Best Bets: Getting the Maximum Out of Minimalism

March 2013

In this Age of More that seems hell-bent on forcing most of us to make do with less, two rat-race refugees have taken the concept of simple living to a blissful extreme.

The Minimalists are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends from Dayton, Ohio who left six-figure telecom jobs a few years ago when they realized that the material wealth they’d dreamed about as kids wasn’t delivering anything resembling happiness. On Wednesday night, the duo will be telling their tale, signing books, and taking questions at the Bovine Metropolis Theater downtown. (Demand in Denver is so robust that they’ll be doing two shows, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., for $5 per attendee.)

These aren’t a couple of off-the-grid flakes, but social (and social media) activists who have transformed their lifestyles into work that’s decidedly less lucrative but infinitely more fulfilling. In addition to establishing their website, the two have co-authored three bestselling books on minimalism and have become sought-after mentors, speakers, and writing instructors. (Millburn has also published three fiction books.)

On the eve of their Denver appearance, Nicodemus chatted with 5280 about demystifying minimalism for the masses.

5280: What first motivated you to explore minimalism?

Ryan Nicodemus: Josh and I had pretty affluent jobs and everything we wanted. If you’d told my 18-year-old self what I would have at 28, I’d have been the most excited 18-year-old there ever was. But the topic of happiness kept coming up for both of us. Personally, I felt a little ungrateful because I knew there were a million people who would kill to be in my position, but here I was not being content with it.

I’d begun noticing this change in Josh. He seemed more content and less stressed, so I asked him why. He said he’d gotten into minimalism and explained the lifestyle. He sent me some blogs to check out. All the authors had different life situations, but living this minimalist way had helped them pursue what they’re really passionate about.

For me, it started with a packing party. I told Josh, “Great, I’m a minimalist. Now what?” I packed up everything in my 2,200-square-foot condo as if I was moving and covered up my furniture. The boxes were stacked to the ceiling and marked very specifically—kitchen door number one, bathroom, junk drawer number seven, and so on.

The idea was to unpack what I needed, as I needed it, for three weeks. So my first day, I unpacked my toiletries and a suit and shoes for work. The next day I unpacked my TV and I reconnected the Internet. But after 21 days, I was looking at all these boxes I hadn’t even touched, 75-80 percent of my stuff that I hadn’t needed at all. That was my light bulb moment: Here are all these things I’d accumulated in an effort to be happy, and these things aren’t doing their job.

I kept some seasonal things, but I sold, gave away, or threw away everything else. This also helped me see—with my big expenses like my mortgage, my new car, and my four-wheeler—if I could minimize, I can pursue things I want to pursue.

5280: What was the hardest thing to get rid of during the transition?

RN: It wasn’t any physical object; it was my identity. If you had asked me before what I did for a living, I could give you a great story: senior business manager for 150 retail stores, overseeing this many employees, yadda, yadda, yadda. I found it really hard to let that go because without that identity, I really didn’t have anything, and it took me a while to let go of that “title.”

5280: So what’s your new identity?

RN: When someone now asks me what I do, I usually say, “That’s a pretty expansive question. I do a lot of things.” I snowboard, I travel, I write, I mentor.

5280: No matter how committed you were to making this change, it must have been difficult in spots. What was the tipping point after which you never looked back about your decision?

RN: After the packing party, I put together a plan to quit my job. I stayed for another 10-12 months while I paid down debt and built up some savings. But the packing party was the “a-ha moment” that led to all the other revelations.

5280: Is there one thing that you got rid of that you still kind of miss?

RN: I don’t miss anything or long for anything I’ve given up. There are ephemeral “pacifiers” like TV, but if I have a free hour or two I might catch up on some shows or movies.

5280: Did you and Josh experience any resistance to this from family or friends?

RN: [Laughs] Oh, yeah. People were asking us if we’d joined a cult. We reported to the same guy at work, and our boss asked me if Josh was depressed because he was giving away all his stuff. The biggest hurdle for me was my mom. She called me about 30 days after we’d launched the website—we didn’t tell anyone about it; we just put it out there and wrote about our story—and asked me, “What’s this minimalist thing?” I explained that it was something I’d been trying as a way to find more contentment. She asked, “Does this mean I can’t buy you Christmas presents anymore?” (This has been an ongoing thing with the two of us.) She could do much more with her money than buy me a tie. I told her I appreciated that this was one of the ways she showed her love for me but that if I didn’t need it, I’d probably end up donating it. She finally began to see where I was coming from once she realized that [minimalism] was making me happy.

So there were some raised eyebrows, but once people have seen how Josh and I have published three bestselling books and traveled all over the country—I’ve traveled more in the past year than I did in my first 30 years—they’ve started to get it. We make way, way less money than we ever did in the corporate world, but because we’re able to live intentionally, we’re able to do this.

5280: So what is a good present to give a minimalist?

RN: I think presence is the best present. Now, my mom will hang out with me, go to dinner and movie, or whatever, that’s the best thing you can get me. But we’re not against material possessions; if there’s something I really need, I’ll ask for it, or for help getting it. When I was selling my condo I needed a new refrigerator, so I asked for gift cards to Best Buy or Sears to help finance it.

5280: How has this changed your social life and your ability to get close to a potential romantic partner who probably isn’t as devoted to this as you are?

RN: I was really worried about that going into it, but what I’ve found is that the relationships I have now are the best ones I’ve ever had. In the beginning it was a little rough because people just weren’t that clear about what I was doing. But after traveling the country and getting connected with new people through social media, it’s amazing how many people you can find with the same values and beliefs.

5280: Even though this isn’t a religion, it’s still a dearly held philosophy; how do you “atone” when you’ve fallen off the wagon, so to speak?

RN: I don’t really guilt myself as much as ask the question of whether the way I’m spending my time and money is adding a net positive value to my life? It’s about living more intentionally, because if you asked five minimalists what it means, you’d probably get five different answers. But that’s what’s really cool about it; it’s more of a philosophy that doesn’t have one specific way to do it, and it appeals to all different demographics. After the recent economic turn, people are starting to realize that accumulating more things is not really the answer.

—Image courtesy of Adam Dressler.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.