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How to Practice Minimalism

An Interview with Joshua Becker

Over the last month, I’ve been interviewing amazing bloggers about simple living, location independence, financial freedom and more. Every Thursday, a feature interview is posted on RowdyKittens. Last week, I spoke with Naomi Seldin of Simpler Living. This week the feature interview is with Joshua Becker from Becoming Minimalist.

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Tammy: Your book, Simplify: 7 Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter their Home and Life, was really inspiring. Can you tell us about the book and why you decided to write it?

Joshua: Thanks for the kind words. When I sat down to write Simplify, my goal was to make the principles of minimalism “attractive to the masses.” Two years ago, we were just a typical family of four living in the suburbs trying to raise our family as best we knew how. When we stumbled onto the minimalist life through a short conversation with our neighbor, we immediately embraced the idea and began removing things from our home. We have found so much freedom and joy in this lifestyle that we desperately desired to inspire others to do the same. Simplify is a compilation of the most important lessons we learned during the process.

Tammy: In Simplify you talk about “rational minimalism.” Can you tell us about the concept?

Joshua: I have always made a point to remind people that their practice of minimalism is going to look different from others. Minimalism is not a word that needs to conjure up images of bare walls, handmade clothing, or living with less than 100 things. Instead, minimalism should be entered into strategically after identifying your values and the items necessary to live them out.  Rational Minimalism is a phrase that I coined simply to help people realize that truth about minimalism. The word rational simply means “thought through, to use your mind.” It seems to take the edge off of minimalism for most people. And the concept has really taken off.

Tammy: Do you think the economic downturn has changed the way people view consumption?

Joshua: Absolutely. When your economics change and the paycheck stops coming every two weeks, you are forced to reevaluate what is important in your life. You begin to buy only the things that are truly necessary. But unfortunately, that motivation for minimalism and consumption quickly ends when the paycheck starts coming in again. For that reason, some of the other factors that lead people to embrace minimalism (such as concern for the environment, response to growing complexity of life, or a return to focus on people rather than things) will have far more staying-power than a cyclical economy.

Tammy: I loved your post “Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids.” It reminded me of the holiday season and the onslaught of gifts my nieces and nephews receive. I know you have children and I’m wondering how you handle the holiday season and birthdays?

Joshua: That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked it. My wife and I had to make a decision following our first holiday season after becoming minimalist. It quickly became apparent that our extended families did not understand our lifestyle. At that point, we wisely decided that taking away our extended family’s opportunity to give gifts would rob them of a chance to communicate love to our children. We didn’t want that. So, we didn’t ask them to stop. Instead, we decided to work hard at crafting gift lists to hand out to the relatives for them to use when buying presents – and putting only items that our children need on the list. So far it has seemed to work pretty well (not perfect, but well).

Tammy: What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your minimalist journey? And how did you overcome it?

Joshua: As I briefly alluded to in the previous question, our biggest challenge surfaced following the first holiday season after deciding to become minimalist. After countless gifts to our children from extended family (and us), our house was full of new toys, new clothes, boxes, and gift wrap. It literally felt like all of our hard work was wasted and the new lifestyle was going to be difficult for a family of four. It actually took a month or two for my wife and I to pick ourselves back up, redetermine that we were committed to the minimalist lifestyle, and begin purging items again.

Tammy: What books are you always telling people to read?

Joshua: I’ll go a bit off the beaten-path with this one. Even though I don’t agree with what certain people have chosen to do with his words, I really enjoy reading the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s unfortunate that so many people have twisted his teachings for their own personal gain. Jesus was a man who led the ultimate minimalist, simple life. He seemed to live his entire life unified in his desire to give himself to other people. I have always found his teachings challenging. And enjoy encouraging others to read it too.

Tammy: Everyone has unique skills; skills that I call superpowers. What is your superpower(s)?

Joshua: I have always been an optimist and strong encourager. I love seeing the good in other people (I thank my dad for that quality, by the way). Generally speaking, I believe that people can accomplish whatever they set their hearts and minds towards and enjoy helping them believe in themselves.

Tammy: Take a minute to promote your blog. What makes it different than the others?

Joshua: Wow, thanks for the opportunity to promote Becoming Minimalist. There are two things that people seem to like about the site. First, the approach to minimalism is always presented from a family perspective. It offers the principles in a way that makes minimalism accessible to families. They can readily relate to the ideas being offered. Secondly, it offers an approach to minimalism that includes the entire person: body, mind, and heart. It regularly tackles heart issues such as contentment, jealousy, honesty, and forgiveness. It realizes that minimalism is not just about the possessions on the outside, it is also about the heart issues on the inside.

Note: The link to Joshua’s book is an affiliate link. If you decide to purchase the book, you’ll be supporting RowdyKittens and Becoming Minimalist.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jarkko Laine May 20, 2010, 5:21 am

    Great interview! I don’t know how you do it, Tammy, but you managed to ask exactly the questions I needed to hear answered.

    I’m half way through reading Joshua’s book, and the question about rational minimalism is bothering me quite a bit: On one hand it fits my life situation perfectly (two kids, live in suburbia…), but at the same time there is a part of me that shouts for a more definitive definition or goal for minimalism.

    Joshua, if you’re reading this, I wonder if you ever think that rational minimalism is just a way to say that you can live just like before while calling it minimalism? I know you have changed your life a lot and minimalism of this kind has been great for you, but when looking for what minimalism means for me, this thought keeps bothering me… I think Everett Bogue talked about it in his post about finding the edge; in a way, I guess rational minimalism can be a way to define what that minimalist edge is, but it can also be a way to avoid jumping in 100%. In a way, I’m curious if being a “rational minimalist” means missing out on some of the finest parts of minimalism.

    Another question that struck the chord with me was the one about gifts. My older son just turned three, and my wife and I have been thinking a lot about gifts. It seems every year they pile up (if that happens already now, I can’t imagine life in five or ten years from now!) and the worst part: many of them are discarded soon after receiving. But it’s also great that you bring up the other side of the story, and what giving the gifts mean to the givers as well. So, your gift list idea sounds worth trying!

    Thanks for the interview, great to see two fine bloggers chat about important topics!

    • Tammy May 20, 2010, 6:18 am

      @Jerkko – thanks for reading! I’m so happy you found the interview helpful. 🙂

    • Jeffrey Tang May 20, 2010, 11:35 am

      I don’t claim to speak for Joshua on the topic of rational minimalism, but here’s my personal take: minimalism is what you make of it – and not in the trite, everything’s-relative sense. What I mean is, I don’t believe that you have to have fewer than X possessions to “legitimately” call yourself a minimalist. It’s not a race against anyone.

      Yes, I think some people might take the rational minimalism idea as an excuse to adopt the minimalist label without really changing much in their lives. But that’s a personal decision; all each of us can do is be honest with ourselves. You know, deep down, whether you’re genuinely committed to simplifying your life or not. It’s not really my place to tell you what you “must” do to become a minimalist.

      When you ask about jumping in 100%, what does that mean? Minimalism isn’t a religion; there’s no central governing authority. It’s just a philosophy of life that individual people choose to apply – or not. And people can approach minimalism from different angles. For me, the most important thing to simplify was the way I worked, followed by my digital clutter. Removing physical clutter came later. For someone else, the order might be completely different, which is okay too.

      I think what you may be looking for is the push to go beyond your comfort zone. Ultimately, that’s also a matter of choice. You can push yourself – or you can put yourself in a position to be pushed. You can choose to read about how other people are applying minimalist principles to their lives. You can choose to associate with people who value simplicity. You can set ambitious goals for yourself. And, in the same way, you can choose whether or not to call yourself a minimalist. It is, after all, just a word. What matters is how your life reflects the words you’ve chosen to describe yourself.

      • Jarkko Laine May 20, 2010, 11:56 am

        That’s a really good answer, Jeffrey.

        You’re absolutely right in saying that it’s not a race against anyone else, and no, I don’t think minimalism should be a religion either. I guess my concern is pretty much about what I want from minimalism personally, and like you say, pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.

        This idea of rational minimalism feels a bit like the comfortable version of minimalism and while it’s definitely a great first step, it leaves me wondering if advocating that kind of minimalism will keep people from experiencing something awesome that comes from pushing deeper into a more ambitious kind of simplicity.

        I don’t know, and it could well be that Joshua’s “teaching” about rational minimalism is exactly the right thing to do as it will bring a broader audience to a certain level of minimalism from where the more ambitious ones will continue to whatever next step feels right to them.

        • joshua becker May 20, 2010, 12:23 pm

          @Jarkko Laine – Sorry to be a little slow on the gun here.

          In response to your specific question, “I wonder if you ever think that rational minimalism is just a way to say that you can live just like before while calling it minimalism?” The short answer is “No.” Rational minimalism is not the same as the life that I lived before. It is exactly the opposite. The pursuit of minimalism is based in an intentional desire to remove nonessentials from life… that is completely counter-cultural from the lifestyle most people (including myself) are living. Most are living to possess more and more, not less and less.

          But the deeper response to your comment goes a bit further than the specific question and gets to the very definition of minimalism. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out already, there is no concrete definition of minimalism. You even alluded to it in your initial comment as you are “seeking for a more definitive definition.” I don’t think you will ever find one outside of yourself. Minimalist movements in all walks of life (art, music, poetry) are always subject to the creator. But they are consistent in motivation… remove nonessentials so that the most important pieces of your art (and life) can shine brighter.

          Also, you are right, minimalism is a moving target. You reach one edge and notice another edge not too far away. It’s always a process. But, I do not think the term “rational minimalism” discourages people from jumping in with both feet. Instead, I think it communicates that the water is warm…

  • Naomi Seldin May 20, 2010, 6:22 am

    Great interview.

    Joshua’s approach to minimalism is one of the things I like most about his blog. His philosophy is encouraging, and it acknowledges that people come from all walks of life and take different approaches to downsizing depending on their circumstances.

  • finallygettingtoeven.com May 21, 2010, 2:05 am

    Having just embraced this lifestyle the past few years myself, i am still quite new to the learning process.
    I liken it to a toddler just learning to walk. We may take a few steps, stagger, and then fall, but as long as we get back up and keep trying we will eventually learn to walk, one day making it all the way across the room.

    When you have already lived a good portion of your life in one manner it is not as simple as turning off a switch. Change takes time, it is an evolving process, one you take one day at a time and work towards your goals. As you begin to walk the walk & talk the talk things begin to more magically fall into place. Things you did or did not do in the beginning may become of less or more importance as your thought process changes.

    You must learn, but mostly you must still be able to live. After all if you are not comfortable in your own skin, how can anyone else around you be either. This is not a race, and the only one keeping score should be yourself.

  • Jarkko Laine May 21, 2010, 2:13 am

    Ran out of reply levels, so I’m continuing here 🙂

    @Joshua Becker: Thanks for taking my question seriously and leaving such a thoughtful comment! I love how you close it with “I think it communicates that the water is warm…” 🙂 That’s cool, and I think Naomi Seldin’s comment above confirms that it’s exactly the message you manage to pass to your readers through your blog.

    Rational minimalism together with the more extreme minimalism advocated by for example Everett Bogue create a nice spectrum of different ways of living with less: You show that it’s possible and lead us through the very important, more easily accessible steps, whereas Everett continues to challenge us to move even further away from our comfort zones. Both are important, and in the end we all share the goal of living a better life by eliminating the unessentials.

    • Joshua Becker May 21, 2010, 5:32 am

      I agree with that assessment for the most part. “More extreme” is probably an acceptable word choice.

      But I would add that Everett and I have always had different goals for our minimalism. Everett’s clearly stated goal is to be able to live and work from anywhere – thus, his desire to keep his belongings in a backpack and his occupation on-line. That has never been by goal. My goal has been to become a better father, a better community-member, better at my job, and focus more on the relationships in my life (which includes entertaining others in my home). Because of our differing goals (read “values”), Everett’s brand of minimalism would not add the same value to my life as it does to his.

      Thanks for the conversation, Jarkko. Writing is so good for the mind, isn’t it?

  • Michele Nicholls May 21, 2010, 3:24 am

    I think the comments are almost more interesting than the (excellent) original interview! Howevr, i do think it’s a shame that no one has acknowledged Joshua’s choice of reading – in an era where people are seeking a spiritual aspect to life and even trying to turm minimalism into a kind of religion, I think it’s valid to point out that all the great spiritual teachers, from Buddha & Confucious right through to Mohammed, are all minimalist in their own lives and teachings – once you get away from their disciples, who always interpret things to their own benefit! Personally, I’m fond of Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet, Sand & Foam etc) who encourages you to be ruthlessly honest with yourself – as does Jesus of Nazareth, and that, surely, is the secret to the benefit of minimalism?

    • Joshua Becker May 21, 2010, 5:35 am

      Minimalism is not new that’s for sure. It is no coincidence that the greatest spiritual thinkers of all-time had little attachment to the things of the world.

  • Allen August 12, 2010, 7:09 am

    I grew up always getting everything I wanted and never realized that my perception of material possessions was awfully skewed. I spent 2 years living in Cambodia before going to college and those 2 years changed my life forever. The people there had little more than the clothes on their back, but I was always in awe at how happy they were. For the past 6 years since I’ve returned to the States, it has been a constant battle to fight the culture that surrounds me. I’ve become my old self again and it has only added more stress. My wife and I have talked for months now of moving to southeast Asia and simplifying our lives.

    Today I stumbled upon several blogs with the minimalist philosphy and could not help but get emotional as I read of so many others who have changed their lives and the blessings and benefits that have come from it. I live and work in downtown Chicago, I work at a job that requires 60-70 hours a week from me so I can afford my current lifestyle and save for the bigger house in the suburbs. However, reading more on minimalism brings me back to the life and joy I had while living in Cambodia.

    Thank you all for your inspring words, it’s what I’ve really needed to make the change in my life.

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