Bigger is Not Always Better

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jeff Shinabarger of Plywood People. He is the author of More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity


“Anything we find that is more than enough creates an immediate opportunity to make others’ lives better.” – Jeff Shinabarger

I was 24 and was asked to lead an event called Catalyst. And it grew. We saw the growth happen from 5,000 people to 10,000 people to 25,000 people and awareness continued to spread across the world.

But, bigger is not always better.

I wrestle with this tension everyday. More or Less? Every aspect of life feels like this tension hits at the core of what is success. More or less clothes? More or less food? More or less square footage? More or less time? More or less Twitter followers? In an age of continual progress, what is enough?

Often times, a relationship with one person can change how you see the world in a greater way than the largest audience that you influence.

We moved into East Atlanta Village. It has eclectic bars with the best sounds of up-and-coming musicians, and a community-operated bike shop. It’s a wonderful, diverse place to live. We were moving from a two-bedroom to a three-bedroom home. We just didn’t expect what would happen next.

When we moved into our house, it was only a few hours before a man rang the doorbell. This was our neighborhood welcoming committee of one.

He had one of those smiles that implies he’s got some hard stories to tell. His teeth were a little crooked, yet very white. He was wearing a Cincinnati Red’s hat cocked to one side. My new neighbor’s name was Clarence, and as I learned that day, he was always “looking for work.” I also learned quickly that Clarence worked hard. The difference between Clarence and many of my other neighbors is simply he had no home.

It’s not that I had never met a homeless person before. But this was different. Clarence pushed me over the edge. He was my neighbor. I couldn’t get away from him. And I liked him. The constant smirk of a smile got under my skin and into my heart.

Our relationship introduced a barrage of new questions for my life: How do I love my neighbor when my neighbor has no front door or even walls? My previous worldview assumed my neighbor would be living in the same context as me: in a home. I thought the fabric on our couch or our dinner choices may be different, but I never really imagined my neighbor without a refrigerator or a shower. 

With one doorbell ring, all the ways I looked at my day-to-day life instantly changed.

Suddenly I saw my life through Clarence’s eyes. What he saw looking through my front door was abundance. I have not one but two living areas that anyone can actually see from the front door. I have air conditioning for those hot days in Atlanta. I have a toilet and shower in each of my two bathrooms and I even have a washer and dryer for my clothes. And speaking of clothes, my wife and I each had our own walk-in closet filled with them. Clarence didn’t have to say a thing to me. Just having this new relationship in my life changed the way that I looked at what I have been given.

My material excess and his material need made for a confusing symbiotic relationship. We both knew there was no way that I could fully grasp what it would feel like to not have a physical place to sit down and process the day. But there was also an understanding that he could never fully understand the things that I own. Our worlds were lived far apart, yet in the same square mile.

I wish everyone had the opportunity to know Clarence, or someone like him. They encourage us to a distinct change needed in our own lives. An unsettled ambition that we know needs to be different.

The truth is: I have more than enough and I believe many people can relate. We don’t need more. We don’t need bigger. When we choose to live on less, it creates the potential to do much more for others.



Jeff Shinabarger is the founder of Plywood People, an innovative community addressing social needs through creative services. His new book, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity, is absolutely fantastic. It is a book destined to call many to redefine their understanding of “enough” and call each of us to rediscover a lifestyle of excessive generosity. I highly recommend it to you.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    This post invites us to examine how we look at our fellow men. Do we ignore those in need when we pass them on a street corner and try to pretend they are not there. “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” More importantly, as Jeff points out in his film, HE’S MY FRIEND.

  2. says

    The timing of this post is impeccable – I was in my car this morning, and a homeless person knocks on my window for some change. I was debating, like I have a hundred times before, whether to give him a dollar or not. I have heard stories of them using it for drugs, or of homeless people who aren’t really homeless at all, but using the generosity of people to not work. I do not know what the story behind this homeless person was, the light turned before I could decide to be generous. But this always brings up questions for me. Should I give money to charity or not? There are some unscrupulous ones out there. Should I give money to beggars or not? Should I donate time instead? It is hard to decide.

    • says

      You can do both… If you would like to give directly to a person in need, a gift card to a local place to get groceries or a fast food place is a much better option than cash. (I always carry a few $5 and $10 gift cards to Wal-Mart & McDonalds in my purse so I am ready for such an opportunity.) And yes, someone that has ugly on their mind could turn around and exchange or sell that card – but chances are if you are feeling in your heart to do something to bless them, they will use it wisely. Rely on your heart – your gut intuition – in how to respond to these types of situations. If you are ever looking to make a financial or in-kind donation, I would suggest to give it to a reputable local shelter where it can do more widespread good. Giving your time is oftentimes even more valuable than a financial donation (did I really say that? :) Many people do not want to volunteer for a shelter; perhaps it reminds them that it could easily be any one of us in that situation (especially with the current economic climate). Please remember, not everyone has to feel they have the skills to help someone dealing with homelessness. Most shelters should provide training and expectations. Also remember that shelters and other outreaches to the homeless and hungry do not always need someone to help with food. That was my husband’s concern because he can’t even boil water :) Not everything is “direct care” but it’s all just as valuable and necessary. There are so many ways that each of us can use our skills and talents to help. For example, if you are a CPA, attorney, etc., you can offer your professional services. If you have enjoy helping with in-kind donations (organizing, pick up/distribution, storage, etc.) that could be a way you could help. Perhaps you are great at social media; then use your sphere of influence to help get the word out about the needs in your community and help connect folks. Engage your whole family; children can help distribute flyers about a fundraising & awareness event and in many other ways. Become an advocate in your own way for what works for you and your family, even if it is just a few hours a month. You can really make a difference in someone’s life, trust me.

      After volunteering in one of our local shelters, I noticed many needs that were not being met because it was all they could do just to keep a roof over people’s heads. As necessary as that is, it’s just geography. That phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child” applies to situations like this, as well. The crisis of homelessness is multi-faceted and needs the help of many to help that person/family go from homelessness to self-sufficiency with dignity and respect. If done well, that person/family then has the tools to stay self-sufficient (and often times will turn around the blessing and help someone else.) After seeing the gaps in service at the shelters, I created a local outreach several years ago that helps (not enables) our homeless neighbors built on what I have described above, so I do have a lot of experience with the crisis of homelessness. It has been a life-changing experience for me and it can be for you too.

    • everlearning says

      Something that I’ve learned over the years: While we should be wise stewards of our money and possessions, we are not responsible for how others receive our gifts. We are responsible only for our actions. So I don’t need to wonder about whether or not the person is truly homeless or truly hungry; I only have to have the desire to love that person with dignity and compassion and try to help. A couple of years ago a man from our church who helps people in homeless shelters move into apartments when they are established in a job and ready to re-enter the world with new skills (emotional, psychological, employment, etc.) asked me if I knew anyone with a sofa bed because a person was ready to move into a studio apartment after living in the homeless shelter and recovering from previous drug abuse. We quickly offered our sofa bed and also added a toaster we weren’t using along with some utensils, an older landline phone, etc. A few months later, the man from our church said that this person had, in the previous few days, sold everything that been given to him for drugs and abandoned the apartment. I was sad for this person, but I did not regret our giving. We did what we felt called to do and that was ours to live with (easily). The receiver tried hard, but in the end made a bad choice. That, unfortunately, is his to live with, and I hope and pray that he will one day try again to resolve the issues in his life.

      I, too, am more comfortable giving coupons or gift cards for grocery stores or McDonald’s, etc. A couple of times when someone has asked for money for food and I give them one of those cards/coupons, they have refused the offer (even though the place is easily within walking distance). Clearly, they do not want food and that settles the issue for me.

        • Ellen says

          Giving giftcards to McDonalds is compounding the problem of malnutrition in homelessness. I have run and volunteered many homeless feeding programs over the years…instead of a McD card how about apples, oranges, protein bars. Life on the streets is hard and junk food does not support the energy needed to face each day’s challenges. Rethink your generosity to fit the physical needs please and carry on being a thoughtful person.
          Thank you

          • Jazzy says

            as poor nutrition as McD’s is, its cheap food for hungry people – and its not entirely without nutrients. I wouldn’t NOT give a card like that due to the food value – having something in your stomach is always better than nothing. Truly and apple or a banana is NOT going to make them feel like they had a meal.

      • says

        Well said. I heard that point of view years ago and have taken it to heart. I know that sometimes sharing is abused, but it’s not for me to judge, which takes a stress off of my mind.

        • says

          Thank you for all the comments – I never thought about giving gift cards to the homeless – that is a really interesting idea. I am going to try that out for sure. In addition, I like the idea of not wondering what the receiver does with our gifts. With our friends or family, we do the same. We give them something and do not wonder what they are going to do with our gift; it should apply to the homeless as well.

  3. says

    Oh, wow – what an absolutely lovely blog post. The hair on the back of my neck is standing – if you know what you mean… Very touching. And I love that Clarence in this story did not come to beg or even ask for help – but actually offered his service, and asked for work! I think this makes the difference…. I seldom give money to beggers on the street – but I often give money to them if they are playing an instrument, singing, juggling or just anything.

  4. says

    I can’t tell you how much I love this. I get so discouraged when I hear the “I need, I need, I need” in a world of abundance. Being able to look at life with different eyes opens us up to giving of that extra.

  5. says

    Wow. It’s things like that that do remind us of how much stuff we have, and clothes and food and furniture and everything. It’s crazy. And then there’s Clarence. It’s like two different worlds both in one spot.

  6. Priscilla says

    Mr. Becker, I look forward to and treasure each new post by you.
    But holy smokes, this one brought tears Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Alexis says

    Good for you for even noticing someone with less. My experience with those that live oversize “bigger” lives is that they do not care for others. I hope your able to step up and help him get into a apartment and give of your time to better his life. I worked with the hiomeless for 30 years and they are you and I, with more difficult circumstances. Glad you are realizing the “bigger” lifestyle is not worth living. I never experienced a “bigger lifestyle, never had a dishwasher, never lived in more then one bedroom, never had a walk in closet ( silly who needs it really ). I see those with all that “bigger” mentality dreadfully unhappy and not living meaningful lives. I live in less then 700 square feet with my daughter. We have a fabulous life that is authentic, without material posessions and we enjoy every day in our garden, reading, cooking fro scratch eveyr day and pursuing hobbies instead of shopping. Living on less really does give you a better perspective that is more real and brings more value to your life. It also is good for the soul! I would suggest you try to do away with as many material posessions as you can, that is a start. Then you will feel free and begin to truly appreciate life

  8. says

    This is very interesting to me as last night I watched “The Queen of Versailles” on Netflix, the story of the Siegel’s and their Westgate Resort saga. The story of “too much” is “never enough”. Their 16 year old adopted daughter put it rather simply, she came from poor and now she was rich and she didn’t want to forget her former self as being rich made you want more and more. Then they fell on hard times (for them, probably not for us ‘common’ people), it would be interesting to know how they are doing now.

  9. says

    This was really beautiful and heart-warming. In the back of my head, though, I must admit that I wondered things like “so, did Jeff offer Clarence a cup of coffee from that coffee-maker?”, or gloves when it was cold outside, or a small gift that he could use at the holidays (a jacket, a backpack?) or a sandwich now and then? Or was it strictly a “friendship” where Clarence rang the bell and did work for pay? I have a feeling from the nature of this piece that Jeff was generous in other ways than just giving him money in exchange for services, but just the same, I was left wondering about the limits of this friendship. Clarence wouldn’t need to feel like a charity case if he was offered a cup of coffee because that’s what many people do when a friend stops by their home. I think it would humanize the situation more than just exchanging money for services. In any case, I still think the overall sentiment of the piece is lovely and thought-provoking.

  10. says

    Definitely some interesting thoughts. I think, a society where we have so much, we often do forget to realize how much we actually have. On television, we see lavish homes, fancy decorating, and the constant message that we don’t have enough, aren’t good enough. You’re right, though–we can take the energy that we would use to accumulate more, and use it to give something back.

  11. says

    I once read in John Naish’s brilliant book, Enough, that your brain releases those same stimulating, feel-good chemicals, released when you are out-shopping, satisfying your consumerism driven desires, when you give to others . The more you give, the easier is to understand and appreciate those feelings. Rather than filling your life with more needless junk, you can use your wealth to better the lives of others.

    Last Friday I gave an old duvet, soon to be discarded, to a homeless person living in a shop entrance, at a nearby city. I can’t describe how good it felt to be making a small, but much appreciated, contribution to this person’s life. This ‘feel-good’ factor went sky high the following night, after temperatures had lowered quite significantly, as I drove through the city and caught sight of the same guy, in a different shop entrance, wrapped up, snuggly, in my old duvet!

    Anyone who takes the path towards a life of minimalism will soon enjoy the benefits of owning less, the elimination of desire for the latest gadget/clothing must-have, the comfort you can take by realising that no one material possession will make you happy and that happiness will come, almost as a sub-benefit, of redirecting your previous consumerism led free time to more fulfilling activities such as helping the homeless or simply spending quality time with your family.

    Please take the time to check out my new website, for inspirational advice on how to live a simple, frugal, debt-free minimalist lifestyle.

  12. jane says

    It’s much kinder to describe someone who does not have a home as “someone who is experiencing homelessness ” rather than expressing terms like, “the homeless”, or the homeless man, woman or person. It’s even better, if you don’t positively know if someone is undomiciled to say someone appeared insolvent or disenfranchised. Using language like “the aged”, or “the homeless”, perpetuate negative stereotypes that further discrimination or discriminatory policies > (leading to) exclusion> poverty> oppression and disenfranchisement. thank you

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