Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn have been minimalists for over 10 years now. This means that they strive to value time more than money, and counteract the culturally and socially embedded consumerist idea of being more of a person through spending more to have more. Known simply as The Minimalists since 2010 when they started their own website, they are recognized by millions of people around the globe, have authored three books, made a documentary film, launched a popular podcast, and spoken in detail about the movement they have created at Harvard Business School, Apple and Google, among others.
Their second cinematic endeavour, the documentary The Minimalists: Less Is Now (directed by Matt D’Avella), had its international premiere on 1st January 2021 on Netflix. Nicodemus talked with Dariusz Kuźma about what the film aims to say to everyone who is willing and open enough to listen, and how the very process of trying to clear your mind of the craving for new things can make you a happier person.
Dariusz Kuźma: If you had to sum up everything the minimalism movement is about in one or two sentences, what would they be?
Ryan Nicodemus: I would say that minimalism helps us to get past all of the things we don’t really need, so that we can make room for life’s most important things – which really aren’t things at all. So, minimalism is a way to live a deliberate lifestyle, a more meaningful life.
We do need things in our lives, though. Some people need them more, some a bit less, but everyone needs them. How can we determine which ones are important without procrastinating?
We do need things, obviously. If, all of a sudden, everyone stopped buying things, the economy would crash and the world we live in would probably be a much darker place because of that. The trick is not to be desperate about them, or to spend too much money to buy too much just to have lots to brag about. Like back in 2008, when we had a crisis in the housing market in the US, which carried over throughout the world. That was exactly the result of spending too much. But to answer your question truthfully, there isn’t one answer. You need to find your own answers. When I’m really debating whether or not I need to purchase something, I ask myself different questions. Like: does this thing serve a purpose, or does it bring me joy?
Does that work?
It does for me. I’ll give you an example: my urge to buy the latest iPhone. It’s still there. I wish I could sit here and say: hey, become a minimalist and you’ll never want to upgrade your iPhone again! It doesn’t work that way. All of us have these impulses that drive our consumerist desires. And what we need to do is to decide how to act on them. See, I know perfectly well I could easily talk myself into feeling joy over having a new iPhone. I really could. But I know it would not be the kind of joy I’m looking for. So, I ask myself: Do I have something in my life that does the same exact thing? What does this piece of technology really do for me? I look on the phone and the answer is: an upgraded version won’t do anything more for me than I already have. But that’s just me, there might be someone out there who says he or she needs it for business or something else, that it will add value to their lives. And that’s OK. That’s great. We simply need to learn to come up with ways of being honest with ourselves in answering these sorts of questions. We have to come up with boundaries to be sure that what we bring into our lives is appropriate.
Indeed, but how? Western culture is intoxicated with such consumerist ideas. To the extent that we even raise our children this way, consciously or unconsciously.
If you’re asking me if there is anything we could do to stop the spread of a consumerist lifestyle, or compulsive consumption, then, unfortunately, I don’t think it will ever be possible. Minimalism isn’t necessarily an answer to that, either. It’s not the be-all and end-all movement some think it seeks to be. What it can be, however, is a tool for someone to make better informed decisions. Again, it’s not that if you read our book you’ll never have these urges. They will always be there, especially if you were born into the Western consumerist civilization. But if you’re tired of living this lifestyle, and more and more people are becoming tired of it, maybe you will find some inspiration to make a change.
A way to start over?
You could say that. Less Is Now is fundamentally about starting over. Did you know that, on average, we see in America about 5000 advertisements a day? It’s true. That’s more than one million a year. Can you imagine that? Some people buy into them more than others, but we need to understand that they’re designed to create subconscious wanting. In Less Is Now, one of our experts explains how marketers literally go out of their way to make you feel like you are less because you don’t own a certain thing, or you didn’t travel on a certain vacation, or you don’t shave with a certain razor. Whatever it is, there are constant messages playing to our wants and impulses. Minimalism won’t fix that problem, but I believe it can assist in making better decisions with the resources that you have. When I say resources, I don’t mean money. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, but time, attention and creativity are far more valuable. They are resources, too. I do think that if people started looking into a more deliberate living, they would use those resources more intentionally.
I know the 1st January release was probably coincidental, but it is still quite symbolic that a documentary about simplifying your lifestyle comes out on a day when many people still believe they will be able to sustain their New Year’s resolutions of changing their lives.
It was coincidental. The film was supposed to come out during summer 2020, but because of the pandemic we had to work on it a bit more. The pandemic was, and still is, a game-changer for many. People were forced to face their burdens more often than they normally would; burdens mostly concealed from them throughout their daily routines. Toxic relationships, gratuitous obligations, redundant stuff distracting from real problems. Whatever they are, the pandemic made people become aware of their existence. When faced with burdens, people tend to look to New Year’s resolutions, and that’s perfectly fine if they use them more consciously. They really shouldn’t be about spending less money, but creating tools to have more control over one’s life.
Like coming up with boundaries?
I think boundaries are very important. The thing is, my boundaries are going to be different from your boundaries. I stick to minimalist rules like the 90/90 rule. I call it a seasonality rule. If I haven’t used something for the last 90 days, I ask myself: am I going to use this thing within the next 90 days? If the answer is no, I give myself permission to let it go. This gives me a window of about six months, but for others that might be eight months. They may extend the rule to be a 120/120 rule, or even a 365/365 rule. The important part is, when you ask yourself if the next year you will use this thing that you haven’t used for the previous 12 months, you have to answer honestly. I’m not advocating that everyone has to have lots of boundaries – just set up a few and see if this is something that works for you. Facing yourself and your burdens to try to live a simpler life is a very difficult thing to do. It requires time, patience, some kind of flexibility. You know, living a simple life is not simplistic. It gets complicated at the beginning, but I think once you get all of the external clutter out of the way, it allows you to look on the inside. Sort out the real problems.
Less Is Now got made right in time for the 10th anniversary of your website and the whole movement you have created. Intentionally?
Not necessarily. With our first film, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, Josh and I felt that we did a really good job of presenting minimalism and its concepts, as well as talking about the journey we were on. But the one thing that we really missed was our personal backstories and presenting other minimalists’ stories. That’s why in Less Is Now you see over 30 everyday minimalists sharing their stories and creating a different perspective on what the movement is really about. It also shows that anyone can really do this, anyone can start over. We didn’t want the film to be celebratory in any way. We actually filmed the first version four years ago in the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, but despite the fact that it looked wonderful, it had the feel of a TED talk or a comedy special without the comedy. After experimenting with some other concepts, we decided to add expert voices as well as other minimalists to create this immersive journey for the viewer. That’s basically the only intention we had.
This journey of yours still seems incredible. You started the website in 2010 – basically during the beginning of the social media revolution – and while you were experiencing your own individual revolutions, leaving corporate jobs and simplifying your lifestyles etc., you created a movement of about 20 million people. That’s something extraordinary.
If you had told me 10 years ago that we would have so many people listening, reading and watching us, that we were going to make two documentaries and write several books, I would have probably reacted with laughter. In the beginning, we were simply excited about telling our story, and hoping we could influence some people to look into minimalism a bit deeper. Everything was on our blog/website for free. And then, one idea after another, one person telling us we should grow the movement after another, we started using different vehicles to get our message out. We were, and still are, vehicle-agnostic, meaning that we would use whatever platform to share our story. Because there are a lot of people who don’t read – in the US, only 49% of men read on a regular basis – shooting documentary films gave us an opportunity to reach people who we would not reach through the website. Through our podcast we reach people who digest information in a different way than those who watch documentary films. And so on.
Do you know how your movement is perceived outside of the US? In different countries, cultures, religions?
Oh, yeah, we have a lot of information on that. The religious aspect is probably the most curious. We had a live event one day and some people came up to us after and said that they were grateful for us sharing our story, because they know that we are secret Christians. You know, as we are obviously spreading the message of Jesus. Another time we had an e-mail in which a person wrote that he is thankful for our movement because he sees that the blessed word of Mohammed is being shared all over the globe. We had a Jewish Rabbi telling us how The Minimalists’ ideas are very similar to Judaism. And so on. Which is wonderful because it’s proof that there’s a strong connection with simplicity in all major religions. And as far as demographics and geography are concerned, it’s simply amazing how the movement turned out. You would think that the consumerist lifestyle is mostly a Western problem, but we get e-mails from, say, Kenyans about how they deal with some of the same problems with destructive impulses and compulsive consumption, and find inspiration in minimalism. Which also underlines the fact that no matter where you go in the world, there are companies playing off of that. We basically have letters, e-mails and tweets from people from all walks of life, from all religious, social and economic backgrounds, how they seek to find simplicity and add meaning to their lives.
How do you feel being the centre of such attention?
I go out of my way to stay grounded and not to feed any ego that may come along with that type of attention. If I let it get to my head, then I could possibly end up going down the same path that I went down before, but because I lived that kind of life, I know it doesn’t lead to a meaningful life. I like to think I’ve learned from past mistakes. I feel like I can be my true self, and I’m proud of that. I just wish to pass some of that knowledge to others. That’s it. That’s all there is.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.