Why I’m Wary of 100-Thing Minimalism

KeyI’m 43; I’ve been practicing voluntary simplicity since 2000, with varying levels of successes and setbacks. This isn’t a minimalist blog, and I’m not claiming to be a minimalism expert.

(4/26/10: Welcome, readers from Far Beyond the Stars; if you want my response to the post that sent you here, it’s over here. But please read this one first, so you can decide if you agree or disagree. Be a thoughtful minimalist!)

I’ve noticed that a number of younger minimalist bloggers take an extreme view of minimalism, particularly touting the ownership of no more than 100 things. I’m guessing this works for them for several reasons: (1) many don’t have office-based employment or aren’t established in a field that requires a lot of equipment or books; (2) many aren’t married and/or don’t have children; and/or (3) many haven’t yet lived through a major earthquake, fire, freeze, or flood — after doing so, one is likely to list at least a few emergency supplies among one’s possessions.

However, holding up 100-Thing minimalism as a platinum standard for minimalist practice excludes those of us who have different life circumstances and practice minimalism in different ways. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a 100-Thing minimalist; if the approach appeals to you, adopt it. But if it doesn’t, here are some reasons not to worry about it.

If You Obsess, You’re Owned: Many minimalists enter the lifestyle in an attempt to free themselves of “being owned” by their Stuff, physically and psychologically. However, you’re just as psychologically owned by your Stuff if you fret over whether adding a notebook means eliminating a pair of underwear as you would be if you can’t get rid of any gift you’ve ever been given.

Is your Stuff — no matter how much of it you own — living in your head rent-free? Or do you allow it to come and go freely through your life, without spending undue amounts of time counting, categorizing, reorganizing, and re-evaluating it? Is it more desirable to own 100 things that you count constantly, or 1,000 things that you never worry about at all?

Making Exceptions Undermines the Ideal: Many lists of 100 things exclude or lump together things like toiletries: shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpastes, tampons, condoms, towels, cotton swabs, prescription medicines, cosmetics, combs, brushes, and the like. Or paper: seven years of back tax files, marriage and divorce papers, birth certificates, vehicle registrations, passports, insurance policies, Social Security cards, and so forth. Some 100-Thing minimalists don’t own this stuff; others get around it by counting all their files or toiletries or  clothes as one “thing.”

What, then, constitutes a “thing”?

I also don’t often see beds, bookshelves, tables, chairs, lamps, sheets, pillows, blankets, shower curtains, shower liners, blow dryers, brooms, vacuum cleaners, mops, dusting rags, garden supplies, kids’ drawings and sculptures, hobby supplies, vehicles, or things in one’s professional office or cubicle counted.  I realize that some extreme minimalists don’t own many of these things because they live with their parents, in a dorm room, on their friend’s couch, or in a series of hotels as they travel. And others don’t own many of these things because they don’t have gardens, or kids, or hobbies, or vehicles, or offices. But others get around ownership by making exceptions again: “well, that’s jointly owned with my parents/roommates/spouse/kids, so doesn’t really count as mine.”

What, then, constitutes “ownership”?

And what does this mean for single minimalists who can’t blame couches, towels, and cups on their family?

I realize some practitioners will argue that “there are no rules” to the 100-thing approach. But — pardon my ISTJness — calling more than 100 things “100 things,” or saying one doesn’t own an object that one lives with and uses, strikes me as doublethink. And, ultimately, pointless.

Relax! What’s the point of creating bulk categories of Stuff or denying the ownership of something that you’re living with and using just to get your list of possessions down to 100 things? There’s no god of minimalism poised to canonize you if you squeeze your list of possessions down to some arbitrarily decided number.

How many things you own will depend on what kind of life you live, where, and with whom. If you’re a painter, for example, you probably own more than 100 items just in paint, brushes, canvases, and cleaning supplies alone. Does that mean you can’t be minimalist? Of course not. Just purchase and store the minimum art supplies necessary to do your job, a number that will vary depending on your approach, expertise, and output.

Minimalism involves reducing a thing to its fundamental principles or essential elements without sacrificing its function and aesthetic appeal. Minimalist art, music, and literature still does what it’s intended to do; it is not deficient in its role as art, music, or literature, even though its style may not be to everybody’s taste.  So, too, the minimalist lifestyle.

Those who choose a minimalist lifestyle seek to pare down their possessions and practices to align with their core values and goals without sacrificing things that are important to them. One minimalist’s practice may not appeal to another minimalist, but it doesn’t have to; the minimalist aesthetic can be explored in many different ways. (Would anyone like to talk about a postminimalist lifestyle?)

So, practice 100-Thing minimalism if it appeals to you and you’re in a situation where you can do so. Heck, call more than 100 things “100 things” if it makes you happy. But if 100-thing minimalism doesn’t appeal to you or isn’t possible given your current circumstances, don’t stress about it. No matter how much it’s being emphasized by minimalist bloggers right now, it’s not the only or even the best way to practice minimalism.

Adapt minimalism to suit your life; don’t adapt your life to suit minimalism.

Relevant Reading:

• Every time 20-something Everyday Minimalist posts photos of her apartment on one of her blogs, somebody criticizes her aesthetic choices. If it’s functional and appeals to her, however, why should anybody else care? Design your own minimalism.

• 29-year-old Sunny discusses her less-than-100-thing minimalism with a wry and delightful narrative voice. I enjoy her blog, even though I’m long past the days where I enjoy sleeping on couches.

• Young minimalist Everett Bogue is a proponent of less-than-100-things minimalism and recently wrote The Art of Being Minimalist. I found his book to be strongly geared toward readers without families or jobs that tie them to a particular geographical area, however.

• The early-30s Joshua Becker of the Becoming Minimalist family of four addresses ways to practice non-extreme minimalism with children and wrote a book offering practical tips on creating the minimalist home.

• The  Guy Named Dave popularized the 100-thing challenge, inspiring a Time magazine article. (He was 37 in that article, so I’m guessing he’s 39 or 40 now).  He made clear exceptions to his list from the outset, arguing, “I get to set the rules and decide when a rule can be stretched or outright broken.”

• Last but not least, Leo Babauta’s Mmlist site isn’t updated often but is more focused than his Zen Habits blog. He argues for living with less than 100 things, although he doesn’t count possessions shared with his wife and six children. With more years of practice behind him than most of the other minimalist bloggers, Babauta is highly respected for his posts on simplicity, productivity, and creativity.

8 Responses to Why I’m Wary of 100-Thing Minimalism

  1. You have such a gift with words. I couldn’t have articulated it any better. I’m one of those young minimalists but I’ve looked further on down the road and come to the same conclusions. You can’t expect doctors, museums, and mechanics to only have 100 things. I studied for the ministry and as much as I want to digitalize my books, there’s some that are ancient and don’t have an electronic version; but I can’t get rid of them, those are essential tools for me.

    I loved how you drew out the irony of people who try to free themselves by having less but are in reality in intellectual bondage to their obsession. I’ve said it before, minimalism looks different for different people, and there’s no one, right way.

    I know you don’t primarily write on minimalism, but I encourage you to voice your thoughts more in regards to that topic. We need people like you who have more years under their belt and can offer your kind of perspective. So, thanks!

  2. I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment of 100-thing minimalism. I have recently become interested in the minimalist lifestyle and have determined that it needs to be unique to the individual and his/her life circumstances, as you have so rightly pointed out. When I ran across discussion of 100-thing minimalism, it struck me as being a bit contrived and not practical for most people, not to mention that, as you indicate, people seem to not count a lot of stuff that is necessary for life in contemporary American society. And some of the adherents seem to make it seem as if it is the only way to be minimalist, that if you don’t do it you have failed. I hadn’t thought of it, but your assessment that adhering to such requirements is in reality not in keeping with the spirit of minimalist living.

    Thank you for an honest and thougth-provoking assessment of not only 100-thing minimalism, but minimalism in general.

  3. I so agree with you. I have been reading a lot of minimalist blogs recently and the 100 possessions thing. One man said that because he always lived or stayed with other people then kitchen, cleaning stuff etc. didn’t count towards his possessions. What a cop out! I am a mum living with my 30 year old son. While he would not say he owned any kitchen or cleaning apparatus he has to use them. And of course, somebody owns them so it must be me! Therefore I can never hope to get anywhere near. Also, they seem to think that everyone can make a living being a blogger whilst travelling around hundreds of countries. Nice if it works for you but that would mean never getting married or having children. Also, the constant travel worries me a bit: surely more minimal to stay at home?

  4. I agree…When I read these 100 thing minimalist blogs….the person looks very young, has income from something not requiring tools, space, or employees. They have no children. Its a dream at best…can the lifestyle be continued for any long length of time?

    As an artist, I only can fantasize about getting rid of all my hoards of books, tools, supplies, and then, the fruits of my labors, which may or may not be sold, or sent out to galleries.

    As I age, the medications grow ever larger too, and the dependence on a car in the suburbs, where public transportation is basically non existant.

    I read Everett Bogue….he inspires me a great deal, but changing to this lifestyle would be as time consuming and obsessive for me, as anything else. Its fun to imagine though. Its fun to imagine back backing through the world, and having income from blog writing. So carefree.

    I look forward to reading more of your sensible wisdom on this blog too. Somehow I need balance in my imaginations.

  5. Thank you! I enjoy reading Everett Bogue’s blog, too, UrbanWoodsWalker; he’s outspoken about his beliefs, and his posts can act like a Zen master’s whack across the shoulders, startling readers into reassessing their practices. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but I consider his blog to be a useful tool for those interested in building a minimalist lifestyle. I hope that readers who come here curious about his irritation with me will read this post and find it thought-provoking, even if they disagree with me.

  6. Minamilisme isnt the way, miserabalisme is.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=YkgDhDa4HHo&feature=related

  7. This is why I don’t only have 100 items.

    I think being practical but just living with only what you want is the best way to go. With kids, I’m sure going to accumulate more and want to settle into one place rather than moving all the time.

    You make some good points that we’re mostly single, young and very mobile.

  8. Oh and thank you VERY much for linking to me. :)

    It can be hard to post pics of my place especially now that I’m in a hotel. Kind of standard looking stuff.