’t have to reach somewhere for it. It’s already there.
Q: If you had to recommend one of your books, which one would you recommend to start?
A: I think the newest one is probably the most comprehensive and gives people the most sort of on-ramp into minimalism. It’s called Love People, Use Things, and it goes into the backstory for people who are completely unfamiliar with minimalism and who The Minimalists are, but then it goes really deep into our relationship with stuff, with ourselves, with our finances, our relationship with distractions and technology. It really dives into these different areas that make us miserable with stuff.
Q: What does it mean to be happy?
A: A happy life is a life with high standards, but low expectations.
Q: What does it mean to be free?
A: Freedom is to untether from the power structures and expectations of others.
Q: What are your essentials that you need to live a fruitful life?
A: Sleep, movement, real food.
Q: What are some of the qualities you find most unbecoming in people, and which qualities do you admire most in people?
A: Unbecoming: judgment, self-righteousness, an unwillingness to let go. And then what’s becoming or attractive in people, well, sort of the opposite of those things: a willingness to let go, a desire to not blame others is beautiful. That’s a real sign of maturity, when someone is not willing to blame other people, even if something seems blame-worthy. Joy. If you see joy in someone, you can sense it. I mean, it’s a smile, for sure, but it’s an aura, it’s a presence, it’s emanating love — that is definitely becoming.
Q: Who do you look up to?
A: I have two answers for that. One, I look up to Ryan, whom I’ve known for 30 years now, because he is the most honest and authentic person I know. You know, I just turned 40, and I look up to my 50-year-old self, because I aspire to be a less tangled version of myself. You know, as a minimalist, we untangle from the complex structures of the world, to understand the world around us, and I’m certain that my 50-year-old self will have a better understanding of the world than my current self.
Q: I’m just curious: What are you hoping to untangle in the next 10 years?
A: I think quite often it has to do with what society has programmed into us, so we talked a bit about expectations in this conversation, but untangling from the structures, from the desire for approval or validation or veneration. While I’ve gotten relatively good at that relative to my 30- or 35-year-old self, the need for someone else’s approval or veneration is sort of a prison in a way. The weird thing about that is that those are their prison bars. If someone else doesn’t approve of me, I can walk away from that. And so, I obviously understand that intellectually, but understanding that viscerally in your heart, it’s a different kind of understanding.
Q: What does la dolce vita mean to you?
A: A life without excess is a sweet life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.