My journey with minimalism started the day I began packing for college. As I was extracting myself from my overstuffed walk in closest, flip phone lost amidst the clothes I never wore and macaroni art that six year old me was sure was ready for the Louvre, I came to a shocking realization – I had too much stuff. There was no way in hell that this crap would fit in half of the shoe box sized dorm I was headed to, so I began to downsize. I started the all consuming work of sifting through my possessions to figure out what I actually used, what I occasionally enjoyed, and what had been slowly moulding at the bottom of my flower adorned drawers for the past five years. What I started that day never really stopped, and, as I grew as a person and learned about the pressure my Forever 21 habit was placing on our global environment, I began to change. See, minimalism isn’t a one off attempt at Marie Kondo-ing your life (though less clutter is a joyous side effect), but rather a long, iterative process that will change throughout your life based on your needs, because if there is one thing I know it is that nothing in this life is certain except change.
In college, I was not perfect. My minimalism was still served with a side of fast fashion courtesy of my minimal budget and maximal social insecurities that made me hate standing out (oh how I am glad this is no longer the case), but I was getting better. A huge contributor to this slow, steady decrease of stuff in my life was the fact that I moved every year. They weren’t huge moves, often just across the tiny town that was Davis, CA, but they still required me to put all my stuff in boxes, lug it into someone else’s car, and move it. Turns out the requirement to actually move all your stuff every year is brilliant encouragement towards minimalism, because soon, every September, I was re-assessing my stuff and answering the question: do I use this enough to be bothered packing and moving it? More often than not the answer was no and the more I did it, the more I moved, the more I realized I didn’t miss most of the stuff I relinquished to thrift stores.
By the time I finished college, my personal possessions were at an all time low and I was itching to get out into the world, to maximize the freedom of time that I finally had in what was supposed to be a single gap year between undergrad and graduate school. My minimalism had taken on ideological underpinnings rather than just practicality and I was ready to embrace the world, backpack in hand, so I set out for Europe. Given this was my first foray into longer term international travel, I made a lot of mistakes: one) I just moved too damn much and got tired (note to all future nomads – give yourself at least three nights in a place, preferably more) and two) I wasn’t great at packing yet. I was still lugging around impractical shoes, but the need to carry all my stuff on my back really sped up my journey towards minimalism and by 2017 I was getting very comfortable living out of a backpack. The three years post college graduation taught me that less stuff equals more freedom and, by the time I was moving to Australia permanently in September 2018, I had whittled my possessions down to comfortably fit in the two 23 kg/ 50 lb luggage limits of international air travel pre-COVID (now most airlines have shrunk this free allowance to one bag to recoup the costs of no flying for two years). I was feeling pretty good, my minimalism street cred was high and I was living my goal.
Then I got a job. It is shocking how quickly you gather stuff when you stay in one place for a few years and even with Kane and I’s environmentally focused stinginess on buying new stuff, our possessions still began to pile up. Yes, we only had a small two bedroom, one bathroom house, but now that we were working full time and living in Geraldton, Western Australia, we needed and wanted more stuff. We wanted the 4×4 adventure car to take advantage of the amazing camping that is in northwestern Australia, we needed pots and pans and all the basic house things to live, and occasionally I would fall in love with a beautiful dress in a shop window…and now I had a place to put that dress. So, despite trying very hard to limit our spending (we were saving hardcore for the sailboat dream that we are currently working on realizing) we still managed to collect stuff. Yes, we bought most of it second hand to limit the effect on the environment and our wallets (we managed to furnish our rental house for only $2,000 AUD), but, when it came time to leave for the boat three years later there was so much stuff! It took us a solid month of selling things on Facebook, donating, cleaning, listing things on Buy Nothing, to reduce our stuff down to what would fit in our car to drive to Perth…and that was just the beginning.
Cue the mad rush of the week we had in Perth before flying back to the US to surprise my family for Thanksgiving (after not seeing them since 2019 due to COVID border restrictions) and I was rubbing my head thinking, “How the hell did this happen? I thought we were minimalists.” Well, surprise, surprise, we are not perfect and as our space increased from two backpacks to two bedrooms, our consumption increased to fill the space, hence my goldfish theory. See, goldfish grow to fit their tank, the bigger tank you put a goldfish in, the bigger your goldfish will grow*. I’ve begun to think that humans are something like goldfish and that, even with the best of intentions, if you give us space, we will fill it. Some are more intentional than others about fighting this magpie-esque urge to collect, to gather, to horde; but, I think, to a degree, that this urge is within us all. This is why minimalism is so important. Minimalism helps us to curb that monkey-mind urge to consume for the sake of consuming and encourages us, through mindful awareness, to be conscious of our consumption, not only for the sake of our planet, but also for our mental health (there is truth to the old ‘clear desk, clear mind’ adage).
So, after my space had grown, so too had my stuff, and as I was back on the road, back to adventures, I needed to cull my stuff yet again. I would like to say that it was easier this time around, after all I’d given up fast fashion years ago and now all the things in my closest were either sustainably produced items or second hand, but it wasn’t. It was still hard to break the ‘oh but what if I need it one day?’ thought that is so good at trapping us in our ever expanding closets. In the end, I did what I began to do all those years ago when I started packing for college, I thought, have I worn this in the past year? If the answer was no, off it went. In good news, I am not back at square one and I am happy to say that my consumption is well down from what it was in my college and pre-college days (I’ve been tracking our spending since 2018 to know exactly what we spend money on so I could find places to cut for the boat savings). I now consider my purchases for months, research the best options, and only buy things that bring me joy and are necessary (okay sometimes I fail at this, but hey, like I said, no one is perfect). However, I have learned that minimalism isn’t an end point, it is a process with ups and downs and sideways. The key is to commit to the process and to embrace the goal of living, and consuming, intentionally, because once something becomes a conscious process everything gets easier.
If you are interested in stepping into living a more intentional life in line with the principles of minimalism, definitely start by downsizing where you can (I’d suggest doing this yearly for maximum effectiveness), reading up on the ideology, and look into the environmental impacts of run away consumerism. You won’t be perfectly minimalist and that’s okay. Maybe you want to actually be able to find stuff in your closet, but you’re not keen on Buddhism, that’s fine and I’d suggest starting with Marie Kondo. Maybe you are heading off on your first international trip in a long while and just getting used to living with less, that’s fine too. Maybe all that you own fits in a backpack and you only have two pairs of shoes…okay if that’s you, then you probably don’t need to read this article. My point is there is an entry point for everyone to live a more intentional life and that embracing the changing needs of our lives is kind of the point of minimalism, to consume only what you need, when you need it. On that note, I’m going to go stare at my closet to try to cull some more, because we will be moving aboard a weight sensitive vessel in the near future (you can ruin a catamaran’s performance by overloading it). Happy tidying.
*this urban myth has some truth to it, but for the sake of my argument, let’s stick with the semi-true myth, if you want reality head here
3 thoughts on “The Goldfish Dilemma: The Challenge of Minimalism”
I saw your parents the other day, and they told me you found a boat! I’m thrilled for you!
Hi Charlotte, we hope so, it’s not finalized yet, still need to do survey and sea trial, but once it all goes through I’ll definitely post about it. We are very excited.
I loved your article. As is the case for most parents, we still have “a few things” of yours in our house 😊