“Use for yourself little, but give to others much.” —Albert Einstein
When I was in middle school, I flew with my brother and sister to visit extended family. I placed a backpack full of my stuff in an overhead bin and buckled up. My favorite cassettes at the time were inside, my favorite Minnesota Gopher t-shirt, my favorite sweatshirt, and a book.
After arriving and walking through most of the airport, I noticed a lightness on my back. I had walked off the plane without my bag. Despite spinning around and running back to the gate, the plane and stuff were nowhere to be found.
I was a bit too forgetful as a child (heck, I’m a bit too forgetful as an adult). I forgot my fair share of packed lunches, homework assignments, and textbooks back at the house.
But this moment felt a little bit different.
Those possessions in that backpack felt like everything to me at the time. I was devastated, and everyone around me—especially my brother and sister—could feel the disappointment.
My guess is that feeling is relatable to almost everyone. At some point in our lives, we all misplace or forget something important.
How we react to that loss is another thing. Despite being inevitable, most of us are surprised when it happens—humbled by an emptiness for something… missing.
When I first discovered minimalism and began clearing out my garage many years ago, fear gripped me. And I’ve heard the same from others. Each item I removed felt like a little, voluntary loss. Sometimes I gripped an item for a while, pondering, “What if I need this in the future?”
The “what if” mindset slowed me down. As if the George Foreman grill would one day come back to haunt me and say, “Told you so!”
Despite the discomfort, I learned to let go of my unneeded material possessions—repeatedly. Sure, some things were harder than others, and some things took longer than others. But slowly, by persisting and not giving up, I began to see how loss ultimately leads to gain.
Here are Five Lessons I Learned Intentionally Letting Go:
1. Everything is fleeting.
The passage of time shifts and modifies our perspective on loss. Fortunately, I’m not still reeling over the loss of my backpack as a student. While losses might be painful initially, it’s a fleeting sensation. Trust in this process and understanding.
If you’ve been hesitating to throw something away you’ve never used “just in case” you might need it someday, embrace the loss, let it go, and see how you feel a few months later. My guess is you won’t miss any of it once it’s gone.
2. Lighter is better.
Stuff can be burdensome—weighing us down. It’s not just the physical heft of objects, but it’s the time we take out of our lives to maintain, prop up, and care for what we own. To let go is to provide yourself the opportunity to feel the lightness from having less responsibility for material goods. Today’s losses are tomorrow’s freedom.
3. You can break the chain of materialism, intentionally.
There comes a point where we must question whether materialism allows us to live the life we’d like to lead. By choosing to let go, we push against the societal norms and messages that say we must consume more to be happy.
Something changed in me years ago, and by tossing extraneous goods out, I placed a stamp of commitment to become minimalist. This was the first radical step to more with less, but I needed to persist through the doubts, fears, and losses.
4. You define what’s important.
If the stuff we own doesn’t define us anymore, what does? Well, that’s for you decide. For me, “loss” allowed me to focus on my family, friends, and my larger community. It empowered me to start The Hope Effect, Simplify Magazine, Uncluttered, and connect with an entire network of simple living advocates around the world. We must question what today’s potential feelings of loss might be stopping us from becoming, doing, and supporting.
5. Losses can be reframed.
To eschew the materialist messages of our society, consume less, declutter more, and become a minimalist might involve loss. It’s a potent, powerful feeling that can prevent us from acting up and changing our ways. Inversely, we could actually move away from the very concept of loss altogether, see the act of letting go as giving back and making time for more of what matters most. In that light, loss becomes a positive force for good. Minimalism isn’t about the things you remove from your life—it’s about freeing up your life to add back in the things that are truly important.
These lessons have affected me—even today.
On a recent flight home, I got up to use the bathroom and briefly left my laptop in the backseat pocket. I didn’t think much of it. But when I returned to the seat, the person seated next to me leaned over and said, “Be careful where you leave that. Someone might take it.”
I thought about the statement for a moment and kindly thanked her. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’d be okay—even without it. Besides, if someone’s going to risk stealing a laptop on an airplane, they probably need it more than me.”
Minimalism hasn’t made me flippant about stuff; rather, it’s helped me focus on what matters most. As my attachment to material possessions lessens, I am able to develop a greater appreciation for those things that could never be replaced.