This article was originally published in the November 16, 2012 edition of “The Dallas Morning News”.
A few months ago, I was soaking up atmosphere at one of my favorite outdoor cafes in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque colonial mountain town in southern Mexico. There I met Frank. He was about my age, mid-50s, and was using his precious vacation time to explore the magnificent state of Chiapas. We began talking the way that travelers do, and what unraveled was a story very familiar to me.
Back in the United States, Frank and his wife were living the prototypical American Dream. They had good jobs, a house in the suburbs, a couple of cars, a country club membership and myriad possessions accumulated over the years. They lived comfortable, quiet lives, but they were not challenged. They lamented that most of their time was consumed by work, things associated with work and working to pay off things they bought to distract themselves from the reality of that endless circle. They were approaching retirement age but believed retirement was out of reach.
My Pre-Retirement Life
A few years earlier I, too, was living a life very similar to Frank’s. Busy days, a long commute, a country club membership I was too tired to use, boats I was too tired to take out and friends I was too busy to see. Yes, I was making money, but I was spending it as fast as it was coming in — mostly on things I didn’t need and entertainment designed to distract me from how busy I was. It was comfortable in a mind-numbing sort of way, convenient and hollow. Somehow, I had never made the connection that, for the most part, I wasn’t working for money to support myself; I was working for money to service my things and the ability to buy other things, ultimately only for the momentary thrill of making a new purchase.
One day, after a particularly horrific commute, I stopped to re-examine. I realized the most rewarding points of my life were the time I spent learning about new places, meeting people of different backgrounds and enjoying moments with friends and the people I loved. I wasn’t at my best when I was sequestered in a comfortable bubble, but rather when I was out on adventures, creating my own entertainment, making my own life. I also realized I was in a lucky position; if I only quit feeding all of my earnings into the insatiable maw of my consumption, I could create the life I imagined, the life I loved, the life I dreamed of.
For most of my life I had been worried about getting more stuff. I worried about maintaining my stuff. Was my stuff properly registered and insured? Was my stuff up to date? Was my stuff cool enough? Did I have enough? Where could I get more? Where could I put it when I got it?
Minimalism Was the Answer
Then one day I asked myself the question: Is all this stuff really what life is all about?
What if I were to get rid of all of this stuff and concentrate on the things that truly made me happy? Could I afford to retire early? It would be a financial stretch, but what if I were to lighten the burden of my possessions? If I concentrated on things that truly mattered, couldn’t I make my goals that much closer?
I crunched some numbers and started to see the possibilities. If I did things right, I would be able to take the early retirement being offered at work — an early retirement I had dreamed of but that always seemed so out of reach.
How I Got Rid of My Stuff
But I had to take the first step: I had to get rid of my stuff. Several months before I turned 50, the purge began. My initial steps were tentative, as I began emptying out storerooms and storage closets. It was hard at first. I found myself attached to some things only because I’d had them so long. I had to let go of projects that I thought one day I would get to. Tools that I would one day repair, old computers that might be useful again, clothes that would never be back in style. Out it all went. It started to feel good.
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I gave notice at work, triggering the next stage of the cleanout — belongings that were important but holding me back from my dreams. My house went on the market. I started shedding furniture and appliances. Next, as my final work days approached, came the utilities and other accounts.
Soon, I was 50 years old and, other than what would fit in my car and a few sentimental items, I had no physical possessions. I expected it to be scary, but in fact it was liberating. I had broken the bonds that shackled my flexibility and kept me from living the life I had imagined. I was free.
There is a Zen proverb that says: “In the end, these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?” and I try to take this wisdom to heart. Without all the noise and distractions of clutter in my life, I would be able to concentrate on relationships with people instead of things. It would be a simple life committed to living well, instead of accumulating possessions. I could, over time, learn to let go, not only of physical things, but past hurts and the frustration of dealing with things I couldn’t change.
Minimalism Opens a Lot of Doors
This newfound liberty wasn’t going to be very valuable if I didn’t do something with it. I was free but without a home. Intellectually, I knew I was a citizen of the world, but other than vacations similar to what Frank was now experiencing, I hadn’t truly tested my limits and lived outside of my comfortable little bubble. That had to change.
Destination: a white sand beach in Mexico. I rented a quiet house on the Caribbean Sea with snorkeling on the reef out front and a beautiful lagoon out back. When the isolation of the beach became too much, I packed my things into the car and moved to the mountains. Because I had nothing tying me down, the move was easy. Because I carefully lived within my means, I could afford it.
Now in the mornings, I wake ready to savor the day instead of wishing for more sleep. Afternoons may be filled with hiking, watching nature or observing the pageantry of life at a sidewalk cafe. I feel busier than ever, but from doing things I love. Entertainment comes from relationships and hobbies, not some box on the wall. I have time to be a friend and give of myself to those in need.
People may say I am crazy, but I have to ask: Why, if time is ultimately our most precious asset, do we spend our days mindlessly filling it with unnecessary burdens that detract from our happiness? Lifting those burdens has made me healthier, happier and more prepared to embrace life as it comes.
There is a freedom that comes from living a life of authenticity, and peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not tethered to your things. I can stay where I want forever or be packed and moving again in just a few hours. Today, I can be relaxing on a beach in Mexico, musing with new people like Frank; tomorrow, I can be traveling across the world to live on a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas. The hardest things to leave are people and relationships — although in these modern times, keeping in touch is simple, immediate and portable.
Minimalism Isn’t For Everyone
I can’t say that living a life contrary to the ordinary is for everyone. I am the first to acknowledge that, while I have worked hard and planned well, I have also been extraordinarily fortunate to enjoy the fruits of those decisions. My health is the best it has been in 30 years, and my family is independent and supportive. I don’t pretend to have answers for anyone but me.
But one thing I am certain of: We cannot buy our way to happiness.
It has become traditional for people to jump into the hamster wheel of endless acquisition without questioning the real purpose. We consume blindly. We ignore what truly makes us happy. We base our self-worth on the popular trappings of success, and then we end up like Frank, with a life spent working and nothing really to show for it. Being mindful of our consumption and minimizing the things that restrict our flexibility would be useful to everyone. For me, cutting through that meant selling all my belongings and beginning the life of a nomad, starting in Mexico. What will it mean for you?