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The Ambitious Minimalist: Musings on Impact, Simplicity, and the Good Life

December 22nd, 2011 · 17 comments

A Simple Tower

My friend Chris Guillebeau just published his latest manifesto. It’s called The Tower.

In the manifesto, Chris asks: “what truly matters?”

“The purpose of life,” he eventually answers, ” is to create something meaningful that will endure after we’re gone.”

What caught my attention today was an article Chris wrote promoting The Tower. It was a parable about a farmer who realizes that a simple life in his fields — a life devoid of distraction and undue stress — was not enough.

“Deep inside his soul,” Chris writes, “the farmer wanted a challenge.”

It’s not just the content of Chris’s article that interests me, but also where he posted it: on Leo Babuta’s minimalism blog, Zen Habits.

Whether or not this was his intention, Chris hit upon a crucial tension in our corner of the self improvement world.

To understand this tension, keep in mind that Zen Habits is the flagship of the powerful minimalist movement. This is a movement that rejects stuff and busyness; it drives people to give away junk they don’t need,  stop acquiring, and live cheaply, which in turn lets them step away from overly-demanding jobs, debt, and long commutes.

It’s most visible proponents have gone so far as to move into tiny houses that they build by hand and that can be pulled around on a trailer.

Minimalism is a powerful idea. Clutter and demands in our lives leads to clutter and demands in our minds, which in turn leads to stress and unhappiness (c.f., Winifred Gallagher’s under-appreciated book, Rapt). And if our current cultural situation is anything, it’s cluttered.

But Chris’s post highlights the achilles heel of minimalism. We are also wired to make an impact (c.f., Victor Frankl). Once distraction is cleared from our lives something meaningful needs to fill the vacuum.

When I browse the most pure of the minimalism blogs, like Tammy Strobel’s compulsively readable Rowdy Kittens, this background attraction toward legacy pulls at my attention. I crave simplicity. But I also crave challenge.

Bringing together these two cravings, in my humble opinion, might be one of the most original and effective ideas to come out of our piece of the web; a point of convergence that the different schools of advice blogging — lifestyle design, minimalism, the passionistas, evidence-based success strategists — are all blindly evolving towards; perhaps even a grand unified theory of building a happy life in modern America.

Of course, I’ve been nibbling around the edges of this convergence for years here on Study Hacks.

My student readers have had my mantra drilled into their head time and again: Do less. But do the very small number of things you do very well.

My readers in the career world are increasingly hearing a variant of this theme: Choose one thing to do really, really well, then leverage this value to take control of your career.

There is, however, a lot of work to be done to advance this convergence. (For one thing, I can’t hold a candle to Leo or Tammy’s ability to evoke the contentment of simplicity.) Which is why I was happy to see Chris stroll over to Leo’s world, admire the uncluttered view, and then ask, “now what?”

(Image from Rowdy Kittens, taken by Tammy Strobel.)

17 thoughts on “The Ambitious Minimalist: Musings on Impact, Simplicity, and the Good Life

  1. Rodrigo says:

    I belive we always want to feel that our life is meaningful, each of us give it the how and why, as there are many who want to change the world, for others it can be something simple but meaningful like help their kids and give them a good education. Great post.

  2. Truong says:

    A lot of these ideas resonate with what I read from “The Conquest of Happiness” by Bertrand Russel. It’s interesting to see the cravings modern men have are no different from those of men a century ago.

  3. Alejandro says:

    Not directly related, but the idea reminds me of a quote by Thoreau:

    “The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.”

    In this case, we are embracing simplicity not so much to avoid work, but to do the work that makes our “leisure” fruitful.

  4. Robert Wall says:

    I’m at least partially with Truong. There’s nothing new under the sun. The seeds of minimalism have been planted, harvested, stored, and re-planted all throughout history.

    Leo, Tammy, and several others are to minimalism what Stephen Hawking is to science – famous, well-respected, and widely-read.

    I also guarantee that if you do a bit of digging, you’ll discover that many notable minimalists don’t “live cheaply”. Many of them live with very expensive, very nice stuff – but less of it.

    When you read a lot of these 100-thing lists, you’ll see a lot of very, very nice stuff. Leo owns a desk that cost him somewhere around $1400. Everett Bogue wore $200 jeans when he was blogging at Far Beyond The Stars. Both Everett and Leo (last I heard) owned MacBook Pro laptops.

    I’m not saying this is necessarily bad – but it *is* to say that claiming minimalism is about living cheaply is painting with a very, very broad brush.

    I don’t think we’re blindly evolving toward a single convergence point. To borrow a Malcolm Gladwell line, we’re not looking for the perfect pasta sauce. We’re looking for the perfect pasta *sauces*.

    I think there are probably multiple ways to be happy in America. And just like we need multiple colors in a box of crayons, I think we need all the different ways for society to function.

    Of course that’s just my $0.02. 🙂

  5. Meredith says:

    I am a real fan of minimalism, not for its own sake, but for efficient and effective creative expression.

    I keep learning this lesson: Once I clean out the clutter – things (physical, mental or emotional) that have outlived their usefulness, things that are broken, things that don’t belong – it becomes a whole lot easier for me to take creative action that is more graceful, that isn’t a struggle, that “adds more and more value” to the recipient.

    For me minimalism has never been an end game, just a discipline that helps me do more and more effectively and creatively.

  6. Isa Adney says:

    Cal this is by far one of my favorite posts. Your writing is astounding and what you’ve communicated here is deeply profound.

  7. Roberta says:

    I read Leo, Tammy and Chris. What I miss is COLOR on their blogs (well, not Chris’s). I am simplifying my life by getting rid of the clutter, making what I have count but by golly, I am going to vibrantly paint my walls and wear color :). Cal, your blog is my favorite of the many I read – I like the convergence concept.

  8. Christian Pacheco says:

    This has a similarity with systems thinking. Integration and differentiation is usually taken as a dichotomy. But they really form two axis. We start with chaotic simplicity (little integration and little differentiation), but we usually tend to either organized simplicity (a lot of integration with little differentiation) or chaotic complexity (a lot of differentiation with little integration). But the “convergence” as you call it here would be to have both. That is called Organized Complexity and it leads to development. The 5 most important areas that lead to development in an organization is in:
    – security vs freedom -> participation
    – stability vs change -> adaptation
    – collectivity vs individuality -> socialization
    – uniformity vs uniqueness -> innovation
    – order vs complexity -> organization

    This theory was studied by Russell Ackoff. We need to see things as a whole and not separate. This will lead to development of the society.

  9. V. says:

    Cal.

    What appears to me is that you do not advocate to not do a lot.
    But, to focus on one thing at a time.
    So instead of trying to learn philosophy, and be a politician, and a writer. One would focus on one endeavor, untill it “maxed out” and then use the resources and skills gained trough that focus to apply to other endeavors or areas in his or hers life.

    Is this assesment correct?

    As a side question: What if one has already done a Business major (in Europe – bacharellate)? The masters is expected, in that or another area. What would you advise, to take a masters in business or to do it in a at least semi-useful area?

  10. Study Hacks says:
    I read Leo, Tammy and Chris. What I miss is COLOR on their blogs

    Leo, in particular, really enjoys seeing how much you can take away and still leave a functioning blog. I do miss the color. But then again, Zen Habits is quite easy to read…

    Once I clean out the clutter – things (physical, mental or emotional) that have outlived their usefulness, things that are broken, things that don’t belong – it becomes a whole lot easier for me to take creative action that is more graceful, that isn’t a struggle,

    This is very true. Procrastination, in large measure, is a problem unique to the cluttered life.

    Not directly related, but the idea reminds me of a quote by Thoreau:

    Thoreau is one of the more sophisticated thinkers on the topic of work, leisure, and the good life, and is incredibly relevant today. It’s unfortunate he so often gets mis-categorized as a nature writer.

    I also guarantee that if you do a bit of digging, you’ll discover that many notable minimalists don’t “live cheaply”. Many of them live with very expensive, very nice stuff – but less of it.

    Right, but in the end, the “less of it” of it piece far outweighs the “very nice stuff” piece. Take Tammy Strobel. She has a very nice laptop, for example. But she also has no mortage, no debt, minimal rent, no car, almost no bills. I don’t think she eats out much or travels to exotic places.

    In other words, the amount of money that she expends each month is dwarfed by how much is spent by the typical suburban homeowner. So she does not have to worry so much about earning lots of money.

  11. Ryan says:

    I have to agree with Isa. Cal, you very consistently do a great job in unifying ideas from a number of different disciplines. If this is the way the productivity / minimalist / life systems & habits blogospheres are heading, I can’t wait to see where this area goes in the next few years. Have you started thinking about what your role in shaping this convergence will be like?

  12. Maria says:

    I think minimalism and legacy fit beautifully together. Getting rid of distractions isn’t just a way out of the rat race; it is a way to free yourself for more meaningful work.

  13. Mohan Arun says:

    Here’s another way of expressing the idea of minimalism and decluttering, from a design point of view: ‘design by subtraction’. Instead of adding things, you take away things… Good design is as little design as possible.

  14. Tony says:

    Which is why I was happy to see Chris stroll over to Leo’s world, admire the uncluttered view, and then ask, “now what?”

    — The funny thing about minimalism is that when you strip everything out of your life you end up with – nothing. Leo’s interesting because, truth be told, he isn’t really a minimalist! There are some hardcore minimalists out there that can’t even hold down a relationship, partly because they relocate every 5 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, minimalism can be a powerful tool – I have used it myself to improve my life massively. However, it’s just a tool, and not the be all and end all. It can however leave you asking that question – “now what?”. p.s. Just discovered this blog and I’m loving it!

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