What Spider-Man: Homecoming can teach you about minimalism

A few weeks ago, my wife and I made it out to see Spider-man: Homecoming on discount movie Tuesday. Two things:

  1. I don’t know why I ever went to see a movie on any other day of the week
  2. It was a fantastic watch, even for an action film cynic like my wife

The film succeeds where previous iterations have fallen short partly because of its willingness to forego the typical Spider-Man origin story and instead embrace its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). You might disagree, and that’s okay, but do you really prefer this…or this…over Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr?

Tobey’s got the scruff going for him, but Tom really nails the “Peter Parker” look in my opinion.

Anyway, moving on.

Despite the noticeable absence of Uncle Ben’s “With great power, comes great responsibility” speech, the movie is still littered with inspirational superhero-growth-moments chronicling the growth of 15 year-old Peter Parker. And though the 10-years+, near-continuous stream of formulaic superhero flicks has long since caused me to become indifferent to every life-adage in the book, there was one particular scene in the movie that caught my attention.

Towards the latter-end of the movie, Peter is enjoying his secondary life as Spider-Man — perhaps a little too much — when his over-eagerness puts the lives of hundreds of innocent people at risk. Without spoiling too much, the Staten Island Ferry is bisected, Iron Man has to come to his rescue, and the bad guy gets away. It’s the classic “superhero fails at being a hero” trope that we’ve all come to expect from Marvel. The scene is fun to watch, but it’s the conversation that follows that I found insightful.

After saving him from a near-catastrophe that was absolutely his fault, Tony Stark has a heart-to-heart/argument with Peter about what it means to be a hero. After expressing his concern for and disappoint in Peter’s actions, Tony asks for his Spider-Man suit — a multi-million dollar, AI-infused gift from Stark — back, “forever.”

“I’m nothing without this suit,” Peter tells him, to which Tony wisely responds, “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”

You can watch a clip of the scene I’m referring to here.

The scene is quite a treat — it’s fantastic watching Tony Stark demonstrate his character growth on-screen — and the message is clear: Your identity is not, and should not, be defined by any one possession, material or otherwise. If you need a thing — a high-tech suit, a phone, social media, any one thing — to feel whole or happy, then you don’t have a solid identity of your own.

Strong words coming from Iron Man, who, a few movies ago, was himself questioned concerning his attachment to his super suit.

I suppose if a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist thinks a bit of self-reflection is a valuable use of time, we ought to follow suit. Because who doesn’t want to be like Iron Man?

Mental clutter

Believe it or not, Tony Stark is endorsing minimalism, the philosophy of focusing your resources, particularly your time and attention, on the things that matter most: people, passions, and happiness. It favors simplicity over complexity, less instead of more, quality over quantity. It’s not about living with nothing. It’s about clearing the clutter so you can live a more abundant life.

If you’re like most people, you probably associate the word “minimalism” with “stuff.” Less stuff. Getting rid of stuff. Trying to live with as little stuff as possible. Stuff, stuff, stuff. And, in a way, you’d be right. Minmalism isabout having less stuff. Or, more precisely, it’s about only having stuff that adds value to your life. Stuff is necessary. Stuff can be good. Just ask the Minimalists.

But that’s not the part of minimalism that I want to focus on. Yes, we could all do with a little less stuff in our lives, but more importantly, clearing out the clutter — physically, emotionally, or otherwise — allows you to glimpse who you really are and what you really value. And once you’ve taken the time to re-evaluate yourself, it becomes easier to re-prioritize, reset, and re-energize.

Here’s how it works:

Find 10 minutes, sit down, and reflect on how you’re spending your time, energy, and attention.

  • Make a list. Be as thorough as possible. If you spent an an hour working on a critical project for work, list it. If you spent an hour on Pinterest looking for the the perfect baby shower theme, list it. If you spent 10 hours binging the first 3 seasons of The Office, list it. List it all.

Find your pacifiers.

  • Take a good, long look at your list and ask yourself, “Does this add value to my life? Or is really just an emotional pacifier that I could do without?” The Minimalists call these “pacifiers” — activities or objects that don’t add value to our life but that we keep because they’re easy and mind-numbing. For lack of a better term, they “fill the void” left by contemporary human existence, leaving little room for emotional introspection and exploration.
  • Eventually, these pacifiers — Netflix, social media, iPhones, video games, online shopping — become automatic, they become part of our identities. And, like Peter Parker with his suit, we become anxious and unhappy when we can’t have them. Find your pacifiers.

Then try living without them.

  • There are going to be things on your list that you can’t cut out (e.g. work projects, family time, etc.), but I guarantee that there are several things — these “pacifiers” — that you can minimize right now that will make a huge difference.
  • If you, like me, find your social media time to be less and less meaningful, take a break for a week. If a session of Netflix feels more emotionally draining than refreshing, try going a few days without it. Or, if you simply feel drained after a day on your laptop, take a 24-hour electronic fast. It’s up to you.
  • After listening to a podcast on detaching from electronics, I decided to silence every notification on my phone with the exception of phone calls and text messages (which I rarely receive anyway). I also opted to take a break from social media for a few weeks. Was it terrifying? Yes, yes it was. Was is refreshing? Absolutely.

Make observations and adjust accordingly.

  • Going without your pacifiers is going to feel weird, maybe even a bit empty at first. When I disabled my phone notifications and abstained from social media, it initially felt good. It felt good to feel in control of my attention, to have blocks of free time suddenly available. Then came the quiet, and it felt really lonely. It was only then that I realized the effect that constant tech stimulation was having on my brain — I had come to crave my pacifiers almost as much as I craved food. It was maddening.
  • Over time I re-adjusted, and was able to reintroduce social media back into my life at a rate that works better for me. Most importantly, however, I learned to be okay with quietness. I began to meditate more. I started reading more. I was more “present” when I was with my wife. I re-evaluated my life, my values, my goals, and made adjustments accordingly.
Spending less time with my phone gave me the mental “breathing room” I needed to re-adjust

Decluttering your brain means more time and attention for what matters most. Or, if you’re like me, it means more time and attention for figuring out what matters most.

In fact, given the complexity and pacing of life, it may be wise to run through the decluttering process regularly. It’s like spring cleaning: doing it can be a pain in the ass, but it’s ultimately rejuvenating and reinvigorating.

Less is more

Whether we realize it or not, we all live in and operate by our own set of processes. We have processes for everything: morning routines, workflows, exercise regiments, parenting methods — the list goes on and on. Life is a process, and our processes are defined by our priorities. And, as I described in my previous post, we (including our happiness and well-being) are the sum of our processes.

Unfortunately, those priorities and processes are oftentimes hijacked by our pacifiers. Our capacity for quality work is disrupted by the rectangular prisms in our pockets. Meaningful interactions with the people we say we love are diluted by the blare of a never-ending TV show. Plans to do something great — to run that marathon, to make that app, to take that trip — take a backseat to InstaSnapBook.

The takeaway is this: You don’t know who you are inside until you get rid of the excess outside. Whether you realize it or not, we each have pacifiers that not only keep us from achieving the goals we set, but keep us from being happier people in general. If you can find yours and manage them effectively, you’ll be much better off.

It worked for Spider-Man.

(Warning: Total spoilers for that last link, even though it’s a fantastic scene).

Originally posted on David’s personal website-blog.

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