skip to content
Insights from Bart

Minimalism isn't that simple

/ 16 min read

Some nights, lying down with my eyes closed but still unable to sleep, I think about the things that are missing. Putting aside daydreaming about my goals and the future, I just begin to see stuff that I would like to own. Furniture that I would love to see in my apartment. Cool electronic gear living in synergy with my desk. Car; fast, exclusive, techy, straight from the cyberpunk world. Well, it shouldn’t sound like something unreal, stupid, or greedy. All of us like to believe that things are so much better when there is more around us. And because human needs are endless we all play this game by multiplying the things we have. More is better becomes a rule of thumb in assessing the quality of life.

No wonder. Today’s world is designed to drive us towards more. And I don’t think we should be ashamed of it, although the word consumption is sometimes associated with being a slave of the imposed lifestyle. Whatever we like it or not, in Naval Ravikant’s words, the only two ways to coordinate human societies at scale are free markets and physical power. Today’s flow of economy is not something discovered or invented for good or bad reasons. It was shaped over time by human cooperation. And partly, this is why we want to exchange money for stuff as same as information and feelings.

What may worry, however, is being prone to over-consumerism. Addiction to blindly wanting things that other people want. And by thing I do not mean just material stuff, but literally, everything that can be loved or hated, built or destroyed, everything we pursue, and what we would like to be.

Thanks to the spread of the Internet, we became all interconnected. So now we can constantly watch ourselves, see what we have and what we do, and imitate each other. Not being sure about something we really want, today’s lifestyle of our peers or influencers become our tomorrow’s desires. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that if we want and can afford it. But the question that needs to be asked is: Is this copy-paste game a matter of conscious decision or of marketing and designed trends? And what effect might it have in the latter case? Matt Haig, novelist, and journalist from England, in his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, wrote:

“The World is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.” - Matt Haig

This time it doesn’t sound too optimistic I guess. Especially since it is already part of our culture. This is what sets the rhythm of our everyday life and coordinates the way we see the world. Naturally, everyone is more than welcome to contribute to this unrestrained hunger. Often having fashion and influence as arbiters. But if this series of imposed options leads toward confusion or even misery, it’s the perfect time to consider is it still worthwhile. More does not have to be a proxy for fulfilled daily life.

We get what we choose. By engaging in one, we automatically give up the other. It’s a selection game; what is credible, true, valuable, and what should be muted. The focus of our attention and energy has an influence on our life prospects.

I truly believe that these days, the distraction is given by default. And the only way around is to design our freedom. This is where minimalism may come into play.

Starting from the other end

”Less is more” - Mies Van Der Rohe, architect

There are many blogs, Instagram accounts, or YouTube channels from which we can find out what Minimalism as a Lifestyle means. I do not want to duplicate the content available in other sources, so I am quoting a simple and essentially meaningful definition from the blog The Minimalists:

“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution. […] Even though everyone embraces minimalism differently, each path leads to the same place: a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.” - The Minimalists blog

So what can it mean to be a minimalist in a nutshell?

  • lead a simple life;
  • creating a better version of yourself;
  • development of the inner life and collecting rich experiences;
  • assessing life’s priorities and focusing on values;
  • finding purpose for our energy and effort;
  • less stuff and bs;
  • more time, space, freedom.

The principle less is more says that in order to gain, we must paradoxically subtract something. And maybe I am nit-picky here, but that’s kind of a dreamlike and simplistic view. Thinking in terms of nuance and complexity, I wonder if this is all a bit too superficial and idealized? I mean, people like to believe that minimalism is a tool for better living, which initially makes sense. But that’s only half of the story. Because if you need a tool, it also means there is a problem to be solved that exists for a reason. So the question is not just should we opt for Minimalism as a tool for fulfilling our life, but also WHY we even consider this as the solution. According to the rule: if you want to understand something really deeply, learn WHY, so HOW becomes obvious.

When it comes to Minimalism, we cannot fail to mention complexity. Because there is no simplicity without it. How would we know what a simple life is without having a clue about increasing entropy? Not considering that if we don’t do anything, things turn into a mess over time? Let us explore complexity so that simplicity will be the only way.

“As we live and as we are, Simplicity – with a capital “S” – is difficult to comprehend nowadays. We are no longer truly simple. We no longer live in simple terms or places. Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means.” - Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

Before we go any further, I would like to be clear; I do not try to diminish the knowledge and approach of content creators about minimalism. I don’t think they’re missing anything. Rather, I wanted to highlight some kind of systemic reasoning and identify some of today’s modern dilemmas for which Minimalism can be a remedy.

Dream lifestyle out of stock

Minimalism is often considered the path to more freedom. By cleaning up the mess, we gain more time and energy for what is important. As encouraging as it sounds, it is not so comforting when faced with reality. As in: it may make sense if you know exactly your course, but if not, it’s a hyped assumption that is quite reckless. Because what’s not said almost never is that one of the most common forms of freedom is leisure. Using money, social media, political games, and movies marathons as tickets out from pointless and unfulfilling everyday life.

Boredom is the enemy of commitment. If we carry it within us, freedom becomes a double-edged weapon. Instead of contemplation, it introduces decision anarchy. Leisure, procrastination, blind pleasure, and mainstream contribution without any reflection. The world starts to impose what to want. And at the end, the reason we do the same meaningless things over and over is that the immensity of our freedom is mind-blowing. Our ability to make choices has been overburdened. As described in the book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”:

“We are no longer able to make decisions because, for the first time in history, the availability of options began to exceed our ability to make choices. We have lost the ability to distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant. Psychologists call it decision fatigue: the more choices we make, the more decision-making quality suffers.” - Greg McKeown

This effect is amplified by social media. Or rather, by being addicted to them. Because they have been designed so that we cannot take our eyes off them. In the essay “The Information Pathology” the author notes that the applications we use make us gamblers at a slot machine; we don’t know what we’ll get when we look at the screen again. And this hooks us into an unhealthy lottery of worthless information and options.

It’s not so easy to just get rid of these things. To live authentically. To have control over our own decisions and, above all, our unregulated emotions. Constructing good boundaries requires sufficient knowledge of self: who you are, what you want, and what you’re willing or not willing to tolerate.

There is a great essay about working hard where effort towards crucial topics are described as follows; most important problems sit in the center, trivial ones at the edges, focus aiming inwards. I like to think about this as an analogy to setting life priorities. There are things that are valuable, future-proof, and put us on fire located in the very center surrounded by less important at the edges. Some days we will feel like living on the border because of being tired or having fun, but in the long run, we should always aim for the center.

In today’s world, where distraction is the rule, freedom does not exist without boundaries. And these cannot be set without awareness of what we really care about. As Peter Marshall said, may we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right. With restrictions for those noisy externals from the mainstream, ignoring rules that no longer apply to us, we can be aggressive and creative in these quiet internals that makes us alive. Does freedom we want not begin with cold questioning what comes to us even though we have not asked for it?

Things that shape us

If we enter the phrase minimalism in the google search engine and go to the graphic section, what we will see is a collection of photos with a lot of empty space and carefully selected details. Same story with e.g. Instagram or Pinterest. What’s important about this is that in each of these photos, there is at least a small spark of artistry. And in the context of art, it means the use of neutral colors, simple shapes, a lot of negative space, and avoiding anything that is unnecessary. So this content may exaggerate a bit in terms of what minimalism in the lifestyle means, taking the phrase less is more too literally.

One of the more known YouTubers dealing with the subject of minimalism, Matt D’Avella in one of his videos, as the intro he presented a cute and innocent parody of what the life of a minimalist looks like. And this is literally an edge case; seeing minimalism as an extreme - emptiness. Meanwhile, minimalism does not require you to have a minimum amount of things. As the above-mentioned creator on YT points out, the idea is to remove anything that does not bring joy and add value. And in the context of consumerism, the point is just to not get too far. Because still, there are people out there that work hard for making you buy more.

Apart from the joy and personal values that have definitely been recalled rightly, there is one more important element that is crucial; what we own shapes the environment in which we live. And I don’t mean only physical space, but also how it affects us. And yea, it may seem like another superficial statement that tries to play on emotions. The problem, however, is that it is not.

One of the most moving speeches I had the pleasure of hearing in my life is the one prepared by Wilson Miner - When we Build. It deals with how the things that surround us and the products we use shape our world as well as our perception of reality.

”Things we use, things we love, things we carry with us, things we make. […] Every piece of this stuff shapes our environment. It changes how we act, so it also changes how we think. How we see ourselves. How we see the world.” - Wilson Miner

Wilson mainly refers to the products we use that are associated with the world of screens. But in the world of atoms, this relationship between everyday items and our beliefs and behaviors also exists. And without the capacity to wonder where our consumer choices may take us, we are guided by external motives that almost never answer the question Is this 100% for me?. Prestige, fashion, social media, advertising, status, or money have the driving force to falsely convince us of what we really enjoy. How life at a high (appropriate) level should look like. And consequently, as Paul Graham observed, all of that causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

Attractive items work better, they say. Things that are useful, beautiful, and emotionally attract us often matter more than we like to admit. Don Norman in his book “Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things”, says that attractive objects make people feel better and therefore become more creative. It also affects the pleasure of using them making it easier to find solutions to the problems we are facing. Also, some stuff might be like totems to us; they fulfill our personalities and sometimes drive us toward our passions.

”The golden rule: don’t keep anything in your home that you don’t find useful or beautiful.” - Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

The state of life always matches the state of surroundings. Instead of focusing on things and their quantity, we should recognize our relationship with these things. If we don’t, someone else will do it for us.

Playing in your own sandbox

I remember how in the times of elementary school and high school one of the most important things was what other people thought about us. How much we wanted to be liked and recognized. Well, this pursuit of status has shaped us and still has an impact on who we become. Our behaviors and motives change dynamically depending on whether someone is watching and how they react. This applies to both children and adults. However, in the latter case on a larger scale, because adults have access to larger toys and much louder playgrounds. And playing (living) in this global sandbox very often means imitating others.

”We don’t want things; we want to be things.** Human beings are creatures of mimicry. We are evolutionarily supercharged to do one thing better than anyone else: learn by watching and copying others. **And the most important thing we learn is how to want**. As we grow up and live our lives, we watch others and learn what it is we ought to want. Aside from the basics, like food, water, shelter and sex, our desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people. But what is hard-coded into our DNA and hard-wired into our brains is the desire to be; and to belong. **The true root of all desire, Girard and others argue, is never in the objects or the experience we pursue; it’s really about **the other person** from whom we’ve learned to want these things.” - Alex Danco, Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard

You have to reward yourself in life, that’s true. Taking inspiration from others, a sense of contribution, and living in the moment are basic needs, same as eating or sleeping. But sometimes it doesn’t happen as we would like it to. Sometimes we just lack intensity, novelty, something to suspend our attention on. Even so, the need to share and participate with others is the only way to be fulfilled. Not having anything good up our sleeves, as a result of the pressure of learned lust to want, we are forced to share something that makes us look good at least a bit. I have a suspicion that this signaling-based narrative brutally locks us in the present. As it: only here and now matters. In the sense of common maxim; life is short so collect new experiences and live life to the fullest. Well, as promising as it may sound, I believe that there should be more dwelling about becoming rather than being in present. Being is more attractive because it is easier and hotter; but it can sadly take the form of appearances or in extreme cases show-off, losing control over our identity. Becoming is the process of trying to be more in the future. Guided by minimalism, which means having a clue about needs and crafts not followed by outside implications, being in the future might be not so much easier but simpler. Because everyday life is no longer a battlefield where you fight for something that will finally put you on fire and capture your attention for more than a few seconds/hours. Instead, enjoying life as the process rather than snapshots of being, we give more of ourselves by seeing meaning and direction. It may not always be fun, it may cost a lot of effort, but at least we feel awake and alive.

The world is getting bigger every day. It is not about increasing its physical dimensions - of course, it is impossible. This is because more and more things fit into it. From each side, we receive new products, hot information, and behaviors to follow. Minimalism acts as a filter for this noise. Everything that is a mess for you and inside you must disappear. Let less be more.

PS; I think there is a lot more to share about it. Despite the fact that the word Minimalism contains the promise of simplicity and smallness, it is still a book-size topic. But I leave it as it is for now.