I’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.
• 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.