A common misperception about minimalism and simplicity is that if you have nothing, you’re living in accordance with these concepts. “I’ve never had much money,” some might say, “so I guess I’ve been a minimalist my whole life.”
It’s possible this is true, but minimalism is about living intentionally, not owning few things. I own very little because my passion is travel and I don’t need much to pursue the lifestyle I enjoy. Carrying more hinders me, so owning little while still possessing the things that allow me to do the work I love is key.
For others, though, owning so little might be a very negative thing. If having a full library of hardcover books is what sets you aflame with happiness and fulfillment, it doesn’t make much sense to live out of a backpack.
This focus on stuff is a distraction from the point. And that statement is true in two senses:
First, our possessions distract us from calibrating ourselves toward what really makes us happy. We focus on the accumulation of possessions rather than exerting the effort required to figure out what truly makes us happy, and spending our time, energy, and resources (including money) on those elements; be they possessions, relationships, experiences, or whatever else.
Second, this stuff-focus is often a distraction when we talk about minimalism because it makes us think that by simply eliminating what we have in storage and owning half as many pairs of shoes we’ll be fulfilled.
This is possible, as consuming less frees up time and energy to spend on actualization of other flavors, but it’s not an end unto itself. You could have all of your stuff stolen and experience nothing but loss. You could grow up impoverished and spend all your time thinking about accumulation rather than self-realization.
It’s our focus and efforts in a holistic sense that require recalibration. It’s not enough to simply decide to declutter your home, you have to make use of those newly liberated resources to declutter your mind, as well. It’s about making better use of what you have so that your resources are spent on the right things, not just owning little and then waiting for, hoping for, enlightenment.
The real power of minimalism is that it allows us to pull away from our latent stuff-focus so that we might align ourselves with self-actualization and happiness, instead.
If the path to simplicity is only leading to another type of stuff-focus, one that runs opposite but parallel to our previous fixation, we haven’t yet liberated ourselves from the cycle. We’ve merely shifted to another track on the same set of rails, which leaves the rest of our vast, spectacular internal and external world unexplored and under-utilized.
Update: April 21, 2017
Minimalism is not about stuff. It sucks that it’s often framed this way, but that’s in large part due to honest misunderstandings and the commercialization of the trend.
Very often recognizing that you can buy and own less is a step toward focusing on the important things in your life, but simply owning less is not, itself, an end. It’s a means to some bigger end.