Minimalism, Consumerism, and Creativity

A Tern for the Best © Robin Bownes 2017
It’s important to understand that the reduction of physical possessions is often a result of Minimalism, not Minimalism itself. — Colin Wright

Over the past couple of weeks, I stumbled upon, and then began to examine, the links (mainly negative) between consumerism and creativity. Last week, I took a very direct, and I think, challenging look at Consumerism and Creativity. Do give that a read, if you haven’t already done so. You may not agree with everything I’ve said, but it does provide the background for this post, and I’m sure you’ll find it challenging to some degree. You might also find one of my oldest posts on Medium, on The Simple Life, helpful.

As promised, in last week’s post, this week, I’ll be looking at the minimalist movement that has sprung up over recent years, in response to consumer culture.

Before I go any further, I feel the need to state that it is not my intention to knock capitalism, or even discuss economics. My primary focus, in this post, is purely the impact of consumerism — a foundational aspect of capitalism — on creativity in its broadest sense. More specifically, I want to explore the ways in which many people are beginning to modify their relationship with consumerism (and therefore, capitalism), by means of adopting a minimalist lifestyle.

So, What Is Minimalism?

When many people hear the word minimalist, they may well think of minimalist art, which reached its peak in the 1960s and 70s, but is still popular. In a nutshell, minimalist art — of any kind — makes use of pared down design elements. The aim of minimalist art, music, architecture, etc., is to simplify the artistic creation. Don’t use five lines where one will do, whether drawing, writing, or building. Minimalist art creates impact through simplicity. The motto of minimalist art is “Less is More”.

However, as fascinating as I find artistic minimalism, that’s not what this post is about. In recent years, a non-artistic minimalist movement has begun to gain traction in capitalist society.

This “new” minimalist lifestyle movement is a direct response to our consumption-based society. Capitalism relies on consumerism for its very survival. For capitalism, as an economic system, to prosper, it requires conspicuous consumerism — extreme consumerism.

This isn’t some crackpot, conspiracy theory, or anti-capitalist rhetoric. It’s plain fact, that any economist, pro or con, will agree with. Gravity keeps us grounded, water is wet, and capitalism requires consumerism — the more, the better.

Lifestyle minimalism is, of course, nothing new. On some level, spirituality, religion, and creatives of all kinds, have always, on one level or another, recognised the “danger” of possessions. Monks, priests & priestesses, shamans, hermits, gurus, and artists of all kinds, generally eschew possessions to some extent, either by choice, convention, or legislation.

Most religions recognise the potential distraction, and even danger (spiritual, relational, & social) in possessions and money. Even Jesus said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”, and “You cannot love God and stuff.” (my paraphrases) And, yes, these are things that many churches/Christians should take more note of.

More recently, the hippies of the 1960s adopted the motto turn on, tune in, drop out, which, aside from the drug reference, encouraged an alternate, minimalist, more connected, and aware lifestyle. The hipster generation have also made a move, away from conspicuous consumerism, toward recycling, re-purposing, and making, rather than buying.

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, better known as The Minimalists, have, and are doing a huge amount to popularise, and educate people about the minimalist lifestyle, and its benefits. Here is a quote from their definition of minimalism:

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.

While reducing one’s possessions is undoubtedly a foundational, and very obvious part of minimalism, it is, strangely, not the core principle.

The minimalist lifestyle is less about how much you own, and more about your attitudes regarding what you do, do not, and want to own.

So, while some people may limit themselves to owning fewer than a certain number of items, for instance, that is not necessarily successful minimalism.

The Minimalist Focus

Consumerism does a great job of focusing our attention, energies, and activities on stuff. Consumerism needs us to want stuff, buy stuff, use stuff, consume (use up) stuff … and then want and buy more stuff.

Most of us say that family, relationships, and people in general are far more important to us than stuff — our possessions. However, our behaviour very often gives the lie to our stated philosophy.

For instance:

  • How much time do you spend at work, compared to time spent in active relationship with friends, family, or even yourself?
  • When you’re not working, how much time do you spend interacting with stuff — TV, gadgets, hobbies, car/bike/cycle, collections — rather than actively interacting with those people you claim are most important to you?
  • How much time, attention, and even money do you spend on wanting stuff that you don’t have?
  • Are you generally up to date on the new smart phones, cars, bikes, gadgets, multimedia?
  • Do you actively save for, put money aside for, or access credit for the future acquisition of more stuff?
  • Have you got stuff that you’ve bought, but seldom use — maybe even still in its packaging?

I’m not criticising, or judging you for any of these behaviours. We are all, to one extent or another, products of our society, and our society revolves around stuff — wanting it, researching it, buying it, using it, consuming it, replacing it … 
I most certainly cannot criticise or judge anyone else for the very things of which I am also guilty — if guilt even enters into it at all.

We have all been trained to be consumed by consumerism.

What I am saying, and pointing out, is the inconsistency between our stated philosophy, and our behaviour regarding stuff. If we don’t have it, we want it. We work harder and longer to get it. When we’ve got it, we obsess over it … until we start wanting the next thing, which is often almost immediately.

Let’s face it, we are consumers, and as such, our primary focus (or one of them) is stuff.

The aim of minimalism is to align our actual focus with our stated philosophy.

Minimalism aims to move our focus from things, to people, health, the arts, activities, our environment. Minimalism aims to move our focus from consuming to creating, from consuming to truly enjoying, from consuming to relating.

Minimalism aims to move our focus away from possessions, toward things of true worth. As I quoted at the beginning of this post, that often results in fewer possessions, as we refocus on what is truly important. True minimalism is not just about getting rid of your stuff. True minimalism is about realising, through refocussing our priorities, that stuff, can be, and usually is a massive distraction from what is truly important and valuable.

Wrapping Up

I’m sure that many of you can remember a time, maybe in your early twenties — as it was for me — when you could fit all (or most) of your possessions into a suitcase, or for me, a large rucksack. If you look back on that time, I’m sure most of you will realise that your life then, did not revolve around your possessions in the same way that it does now.

Not only did you have fewer things, but your focus was different.

For those of you still in your late teens, or early twenties, now is the time to realise that your life is actually richer for your relative paucity of possessions. At the moment, your focus is on your studies, on your relationships, on self-discovery — on living and discovering life. If you can skip the “possession detour” that so many of us oldies took, then you will undoubtedly be ahead of the game.

As usual, I challenge you all, as I challenge myself. Here are a few practical things to work on.

  1. Take a long, hard, honest look at your possessions, and see how many you really use, need, (truly) want. When last, or how often do you use things? A friend of mine, when doing this exercise, discovered some things that he’d bought, that were still in their packaging, having never been used, or even opened. While that is extreme, we all have things that rarely, even never get used any more.
  2. Get rid of what you don’t use. Sell, or give away all those things that you identified in the previous step as being peripheral. Your unused consumer items, may be just what someone else really needs.
  3. What are the things that you really want? Take a long, honest look at your desires. How much time do you spend checking out catalogues, product web sites, product info pages, adverts, etc.? How much time to do spend dreaming/thinking about things that you don’t have — things that you want? How does this match up to the things you say you really want, like better/closer relationships, self development, skills, etc.?
  4. Work to change your focus. Trying not to think of something is almost impossible. So, if you try not to focus on the stuff that you want, you are almost certainly doomed to frustration and failure. Instead, focus on the the things you identified in Step 3, and allow stuff to become peripheral.
  5. Persist! We have been indoctrinated to be good consumers all our lives, so don’t expect to make radical changes overnight. Don’t try to change everything at once. Baby steps is the way to go — but keep going. The benefits you discover as you slowly move away from consumerism toward minimalism, will encourage you greatly.

Consumerism, by definition is destructive. (see last week’s post) Consumerism consumes us, and consistently moves us further away from creativity, which is the polar opposite of destruction. I challenge you all to rediscover, or further discover your creativity, by changing your self-definition from consumer to creator.

Once again, I know that content about money and stuff cuts close to the bone for all of us. In spite of that, and because of that, I hope that this challenges you, and inspires you to positive change.

I hope to hear from you in the comments — either below, or highlight a specific passage and comment on it directly. While its wonderful to get comments that agree with me, I learn more from comments that disagree with me, and so, welcome them.

Please comment, recommend, share, and apply. Thanks for reading.

I’ll put some info links for minimalism down below.