I’ve long been interested in the way that a simple solution often provides the most elegant answer to a problem. Complexity is often associated with: confused thinking, inefficiency, bullshit, pretension, a lack of clarity, bad customer service, duplication, and duplicity.
Einstein’s genius was his ability to turn complexity into a simple equation: E=mc2. Steve Jobs was another genius. He used simplicity to design products that offered amazing user experiences (Ken Segall describes this process in, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success.)
At the same time, there is such a thing as over-simplification. There’s a benefit in making things simple enough, but no simpler.
First things first. People define minimalism in different ways. So, the first question is, what is minimalism?
According to the Cambridge dictionary:
Minimalism is: A style in art, design, and theatre that uses the smallest range of materials and colours possible, and only very simple shapes or forms.
In other words, the Cambridge dictionary defines it as an aesthetic look.
The way minimalism is used by The Minimalists (Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) in the documentary, The Minimalists: Less is Now, is really about personal lifestyle choices, especially how people manage their finances, and impulse purchases of unnecessary stuff to fill an emotional void.
The process they’re suggesting is pretty straightforward. Decluttering the junk from your life will take away the distraction of owning ‘stuff’ and provide you with a simpler life, from which you can focus on the things that really matter.
Simplicity: The fact that something is easy to understand or do.
As we struggle to figure out our lives, the crap we own can get in the way of our personal self-development.
But, I’d argue, emotions and feelings also block our development, and they’re much harder to chuck in a bin. The Minimalists realise this and part of what they’re suggesting comes with a wider framework of practical and sensible solutions to real world problems (relationships, money problems, social expectation, and peer pressure).
One of the dangers of going ‘minimalist’ is that it’s just an aesthetic, personal taste. Instead of having less as a means to gaining an insight into your life, it turns into some kind of fashion snobbery, dogma, or reductivism:
Reductivism: The practice of considering or presenting something complicated in a simple way, especially a way that is too simple.
The documentary asks a simple question really — how can you be happy with less? I enjoyed the film and I broadly agree with the message. The Minimalists make a lot of great points, but I think I can simplify the question even further — how can you be happy with less?
What do we really need to be happy in a consumerist society where people are buying endless amounts of junk as an emotional distraction, and replacing experiences with stuff? The answer is more human interaction and more meaningful experiences instead of buying more stuff.
It’s an appealing and simple message. I get it, and I believe it. It’s also a very old fashioned religious message from the teachings of the Buddha to the Christian New Testament. There’s an overlap between spirituality and aesthetics, between owning less and the monastic lifestyle.
If you spend less on crap, you don’t need to earn so much. There’s less financial pressure. Obviously, the trick to all this is being able to persuade yourself that you’re better off with less. This is easer said than done, especially if you have kids.
On a basic psychological level, chucking things out also gives people a sense of being in control, which is a valuable thing that goes beyond the practical benefits of efficiently reorganising your stuff.
The Minimalists have wrapped a lot of big questions around the clutter-free lifestyle. How free are we, if we’re compelled to buy loads of crap that we don’t actually need, and how should we define our own success?
These are big questions indeed — and it doesn’t even cover the terrible damage all these pointless consumer purchases have on the environment.