You know that titanium fixed-gear bike you believe that you can’t live without? That Gucci bag you spent a month’s salary on? They could be standing in the way of your true happiness.
So says Joshua Fields Millburn, and he should know. In 2009, he had a telecom job with a six-figure income and every toy a former welfare kid could dream of — but he also had no time, energy, or joy. So he decided to chuck all but a couple of hundred essential items and move from Dayton, Ohio, to a mountain cabin in Montana to live the simple life with fellow so-called Minimalist and longtime bestie Ryan Nicodemus.
Millburn and Nicodemus since have (ironically) created a growing commercial industry around telling people how to live better with less stuff. It started with a blog and books and now also includes a Netflix documentary, a podcast, and lecture tours, including one that is bringing these Dalai Lamas of clutter to the Troc in Philly on Thursday.
Millburn talked to us by phone from his brand-new place in Los Angeles. Nicodemus was still in Montana and too busy packing his five things to chat, but did answer a few questions by email.
The recent announcement of their move on their podcast set their social-media channels ablaze with such comments as, “So you are moving to one of the most-materialistic, capitalistic, self-indulgent, least-minimalist places on the planet?”; “I don’t get it”; and “Why L.A.?”
So why are you moving to L.A.? Being minimalist in Montana not hard enough?
Millburn: Montana is an outstanding place to be a minimalist. Living in a cabin on the side of a mountain makes you appreciate the simple aspects of life: warmth, food, writing. But in a place like that, you don’t have access to a lot of stuff. … By stuff I don’t mean physical objects, but access to experiences and shared resources that you can have in a city that’s bigger. In smaller places, you have to own more things.
Let me tell you about something that happened to me yesterday here in L.A. I went to a Russian bath house. In Missoula, you’d have to have a million dollars to have that experience, because you’d have to build your own.
Guess who walked in while I was there. P. Diddy, someone who probably does have access to a million dollars. But here I have the same access to this experience as he does. That’s the nice thing about bigger cities.
Philly is a bigger city with access to great food and culture — possibly even Russian bath houses.
Millburn: Yeah, but Philly winters are cold. I grew up with that weather in Dayton, Ohio. Anyplace other than Dayton that has that kind of weather was not on our radar.
Who are your followers?
Millburn: People who are turned off by the status quo who have open minds. At our talks, we see everyone from executives to factory workers all asking the same questions about how to regain control and live a more meaningful life.
Some of them are attracted by the aesthetics of minimalism — bare white walls and the like. For others, it’s more of a spiritual thing. Many religious and philosophical movements have some of the same underlying messages. Minimalism is not a new idea. What is new is the problem of rampant, unchecked consumption — buying things because you think you have to impress people.
What will you be doing at the Troc on Thursday?
Millburn: We’ll start with an in-depth discussion of minimalism. Then we’ll record a live version of our podcast and answer a bunch of questions. Then there is the hug line. That can take a while, depending on the size of the theater.
Nicodemus: Hugging has been our thing since the beginning. When Millie and I were in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2012 for our very first tour stop, we started hugging folks instead of handshakes. It felt natural and more genuine.
What are some of the most common questions you get at your talks?
Millburn: How can we get started? Or what should I get rid of first? To me an even better question might be, How might my life be better with less? I mean, we all know how to declutter a closet. But if you don’t know why you’re doing it, it won’t be long before you’ll fill it with new stuff.
I know a minimalist who, after deciding to cease trading meaningless crap with relatives she barely knew at holiday time, was dubbed a Scrooge. Am I?
Nicodemus: If a family member started to harass me about a gift choice, I would ask them if they loved me and wanted me to be happy. Of course, a true friend or loved one will say “yes” to that question. Then I would say, “If that’s the case, I really need your support. Your presence is the best present.” At the end of the day, I invest only in people who are willing to invest in me.
The minimalist “movement” has been called elitist, in the sense that it only makes sense for people who already have more than enough. Fair knock?
Millburn: I grew up poor. We were on food stamps. I thought the reason we were unhappy was because we didn’t have any money. It was really because we made a lot of poor decisions. In my 20s I achieved everything I wanted financially, but I still wasn’t happy. I continued to make poor decisions — it was just with more resources.
So who is going to benefit more from a lifestyle that urges you to step back and use your resources in a much more deliberate way? People who have fewer resources.
You walked away from a financially rewarding but demanding career in order to live more simply and deliberately, yet now have what looks to be a busy, demanding career writing and talking about minimalism. Problem?
Millburn: Before, I viewed success mainly as making a lot of money. I still make money, and I’m still busy, but now my short-term actions are in line with my long-term values, and I’m happy. Now, I’m successful in a much broader way.
The Minimalists Less Is Now Tour
8 p.m., Thu., Sept. 21 at the Trocadero, 1003 Arch St.
Information: 215-922-6888, thetroc.com.