What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism

My mother grew up in Ireland in the 1950s. She was the 12th of 13 children. Every year, at Easter, her parents would buy her a new dress. That would be her dress for the year. And by that, I mean, that’s what my mother would wear every single day.

She had one outfit.

Earlier this year, I resolved to limit myself to only 100 items of clothing. I read the Marie Kondo book about the magic of tidying up and studied the Zen Habits blog about minimalist habits. I was inspired.

To limit myself to only 100 items of clothing, I had to throw out clothes by the truckload.

This made me think of myself, for a brief moment, as a minimalist. As if owning only 100 items of clothing were somehow an act of tremendous restraint.

That’s ridiculous.

Last year, in Nicaragua, I stayed at a small hotel for a week. It was a beautiful place, right on the beach, so close to the ocean that a couple of nights I dreamt I was drowning.

There were four locals who worked at the hotel. For the week we were there, I noticed that each of the staff wore the same clothes every day. They didn’t wear a uniform for their jobs – they wore their own clothes. And every day they wore the same thing.

Most likely, as with my mother growing up, they only had one thing to wear.

The median world household income is less than $10,000 a year. For most of the world’s population, the principal struggle isn’t to limit the number of material possessions.

If you have choices about what you wear, you are lucky. If you have to get rid of many possessions to access your most valuable possessions, you are still a long way from anything that could be accurately described as a minimal lifestyle.

When those of us who make more than $10,000 a year talk about “minimalism,” the only thing we are minimizing is our addiction to needless consumption.

We’re fat people on a diet.

But that’s not the same thing as being skinny.