Less Is More, Q&A with Minimalist Ryan Nicodemus

After getting laid off from his high-powered job, and subsequently realizing how unhappy he’d been in said career, Ryan Nicodemus decided to pack up all of his earthly belongings and then get rid of every non-essential thing that he could. Since doing so, Nicodemus, joined by his friend and partner Joshua Fields Millburne, have decided to share their doctrine of simplification, and, ultimately, the enlightenment it awards.

Calling themselves The Minimalists, Nicodemus and Fields have created a website, podcast, and written a number of books all dedicated towards helping others follow in their footsteps to live a simpler and happier life. Last year, the two released a documentary called “Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things,” which details their 2015 road trip in which they spoke to minimalists from all walks of life—entrepreneurs, families, artists, and even a former Wall Street broker.

Nicodemus joined BTRtoday for a conversation about the impetus for changing his life, and how others can implement a minimalist philosophy into their daily lives.

BTRtoday (BTR): You started pursuing a minimalist lifestyle about seven years ago, after you lost your job as a CEO. Do you think that the power of loss can be one of the necessary ingredients to fuel a shift in perspective?

Ryan Nickademus (RN): Yes, certainly. I think when anyone is trying to make a major change in their life, any radical change of state that happens–whether that happens unintentionally or not…for me, I changed my state by having a packing party. I literally packed all my stuff up and unpacked it day by day as I needed it. I think that something tragic happening can be a catalyst for major change in life, but I don’t think that it has to be a travesty in order for someone to make some major changes with their own life.

BTR: What were some of the most immediate changes that you noticed as a result of exploring minimalism?

RN: It was really a matter of me trying to make my priorities really matter. At 27-years-old, if you were to have asked me “Hey, Ryan, what are your priorities?” I would’ve said, “Well, my health obviously, I’ve gotta be healthy to live a good life. My relationships: my mother is important to me, my father is important, my close friends…” I would give these priorities a lot of lip service, but what I quickly realized was that my priorities aren’t what I say I do, my priorities are what I actually do!

When I first realized, “Okay, great! I’m gonna be a minimalist,” I realized I didn’t really know how to begin. So Josh and I came up with this crazy idea where I would pack up all of my belongings as if I were moving, pretending that I was moving, and then I would unpack each item from these well marked boxes over the next three weeks to get an idea of what I was actually using.

At the end of that packing party, I had 80 percent of my stuff still sitting in those boxes. I just remember the first lightbulb moment I had, looking at these tens of thousands of dollars worth of physical possessions, which had gone into my life in order to make me happy, and they weren’t doing their job!

Then I realized, wow, if I had not spent so much money on these things, I wouldn’t have had to have worked those 60, 70, 80 hour work weeks! And then maybe I could actually spend time with my mom, who lived 30 minutes away and I probably saw her six or seven times a year (birthday, major holidays, things like that)–I certainly was able to reclaim my time. That was the biggest reason I jumped into it. It made sense to me. If I didn’t have all of this debt looming over my head, I wouldn’t have to work these long weeks.

Reclaiming my time was a huge benefit I saw right away. Reclaiming my finances, my plan was to get rid of as much debt as I could, and then maybe be a barista and live off of a decent salary, twenty-five grand a year, maybe twenty-two thousand bucks a year. It was not just about throwing about my stuff, it was really about regaining control of my finances as well.

BTR: Was it difficult getting rid of your stuff? Did you feel any emotional reaction to it?

RN: The first emotional thing I can remember is that, when I was done with the packing party, I had invited Josh over to my home to help me put stuff in donation piles. I remember that I probably had about 20 different coffee mugs, and I remember not wanting to get rid of any coffee mugs! I had this feeling of, “Well, if I have six people over I need at least six coffee mugs, and what if a couple of coffee mugs break? I’ll need some backup coffee mugs!” I had this mentality that I really had to fight against. Ultimately, I think I have six coffee cups. I donated the majority of them.

The other one that really hit hard for me, harder than the coffee mugs for sure, was that after the packing party I was going through and putting stuff in piles, and I came across this shoebox that had a bunch of my old high school memories in it. There were some pictures of me and my prom date, there were some letters from my mom that she had written when I was in high school that meant a lot to me. I remember looking at this stuff, which I hadn’t done in years, and thinking, “Well, Ryan, you’re a minimalist now, you’ve got to get rid of this!” So I walked out to the garage, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put that whole box into the trashcan.

What I ended up doing was, I talked myself into taking one step with that shoebox. So I picked one letter that I felt like I could get rid of, and I read it. I’ll tell you something odd: before I read the letter, it totally evoked this emotion, but when I read the letter it did not give me the emotion that I thought I was going to get. That was my first time of realizing that, maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as I was making it out to be. Technically, I still have the letter in the cloud somewhere, but I threw it in the trash. And I said to myself, “Okay, Ryan, if you can’t sleep tonight and you get up tomorrow and you’re tossing and turning all night because you threw out this letter, you can go get it out of the trash if you really want to.”

BTR: Did you miss it?

RN: I didn’t even think about it until I was taking out the trash the following evening. I went to take out the trash and I saw the letter sitting on the top and I realized that it didn’t really affect me as much as I thought it would. So, I actually went and got the shoebox, I scanned a couple of the other letters but the vast majority of stuff that was in that shoebox, I just let it go.

I want to be very clear that minimalism is not about throwing out all of your stuff. Anybody listening to this can certainly go rent a dumpster and throw away every single thing in their home, but then they might just find themselves sulking in an empty home. That’s no good.

For me, it was about really discovering what was important, and to try to help me to curb not just my compulsory consumption, but to curb my hoarding habits that I had.

BTR: Many people might think that minimalism is just about subtraction, paring down what you have. What role do you think balance plays?

RN: Certainly, at 27-years-old, I was a very unbalanced person. I think minimalism helped me to bring balance to my life. To be honest, I just felt like I was in a tornado of stress and work; I was pacifying myself with drugs and alcohol and as much TV as I could possibly consume, late at night or if I had time on the weekends. And there really was no balance. Minimalism helped me to find that balance.

With any philosophy, if you take it to its terminus, or worst-case scenario, it’s a lifestyle with which you could still be out of balance. But what I’ve found with minimalism is especially just asking the question, “Is this going to add value to my life?” before bring in any material possession. Even if I start a new side project, or start a new relationship, asking that question helps me to really find that balance. That’s really what minimalism is about. It’s about getting all of the superfluous stuff out of the way to make room in your life for the things that do add the most value. That serve a purpose or bring you joy.