Note: This is a guest post from Jay Harrington of Life and Whim.
My pursuit of a more minimalist lifestyle was, for many years, a case study in cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand, a burning ambition to create, build and succeed, in the traditional sense of the word.
On the other, an intense desire for a simpler, less complicated life—a minimalist life.
It always felt like I had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, advocating for two distinct approaches that were in irreconcilable conflict.
A big part of my struggle stemmed from (what turned out to be) an unfounded fear—a belief that minimalism is a bastion of the unambitious. I had big things I wanted to achieve, so I resisted adopting the identity of someone who would settle for less.
Here’s how I saw it: Either push the pedal or hit the brakes.
I finally became so sick and tired of my mental machinations and scarcity thinking that I committed to finding the antidote to fear, which is knowledge. By studying minimalist philosophies, I came to understand that my seemingly contradictory impulses could coexist. I clearly remember stumbling upon Joshua Becker’s insight that, “At its core, being a minimalist means intentionally promoting the things we most value and removing everything that distracts us from it.”
A revelation and reconciliation: It became clear that a minimalist mindset doesn’t stand in the way of ambition. It’s what enables the pursuit of big dreams. I realized that owning less could free me to achieve more. (tweet that)
Step Back, Move Forward
I began to see the world through a new lens and tossed aside old assumptions and conventional wisdom. I had a lot to unwind. I took a deep breath and got to work.
I left the law firm I founded. I ditched the office space for the marketing agency my wife and I own, untethered our employees, and started operating our business “virtually” from coffee shops and our kitchen table.
We sold our house. We moved from an expensive suburb to a small town in northern Michigan with our three young girls. We took steps back in order to create space and time so that we could make a clear-eyed decision about the path we would follow once we were ready to move forward again. We created white space for the first time in a long time.
Like Thoreau, we “went to the woods” to live more deliberately.
Fast forward five years later, and I am busier than ever between the responsibilities of work and family. And also happier than ever.
The big difference is that I’m busy on my own terms, in a place of my choosing. My ambition is undiminished—but it’s not consuming me. I’m focused on what matters to me, not all the trappings of “success” that merely get in the way of a meaningful life.
The most significant lesson I learned from my experience is that the real power of minimalism is practical and pragmatic: A minimalist mindset, which is one that provides clarity of purpose, helps create the space and time necessary to pursue meaningful work, relationships and experiences.
Minimalism has been a mental model that has helped me become more effective at prioritizing time, focusing attention, and drilling down on life’s essentials.
At its core, minimalism is a powerful means to an important end. Without an end in mind, practicing minimalism can feel like a rote exercise devoid of any larger purpose.
But if you’re using the principles of minimalism to move toward something you love, then all of the stripping away, like a sculptor chipping away at a hunk of marble, becomes a joyful exercise that reveals something beautiful inside.
In this season of my life, one of my primary “ends” is building a thriving business. And the stripping away of excesses across all areas of my life is helping me to pursue it.
Before, my work was done with the aim of supporting a lifestyle meant to send signals of success to other people. Today, free of so many burdensome obligations, I’m able to do work that aligns with my desire to do work that serves a larger purpose.
No less ambition. Far more satisfaction.
I can confidently declare that a less-is-more approach not only doesn’t stand in the way of achievement (no matter how you define it), it’s what fuels it.
Here are a few key takeaways from my experience.
1. Don’t think of minimalism as merely a tool for subtraction.
When you remove things that don’t matter from your life, it creates a vacuum. Use your newfound time and energy as the fuel to add more meaning to your life. You may decide to write a book, start a business, volunteer, or rekindle relationships.
If you decide to pursue a new passion project, you may find yourself busier, but also happier and more fulfilled, than you’ve ever been. Minimalism can be a means to a quieter, more leisurely life—but it doesn’t have to be.
2. Money is not the only currency.
It was during our quest to simplify that we came to learn that money is not the only currency, nor even the most valuable one. For us, time and mobility became higher priorities.
We make less money than we used to, but have learned that we need far less to sustain us. That realization has been incredibly liberating, and has emboldened us to try things we never would have imagined a few short years ago.
3. The decision to minimize or not minimize is not a binary one.
To realize the benefits of minimalism, you don’t need to live in a tiny house, wear the same outfit every day, and possess few belongings. Creating the tiniest crack of white space in your life by ridding yourself of something superfluous is still a win.
No one who visits our house would tag us as minimalists. But that’s the beauty of minimalism—you don’t need permission from anyone else to create a more meaningful life for yourself. And how you go about building that life is entirely up to you. I would humbly suggest, however, that a pragmatic approach to minimalist living can be a powerful force in fostering the change you seek.
Jay Harrington is a “reformed lawyer” turned author and entrepreneur, and blogs at Life and Whim where he helps people find purpose and live big through small moments. You can also find him on Facebook.