Joshua Fields Millburn is describing what he calls the 10/10 exercise. “You take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Then write down the 10 most expensive things you’ve purchased in the last decade. On the other side write down the 10 most meaningful experiences you’ve had. You’ll realise that those two sides share very little, if anything, in common.”
Fields Millburn is one of The Minimalists. For nearly 10 years he and friend Ryan Nicodemus have, as they describe it, lived “meaningful lives with less”. They write books, are the subject of a documentary (2016’s Minimalism), have a podcast, and tour the world with their message. Which is: “Make room for life’s important things – which actually aren’t things at all.” They are now bringing their live show Less is Now to Australia this month.
Before coming across minimalism online, Fields Millburn says he was living the American Dream. He had a six-figure salary, a luxury car, “a big suburban house with more toilets than people”. He had, he says, “All the stuff to fill every corner of my consumer-driven life.” But when in the same month his marriage ended and his mother died he reassessed. “I realised I was focused on the wrong stuff.” He was 28 at the time.
Over eight months Fields Millburn got rid of 90 per cent of his possessions. But for him, removing the clutter is not the main game.
“Decluttering is the first step. It’s possible for someone to get rid of all their crap and still be entirely miserable,” he says. “You can come home to an empty house and sulk after removing all of your pacifiers. And that’s because I don’t think consumption is the problem. Compulsory consumption is. And I think we can change that by being more deliberate with the things we bring into our lives and with the things we hold on to.”
Anti-consumerism and acknowledging capitalism does not give a diamond-encrusted iPhone about humanity or the planet is not new. Many movements and individuals (naturist and essayist Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s, Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca who lived in the first century, Jesus, some will tell you) have advocated for living a simpler life. And most major religions have a vein of asceticism running through them. Also, Fields Millburn and Nicodemus’s brand of minimalism has plenty in common with Marie Kondo’s KonMari method and the tiny house movement. But the message is being received by The Minimalists’ 20 million followers as revolutionary.
What’s different now, according to Fields Millburn, is it’s harder than ever to get off the hamster wheel of buying things.
“Never since the industrial revolution have we had such unprecedented access to stuff. We’re steeped in a culture of consumption.” It’s a culture he says promises that elusive, ever-hashtagged and Instagrammed state: happiness. “But I think happiness is the problem,” says Fields Millburn. “We’re constantly chasing happiness and we confuse happiness with pleasure.” More satisfying, he says, is contentment.
The experts in the Minimalism documentary agree. Humans are hardwired to be dissatisfied; it’s a motivating force that helps us thrive. But in an environment that has become one big billboard, the longing for more becomes automatic. And delusional. As economist and sociologist Juliet Schor says in Minimalism: “We don’t want more things, we want what we think those things will bring us – feeling whole, content.”
The Minimalists say what they’re advocating is being less susceptible to the desires planted in our minds by corporations; they’re reminding people they can disrupt the automatic pilot of consuming.
But does ditching material possessions and empty pleasure mean less coming from two privileged white guys who had high-paying jobs, expensive cars and the option of paying off a mortgage? And is monetising minimalism through book and ticket sales really in the spirit of minimalism?
“I am absolutely not allergic to money,” says Fields Millburn. “It’s just not the primary driver for doing what I do. We all have to pay the bills … the biggest shift is in mindset.” He says they’ve had both factory workers and executives at Minimalists events.
“Whether you are rich or poor I think you want to find a way to use whatever resources you have in the most intentional way possible. And I think our most precious resource is our time and our attention. I had massive amounts of debt … minimalism allowed me to refocus on my finances and ... it gave me back my time.”
Fields Millburn says be wary of anyone prescribing an absolutist, dogmatic version of minimalism. But if you’re interested in a gateway minimalist thought experiment, he says try the 90/90 rule. Look at each possession you own and ask yourself: “Have I used this in the last 90 days?” And if not, “Am I going to use it in the next 90 days?”
“If not I give myself permission to let go of that,” he says.
Less Is Now tour dates
Fri March 9 – Astor Theatre
Sun March 11 – Royal International Convention Centre (sold out)
Tue March 13 – Enmore Theatre
Thu March 15 – The Gov
Sun March 18 – Forum Melbourne (sold out)
Tue March 20 – Athenaeum Theatre