On Our Relationship With Things

I have written quite a bit about minimalism in the way that The Minimalists approach the idea of having less stuff. The more things you have, the more time you have to spend organizing, maintaining, and working with your stuff. It takes time to earn enough money to make purchases, to afford the storage space for items, and to fix parts of things that break, or to keep them clean and up to date. Once we have lots of things, we have to think about where we are going put them, we have to move them around if we need something else at any given time, and we need to pack them up and move them if we ever need to move where we live in the future, and we may have to pay to have someone else store them for us.

 

Despite the difficulties that can come from having lots of stuff, it is hard to get out of the mindset that says you should buy more things and always try to acquire bigger and better things. Sometimes, we need some clear thinking to help us remember what is important and what is not when it comes to our stuff. Seneca writes, “understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”

 

In Seneca’s quote we find the idea that what makes us great people, what makes us interesting, and what drives us in interesting and meaningful ways comes from within us. It is our mindset, our worldview, and our goals that determine what value we see and pursue in the world. Effort to obtain lots of things and to have impressive shiny stuff for showing off amount to nothing more than useless toil. The time we spend working so that we can have the bigger and better thing is time that is effectively wasted.

 

The more we feel compelled to have a newer and more expensive car, the more we feel we need a bigger house which will bring a bigger mortgage payment, and the more we feel that we need expensive things in general, the more we will have to work and potentially spend our time doing things we don’t enjoy. We make a trade off, our time (and sometimes our well being, stress, anxiety, and healthy) in exchange for a thing that we think will make us impressive. Sometimes we obtain so many of those things that we end up in a continual cycle of anxiety and stress from the work that we take something more important away from our lives. We risk a point where the things we own occupy all our mental energy and it is fair to question whether we own our stuff or whether it owns us. We may find that life can be more simple and all our needs can be provided without the material possessions we seek, which gives us back time and energy to focus on things that we enjoy and that interest us.

Thoughtful Friendships

Last week I listened to an interview with The Minimalists on the Kevin Rose Show. The Minimalists have been in my orbit for quite a while and generally focus on an approach the world based on what is necessary and what adds true value to our lives as opposed to chasing every little thing that we think we want. When we step back and look critically at the things in our life and ask ourselves why we have certain things and if we truly need them, we can begin to do more with less and remove stressful clutter.

 

One area that was briefly mentioned in the podcast was friendship and how we can bring a type of minimalist approach to our friendships. The idea was not that we should have a bare minimum number of friends in our lives, but rather that we should be thoughtful about who we spend our time with. We should look at the friends around us and ask if our friendship is beneficial for us or for our friend, ask what type of benefit and value we receive from our friendship, and ultimately we should consider whether our friendship makes us but better and happier people. This means we avoid trying to befriend people who are popular, powerful, and wealthy but generally don’t live in a way that would help us be the best versions of ourselves. We should let go of poisonous relationships that lead us to do things we don’t really want to do or lead us to become people that we don’t like.

 

Seneca wrote about this in Letters From a Stoic almost 2,000 years ago, “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart.” Seneca is also encouraging us to be thoughtful with our friends and to be choosy with the people we spend our time with. Rather than using friendship to try to move up a career or financial ladder, and rather than using friendship to try to look more popular, our friendships should be with people who help us think more deeply about the world, help us engage with the world in a meaningful way, and can be loyal people that we can open up with about our challenges in a way that is healthy for both of us. Once again, this doesn’t mean that we should not have any friends, but that we should work to cultivate meaningful and close friendships.

The Friends Around Us

Joshua Fields Millburn wrote the forward for Colin Wright’s book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, and in his forward he looks at the ways in which many of us develop and maintain friendships. To start it off, he writes, “If I could go back in time and give my eighteen-year-old self one nugget of advice, it would be this: You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”

Fields Millburn explains that we often fall into a trap where we develop relationships with the people around us simply because they are around us. It is not a bad thing to become friends with neighbors, co-workers, and people in the same geographic locations as ourselves, but in some ways it can be a little limiting. Having positive and meaningful relationships with people around us is important and can make a big impact in our lives and the connections we have with the places we live, work, or go to school, but we can also strive to have greater friendships with people beyond our small geographic region.

Throughout his forward he encourages us to look first inward and understand ourselves and become someone that we can and want to be friends with. After reflecting on ourselves and developing our values, we can align our actions, and begin to develop true relationships based not on proximity, but on values. The trouble, explains Fields Millburn, with the proximity approach to friends and relationships is that we can’t always find people at work or in our neighborhoods who share the same values that we do. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to have the same values, but associating and living with people who don’t share your values in some way puts your actions and habits at odds with the values that you wish to live by. Striving beyond our local constraints to meet people who share our values and focus their lives to advance those values will give us a positive model and sounding board for our own lives, even if they are distant from us physically.

When I first returned to this quote I worried that seeking out people beyond our proximal friends who shared our same values would contribute to the already evident problem of information bubbles that we see across the country. Many people become isolated their media and information streams to only view that which they agree with or that which supports their prior beliefs. But what Fields Millburn explains is that it should be our values, and not our beliefs that align with the people with whom we associate. On a deep level we should make sure that our lives, goals, desires, and actions are in some ways connected with positive values, and we should expect that our beliefs built on top of those values will vary.

At one point, Fields Millburn specifically addresses the idea of bubbles and is critical of the isolationist bubbles that many people live in when restricting their friendships to spatially close people. Looking beyond those people who are immediately present in our lives will allow us to expand beyond the bubble that we live within.

Why We Work

According to Bob Berg in his book The Go Giver there are three basic reasons that we work. In his story laid out in The Go Giver he introduces us to the three reasons by having his protagonist speak to one of his mentors about success, motivation, and drive.  Prindar, the mentor of the story guiding our protagonist Joe, explains his idea behind the three terms, survive, save, and serve. “They are the three universal reasons for working. Survive—to meet your basic living needs. Save—to go beyond your basic needs and expand your life. And serve—to make a contribution to the world around you.”

 

I find this quote to be interesting because it hits our most basic motivation or need to work. It also helps us see exactly why we are working and gives us a chance to truly consider why we are striving as hard as we are, and what we are driving toward.  If we have an idea of success that does not line up with one of the three basic reasons for working, then we may not be enjoying what we are doing, and we may not be bringing our best self to what we are doing.

 

One of the first thoughts I had was about survival.  If we are working to survive then we should ask ourselves just how much of what we have and think of as necessities we could do without.  Perhaps we are working hard and pushing ourselves and feeling as though we are just getting by, but we are living with far more things and luxuries than what we truly need just to survive.  In this sense a minimalist approach to life may help us enjoy what we do and reduce how much we need to work to maintain what we need to survive, all the while boosting happiness. The Minimalist Podcast produced by Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus focuses on this idea and discusses ways in which we can simplify and better enjoy our lives when we can abandon our focus on material possessions and wealth. I think that their message lines up well with Berg’s ideas about surviving, saving, and serving, and through their life journey the two minimalists are able to explain ways in which serving becomes more valuable than the items which clutter our homes.

 

On the other hand, perhaps when we look at our reasons to work and consider a basic level of survival, we can take a more empathetic view of those around us and those who are in poverty.  When we look at the jobs people do and understand that in many situations they are doing any work possible for survival, then we can approach them and adjust our attitudes to help them in the work they do. This is a big shift for many people, and requires a level of self-awareness that is not easy to attain.  Berg’s philosophy helps us appreciate those who do work that we would abhor as opposed to antagonize them or looking donw on them for the work they do. Ultimately they are as human as we are, and by entering into the jobs they do, they are making sacrifices and making the decisions to help them survive.

 

Berg’s quote also brings up ideas about success and living a lifestyle that one desires.  Perhaps what we are working towards is something larger than what we currently have and a lifestyle that is more comfortable and entertaining. Perhaps we are driving toward a lifestyle where the work we do greatly matters and drives us to make a greater change in the world.  By acknowledging the reason we work, we can better align ourselves with who and what we do. We can also evaluate our desires to make sure that we are moving in a direction that ties in our desires and true selves.  This mindset is crucial if we are to begin to understand what exactly we should desire or expect in our lifestyle. Ultimately, viewing life and our work from the perspective of survive, save, and serve helps us build more self awareness and alignment into our lives and our daily activities.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.