Why (Selfish) Minimalism?

I thought I’d share a bit about why I became particularly interested in minimalism.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I admire the minimalist aesthetic described in Ayn Rand’s novels (find sample passages in my earlier posts). For most of my early life (before reading Rand) I was a minimalist of necessity, for three reasons:

(1) I was an army brat, so we moved frequently. Each time we moved, my mother pared down our possessions. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall playing a role in the paring-down process. That would have helped me a lot, but I can understand how it would be difficult to have the time and patience to sort through a daughter’s possessions with her—especially when you have three daughters, as my mother did!)

(2) We grew up “house poor”—my parents bought houses that were so expensive, they could not afford much else, including material gifts for us.

(3) My mother was, as I would have described her, a “neat freak.” I was very torn about this because, on the one hand, it often interfered with my having fun and relaxing; however, on the other hand, I have fond memories of being able to dust shelves perfectly because I needed only to remove and replace a few objects.

As a college student and, later, as a law student, I still could not afford to accumulate much stuff. But I accumulated and hung on to what I could and, more importantly, had no idea about how methodically to review what I did own with respect to its relevance. My mother died at the beginning of my law school career, and only after law school was I even in a position to start accumulating possessions and setting down roots. Once I got married and also had an income of my own, I was able for the first time to start buying all sorts of things I could not have considered earlier, and I went a bit crazy with it (no doubt reacting to my “house poor” childhood and protracted years as a “starving student”). Still, no idea about how methodically to review what I owned and systematically discard what was no longer relevant. Then, when I got divorced over a decade later, I moved into a much smaller space and took way too much of the stuff with me. (Another factor during all this time was that I accumulated not only too many things, but also too many activities, so that I would tell myself that I would sort through all that stuff at the end of the semester or, after that big dog agility competition, or after I finished writing that chapter or article, or after that great overseas trip, etc.) The last straw was when my grandmother and great aunt died a few years ago, and I wasn’t able to find the time to sort through all their stuff. What did I do? Packed it up and moved it to my already-stuffed-to-the-gills house and garage.

So, for the last few years I’ve been very slowly, too slowly, paring down this massive accumulation of possessions, periodically looking at images of the spacious interiors in Dwell Magazine for inspiration. (I love the aesthetic of much that is featured in Dwell, even though I could do without the “green” slant that seems to go along with it these days.) More recently, I came across the minimalist movement and have been working to separate the life-improving wheat from the altruist/”green”/ascetic chaff.

So, just as many people make a specialized study of diet when they are in the process of achieving their goals with respect to health or weight, I have been making a specialized study of minimalism because I am in the process of achieving my goals with respect to, in effect, curating my possessions.

That’s my story. If you’d like, I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

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23 thoughts on “Why (Selfish) Minimalism?

  1. Nice blog, Amy. My mother, plus several other relatives, were borderline hoarders. I grew up not knowing that there could be such a thing as a neat house. When I found out, I felt cheated and determined never to live like that. I have a throw-away party twice a year, throwing away pretty much anything that I have not used in six months.

    Now, after a divorce, I find myself living in a space just large enough to have half a guest at a time over. I had to get creative to trim my possessions down even further. Interestingly, I found that the more I discarded, the better I felt.

    Though I have always lived by the principle “Only own what you can truly enjoy,” the real meaning of that has become clearer recently. My life continues to get cleaner and lighter. As I get rid of more unnecessary material possessions, my spirit becomes lighter as well. As you no doubt know from your experience, divorce invites us to drag our previous lives around like luggage.

    The ideal living space for me is very like the covers of the magazine you recommend: high-quality, low-volume, and clean, elegant lines. The things I cannot keep anymore are not a loss–they are a casting off of everything that does not serve my core values. Sounds like you are discovering the same.

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  2. I’m only now about to go down this path myself. This weekend I will be packing up most of my belongings and putting them in a box and only pulling things out as I need them.

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    1. I’d be fine with doing that, if my criteria was: “If I don’t find that I need an item within X period of time, then I will discard it.” But I do wonder whether the “packing party” method results in discarding things that are actually of value, because there is no time to review. It is also helpful, I think, to contemplate what you’ve accumulated, and why, over a longer period of time than a “packing party” allows. Deciding how to do it of course depends on your context, however. If you are really in need of a quick fix to a clutter problem, this might be the best. But how about this approach: Do the “packing party,” but then give yourself a project that involves going through one box of stuff a day, a week, or even a month, as appropriate. Would that work for you, so that you could really have “closure” about the stuff you end up discarding?

      Whatever you decide to do, let me know how it goes! I’ve just donated a carpet cleaner that I’ve used once, and thrown out a bunch of other things. More progress tomorrow!

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      1. By the way, I should add that I do get my carpets cleaned! 🙂 I have them done professionally. I found that I don’t have the time/patience for the machine I bought a couple years ago, and it isn’t as effective, anyway, because it doesn’t have the motor that the professional trucks have.

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  3. Honestly, I’ve been slowly decluttering for the past two years since moving to a new area of the country.

    You bring up an interesting point on why I managed to gather all this stuff. I wish I could come up with a good reason, but I believe I have simply always been a consumer. Which is odd, since I appreciate clean open spaces most or as you describe it… spacious interiors.

    I will have my first post on the matter on Thanksgiving in regards to the “packing party” and won’t actually start ditching things until after Christmas.

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      1. Oddly enough, I ended up spending almost the entire weekend moving my sister to a new home. I did however, get a good healthy dose of reinforcement of why I’m doing this. It is bad enough when it is your stuff… worse when it is other people’s junk.

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  4. Try living in NYC where rents are crazy expensive and space is at a premium. That will turn anyone into a minimalist. I love my studio in Harlem. It has 310 square feet including bathroom, kitchen and main room. I made a huge adjustment going from a 2100 square foot home in CA where there was space for anything. Now when I go to the store and see something I think I want the first question I ask myself is where would I put it? I saw a cute Xmas snowman decoration at Costco tonight and knew immediately I would have no place to store it. Turned out I didn’t need that decoration as much as I thought I did at the moment. No kitchen aid stand mixer, no place to put it in my kitchen but a small hand held mixer works just fine. And so it goes. Minimalism teaches one to see through the whim of the moment and to value the future. Purpose is everything.

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      1. 188 square feet in London? No thanks. Believe me 310 is just right. I have a friend who moved with his wife out of 150 square feet in Manhattan to a normal size 1 bedroom in Brooklyn. Do not have any idea how 2 people lived in such a tiny space. Why London?

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  5. Amy, thank you, this is a great topic.

    I have thought about minimalization since my early 20’s. I have been through divorce, 3 moves overseas to live and back so I’ve honed my skills of minimalizing. I love and appreciate beautiful quality things but I try to keep in mind usefulness, affordability and space limits. My rule of thumb is, if I haven’t used it for a year, it goes. The problem I have is getting rid of things with nostalgia like my mother’s dress she wore to many family weddings. I seem to have so many of those kind of things. I have asked myself “is the value of sentimentality and nostalgia a valid reason to cling to them?”

    I have noticed that most of the items in the stores or online are not useful and have that “wow” factor built in. It occured to me most inventors of the ‘thing’ are appealing to the masses who don’t really think before they buy instead of creating something that is truly useful today. I have thought of so many things I wish would be invented and available, mostly to make my life easier, but have not been created or marketed. I think the deeper question to ask is “Why do those useless things appeal to the masses in the first place?”

    I love fine art but I cannot afford it. The only thing I have is a statuette (plastic but looks like clay) of a round ball (symbolizing earth) and a girl sitting on top of it with her hands under her chin and her elbows resting on her knees gazing outward. For me it meant she is contemplating. I fell in love with it.

    A little story about a garage sale – My sister tends to be very untidy and keep many things she doesn’t need. I was glad she finally decided to have a massive garage sale. On that day she seemed overly distraught about selling her things and she changed her mind again and again about selling some of them. I noticed her anxiety so I attempted to calm her and said, “I have found that sometimes the space freed up when you sell something is more valuable in the end than the thing itself.” But I must have triggered a deeper unpleasant chord in her as she reacted angrily to my comment. It made me ask why.

    Recently, I have been going through boxes in my garage from a move I made 6 years ago. I had left them there as they were things I didn’t need to use and I wasn’t sure if I could find room in the house. Most were fine china gifts from my mother and tons of tupperware. It is a daunting task. A decision needs to be made about each little thing. I managed to empty 5 boxes and toss most of it so I’m feeling better now.

    I have thought deeply about materialism and its value. I grew up with very few frills, although we moved to a new home when I was 9. It was a big deal. But our home was not filled with extras like others. My dad would never buy a brand new car, it was always 2 or 3 years old. Nor would he buy the top of the line in that make. He had a little saying, “travel light – things limit your freedom”. He was somewhat right but some things are necessary today to enable us to function more efficiently under time limits.

    More later…

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    1. I look forward to hearing more. 3 moves overseas and back would certainly force one to pare down! Did you even bring furniture overseas? I assume that would be expensive to do, so not even worth it. Soon I’ll try and post more about where I am on my journey to declutter/minimize as well.

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      1. continued … Yes, 3 moves overseas.. first to Indonesia. We were not allowed to bring any furniture or other large possessions that didn’t fit into allotted amount – one container which would arrive by sea in a month (or so).. it took 4 months. I was expecting our son. I was 5 months pregnant so I was obviously going to need many baby things – that was my main concern. When I arrived, the house had only one thing in it.. a bed, oh yes and a few towels. I remember breaking down in tears in the morning. Thankfully, to ease my anxiety, one of the wives of the same firm we were with had sent me a beautiful tropical arrangement. We had left our furniture and most other household items in storage but we had no idea how long we would be living abroad so that was a bit daunting. The entire experience forced me to think about exactly what I needed to live with as opposed to what I thought I couldn’t live without. It was an awakening. After returning and being reunited with the stuff I left in storage, it was disappointing to realize I didn’t need or want most of it anyway.

        Twice more I went through this exercise but the second time we were allowed to bring our things with us. I had to minimize prior to the move in order to fit it into the allotted container space. Sadly, much of it was damaged (my piano had a huge crack in the wood under the keyboard) etc. I was distraught but eventually realized it was only stuff and finally got over it.

        These events changed my outlook on the value of things. Like Bryan Charles in this blog I am very attached to my books, journals and written memorabilia and I can’t imagine parting with them. I need to learn to stop saving as much digital material as I do on external drives. Nobody is going to value it when I’m gone.

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  6. Interesting. I’ve never been a keeper of “stuff”, I have no collections and I often comment that I don’t need this, that, or the other thing. But as I consider this post and the others you’ve written on this subject I realize this has not naturally led me to be discriminating about what I have kept or acquired.

    I will have to do better.

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    1. My ideal criteria: Do I absolutely love it–or even if I don’t absolutely love it, is it something I use fairly regularly and can’t get a substitute for?

      Thanks for dropping by!

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  7. I first became aware of you, Amy, a few days ago. I was channel surfing and stumbled onto a show you had with, I believe, Bill Moyers. I was riveted to the lady with the stunning blue eyes, who made great point after great point. I looked her up on Twitter, which brought me here. Incredible blog. I confess, I am a boarder, a collector. But it is cathartic cleaning out my apartment several times per year, as I am about to do today. You are amazing.

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    1. Hi Doug, thanks for dropping by!

      I was not on a show with Bill Moyers, and my eyes are green, but maybe you’ve checked out my show, “Don’t Let It Go Unheard” on BlogTalk Radio or Liberty Express?

      If you clean out your whole apartment several times per year, that’s great. The habit of regularly reviewing our possessions is something we all need to instill. I’m working on it myself and hope to help others who are interested as well.

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  8. Hi Amy! Moving is certainly a great way to minimalize, but it seems to me to be like seeing family only when you have a funeral. It’s a forced means to do what we should be doing on a regular basis. I think we all need to really sit down and write about why we think we need certain items to begin with. I think we are all to one degree or another mini hoarders. There are specific aspects of our lives that we just don’t want to let go.. We need to feel connected to specific things either because we have no other way of connecting with what they represent or because it’s an easy way to be involved with what it represents. Many years ago I use to subscribe to as many as 10 science magazines and never wanted to throw any of them out because they all had some interesting story or information in them. This was of course before the web. I have always been an information hoarder (even my favorite lists get out of control. I also retain mail that i think might come in handy in the future even tho it hardly ever does. I admit that it gives me a strong sense of importance and accomplishment to have information at my fingertips that others may not know about. It also is a kind of security blanket. I feel more at ease knowing that specific information is in it’s proper place so to another extent it makes my world feel more organized at the expense of being more cluttered. But sometimes it’s just a matter of fear or the feeling that you’ll need this thing at SOME POINT but you wont’ have it cause you’ll have thrown it out. Either way we need to keep checking in with our addictions for THINGS lest our homes end up oversized.

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  9. I’ve no problem with material minimalism, but I’m working on social media minimalism to save time and construct focused, relevant feeds. I’m also clearing my sent email folder of emails that haven’t received a reply. I’d keep personal emails that seemed important … for 2-3 weeks, awaiting a response or to continue unfinished conversations. I think social media has had a negative impact on basic decorum, as people shrug off mid-conversation or “talk” as if they are interested but don’t follow up. Here’s to tabla rasa, in a sense, for 2015.

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  10. Just have to say, wonderful blog! Just what I was looking for. I’ve been interested in minimalism (note “interested in,” not practicing) for a while, but I tend to criticize the minimalists I’ve come across because of their collectivism and their guilt about (gasp!) owning things. “I like my stuff! I deserve my stuff!” Is usually my mantra. Too much thinly disguised anti-capitalism posing as self-improvement.

    Idea for future topic: minimalism with kids. Because middle-class income + children = maximum stuff. The usual response from the minimalist-collectivist crowd is to guilt your children into giving all their stuff away to the needy.

    And I must say, I NEVER noticed the minimalist themes in Rand’s novels! Just goes to show you can get so much out of re-readings.

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