Extreme change is easier

This last week I ran across a TED video about a couple who had a house full of stuff and $18,000 in debt. They sold all their stuff except what could fit in a couple bags and went backpacking in Australia.

Good for them for having the courage to make a big change. I am impressed, but I’d be more impressed if they had sold their new home and moved into another one 20 years older and half the size.

It’s easier to get rid of all your stuff than half your stuff. If you get rid of all your stuff, you’re deciding to hire other people to meet your needs. You can get rid of your house if you’re willing to rent your shelter from hotels. You can get rid of your pots and pans if you’re willing to pay restaurants to prepare your food with their pots and pans. You can get rid of your car if you’re willing to pay a cab driver to take you everywhere you need to go. Moving into a smaller home, with fewer pots and pans, and selling one of your two cars may be harder.

I don’t know whether these folks are still living as tourists. But if they haven’t bought another house yet, they probably will some day, though maybe one much smaller than their first house. The sequence

large house -> no house -> small house

may be easier than

large house -> small house.

Extreme change is often easier than moderate change, for better or for worse. Extreme change can be more impressive, so people who sell everything get invited to talk at TED, whereas people who cut their living expenses by 20% and slowly pay off their debts get 30 seconds on the Dave Ramsey Show. People who sacrifice to achieve their goals slowly while maintaining their responsibilities are less impressive at first glance, but more impressive after more thought.

Extreme change can also be temporary. Lottery winners go bankrupt. People on starvation diets end up heavier than ever. One extreme change can lead to another extreme change in the opposite direction.

However, you can also use the ease of extreme change to your advantage. The book Change or Die is all about making extreme changes wisely. (The book grew out of this article.) Radical change requires fewer decisions, and leads to encouraging results sooner. Along those lines, I love the story of Eric Coyle, a mediocre student who suddenly became extremely motivated and took up to 64 credit hours in a semester.

Related posts

Post minimalism

I’m suspicious of terms that start with “post-“. Often these terms are pretentious and inaccurate. When someone says, for example, that we’ve moved into a post-X era, they often mean that they didn’t like X and would like to think it’s gone.

Despite my misgivings about post-this and post-that, I smiled the other day when I heard some music described as “post-minimalist chamber music.” What I like about it is the idea of pursuing things to their most basic elements, then backing off a bit. Minimalist music drives me crazy after a while, but minimalist-inspired music with a little more variety can be pleasant to listen to.

In general, minimalism tends to be harsh. For example, minimalist architecture can be stark and cold. But not-quite-so-minimal architecture, spare but humane, can be beautiful. You could say the same of minimalism as a lifestyle. Taken to extremes, it’s ugly. But a more moderate and graceful form of minimalism is beautiful.

More posts on moderating minimalism

Appropriate scale

“Scale” became a popular buzz word a couple decades ago. Suddenly everyone was talking about how things scale. At first the term was used to describe how software behaved as problems became larger or smaller. Then the term became more widely used to describe how businesses and other things handle growth.

Now when people say something “won’t scale” they mean that it won’t perform well as things get larger. “Scale” most often means “scale up.” But years ago the usage was more symmetric. For example, someone might have said that a software package didn’t scale well because it took too long to solve small problems, too long relative to the problem size. We seldom use “scale” to discuss scaling down, except possibly in the context of moving something to smaller electronic devices.

This asymmetric view of scaling can be harmful. For example, little companies model themselves after big companies because they hope to scale (up). But running a small software business, for example, as a Microsoft in miniature is absurd. A small company’s procedures might not scale up well, but neither do a large company’s procedures scale down well.

I’ve been interested in the idea of appropriate scale lately, both professionally and personally.

I’ve realized that some of the software I’ve been using scales in a way that I don’t need it to scale. These applications scale up to handle problems I don’t have, but they’re overly complex for addressing the problems I do have. They scale up, but they don’t scale down. Or maybe they don’t scale up in the way I need them to.

I’m learning to make better use of fewer tools. This quote from Hugh MacLeod suggests that other people may come to the same point as they gain experience.

Actually, as the artist gets more into her thing, and gets more successful, the number of tools tends to go down.

On a more personal level, I think that much frustration in life comes from living at an inappropriate scale. Minimalism is gaining attention because minimalists are saying “Scale down!” while the rest of our culture is saying “Scale up!” Minimalists provide a valuable counterweight, but they can be a bit extreme. As Milton Glaser pointed out, less isn’t more, just enough is more. Instead of simply scaling up or down, we should find an appropriate scale.

How do you determine an appropriate scale? The following suggestion from Andrew Kern is a good starting point:

There is an appropriate scale to every human activity and it is the scale of personal responsibility.

Update: See the follow-up post Arrogant ignorance.

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Two contrasting articles on minimalism

This morning I ran across a couple articles on minimalism:

The former has a sense of humor; the latter does not. The former contains thoughtful criticism; the latter is a knee-jerk reaction. The former makes an interesting argument; the latter quibbles about definitions.

The former article is by Vivek Haldar. I cannot tell who wrote the latter.

Here’s an excerpt from Haldar’s article:

The zenith … is a calm geek, sitting in a bare room with a desk upon which sits only a MacBook Air, his backpack of possessions on one side, the broadband Internet cable available but unplugged, fingers ready to type into the empty white screen of a minimalist editor.

I think that’s pretty funny. And I would hope that minimalists would be able to get a chuckle out of it.

But Haldar does not just lampoon hipster minimalism. He argues that you need periods of stimulation and clutter to be creative. He also argues that minimalism has its place.

Now I agree with most of the premises of the minimalists … My gripe is with the way they sell it as a way of life. It’s much more valuable as a periodic phase of life.

Minimalism cannot be a long-term strategy, but it makes an excellent short-term tactic.

The second article essentially argues that Haldar has the definition of minimalism wrong.

Minimalism, at its core, is the process of prioritizing your life and working towards concrete goals without giving in to distraction. … Like any school of thought with a certain critical mass, there is dissent and corruption among the ranks.

Who can find fault with prioritizing your life, working toward concrete goals, and avoiding distraction? And who wants to defend corruption? But this is just quibbling about definitions. By contrast, Haldar makes an argument independent of such a definition. Haldar argues that a certain set of attitudes and behaviors — however you want to label them — are not conducive to sustained creativity.

Here are some ideas I threw out a while ago on defining minimalism.

“Minimal” literally means an extreme. I appreciate moderate minimalists, though strictly speaking “moderate minimalist” is a contradiction in terms. A more accurate but unwieldy name for minimalists might be “people who are keenly aware of the indirect costs of owning stuff.”

… you could define a minimalist as someone who wants to eliminate non-essential possessions … But by that definition, Donald Trump would be a minimalist if he believes everything he owns is essential.

Generic discussions of minimalism are fluff. Haldar’s argument is more substantial because he makes a specific suggestion.

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Maybe you only need it because you have it

Some cities need traffic lights because they have traffic lights. If one traffic light goes out, it causes a traffic jam. But sometimes when all traffic lights go out, say due to a storm, traffic flows better than before.

Some buildings need air conditioning because they have air conditioning. Because they were designed to be air conditioned, they have no natural ventilation and would be miserable to inhabit without air conditioning.

Some people need to work because they work. A family may find that their second income is going entirely to expenses that would go away if one person stayed home.

It’s hard to tell when you’ve gotten into a situation where you need something because you have it. I knew someone that worked for a company that sold expensive software development tools. He said that one of the best perks of his job was that he could buy these tools at a deep discount. But he didn’t realize that without his job, he wouldn’t need these tools! He wasn’t using them to develop software. He was only using them so he could demonstrate and sell them.

It may be even harder for an organization to realize it has been caught in a cascade of needs. Suppose a useless project adds staff. These staff need to be managed, so they hire a manager. Then they hire people for IT, accounting, marketing, etc. Eventually they have their own building. This building needs security, maintenance, and housekeeping. No one questions the need for the security guard, but the guard would not have been necessary without the original useless project.

When something seems absolutely necessary, maybe it’s only necessary because of something else that isn’t necessary.

Related post: Defining minimalism

Defining minimalism

I stirred up some controversy yesterday with an article critical of extreme minimalism. Some people took my article as an attack on minimalism in general. I wanted to clarify a few thoughts on minimalism.

I’m attracted to the general idea of minimalism, though I don’t like the name. “Minimal” literally means an extreme. I appreciate moderate minimalists, though strictly speaking “moderate minimalist” is a contradiction in terms. A more accurate but unwieldy name for minimalists might be “people who are keenly aware of the indirect costs of owning stuff.” Possessions have to be dusted, oiled, upgraded, insured, etc. Eliminating unnecessary things frees up physical and mental space.

Minimalists want to pare down their possessions to a minimum. But an absolute minimum would be to own nothing. Instead, minimalists want to eliminate non-essentials. So you could define a minimalist as someone who wants to eliminate non-essential possessions (or more generally non-essential intangibles as well). But by that definition, Donald Trump would be a minimalist if he believes everything he owns is essential. The essence of minimalism is an aesthetic for what constitutes “essential.”

One final complaint about the term “minimalism” is that it implies that a minimalist’s goal in life is to minimize possessions. I imagine most people who call themselves minimalists do not want to be obsessed with eliminating stuff any more than they want to be obsessed with acquiring stuff. They just want to think about their stuff less.

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Selfish minimalism

I saw an article the other day about a man who had chosen to get rid of all of his possessions except for a fair amount of computer equipment, a couch, and a few odds and ends.  (I’m not linking to the article because I want this post to be about a hypothetical extreme minimalist rather than the specifics of one person’s story that I know almost nothing about.) For a moment such a lack of possessions seems like a virtuous lack of attachment to material goods. But on second thought it seems incredibly selfish.

This man owns only what he personally wants. He has nothing for the benefit of anyone else. He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down. He has nothing to loan to a neighbor. Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others. I imagine he is able to do without some things because plans to borrow from neighbors or relatives when necessary. Such extreme minimalism would be an interesting exercise, but a sad way to live.

I’m not saying that minimalists are selfish. Minimalism is entirely subjective: each person defines what his or her minimum is. Some take others into consideration when deciding what their minimum should be and some do not. Some even become minimalists in order to have more margin to serve others.

Minimalism becomes ugly when it turns into a more-minimal-than-thou contest.

“Read my blog. I only have 47 things!”

“Buy my book. I have only 39 things!”

“I’ll see your 39 and lower you five!”

In a contest to live with the fewest possessions, one way to get ahead is to jettison anything that only benefits someone else.

Update: See my follow up post clarifying my ideas of minimalism.

Related post: Poverty versus squalor