Your Life Doesn’t Have to be Perfect, it Just Has to Work For You

My rocky introduction to minimalism and the lessons I learned along the way.

Holly J Baptiste
Aug 28 · 10 min read

My fixation with a clean home began last year.

It started with me wanting to film videos for a YouTube channel I was beginning. Whenever I set up to film I found myself frustrated by the amount of clutter in my background. Papers were in piles on tables, stacks of magazines were on chairs. My love for DIY beauty products had led to an obscene amount of half-empty apothecary bottles everywhere.

I put aside time to clean up before filming, but it didn’t help. No matter where I set up, there was some clunky object in the way or some piece of furniture that didn’t ‘read well’ on camera.

And it wasn’t hard to tell why that was. Besides having lousy natural light, I shared the space with my boyfriend.

Surveying the landscape of our bedroom, the lack of cohesiveness was undeniable. Stylistically speaking, the entire room was a clusterfuck of tastes. On his side was a framed psychedelic print of Homer Simpson by Randell Roberts, a carving of the Kremlin, some other small statues, Harry Potter memorabilia, receipts, loose change, etc.

My side was nothing but books, beauty products, old greeting cards and dead flowers. A Jesus Was a Radial poster stared at me from its place above our bed, still unframed though it had been with me through two previous apartments. Plastic rosaries (although I’m not catholic) hung from curtain rods and dresser corners.

I began attempting to curate the room so that it felt less random. Maybe I can turn it into an eclectic bohemian love den, I thought.

Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema

I rearranged our fairy lights and hung up the framed Harry Potter prints that had been leaning against a wall for months. I even went down to the Hudson River to score a piece of driftwood to hang my necklaces on. DIY’d macramé planters and wall hangings were tacked up and I did what I could to keep papers hidden in drawers and closets.

Still, nothing about my house felt pulled together. You just have to try harder and organize more, I told myself.

Photo Credit: Brandon Griggs

At the same time that I was trying to make over my apartment, I was also preoccupied with making over my career. Even typing the word leaves a weird feeling in my fingers. Is that what I have? A career?

Some people would say yes. I present myself as a career girl. I’ve been freelancing since 2013. When I tell people what I do, they always say, ‘How cool not having to work at an office!’

I totally get it, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its perks. But being a freelance writer has its difficulties, especially in the gig economy.

When I was finishing my BA in English I wasn’t even keen on the idea of freelancing. I hated the idea of having to create on cue. But when I sat down at the desk of my first magazine internship, things changed.

It was the beginning of the recession. Most of the staff had been let go and I and the other intern were ‘filling in’ as assistant-editors. While typing up an interview one morning, something clicked. It was sort of like having déjà vu, only instead of having the sense that I had been there before — I mean, I knew I hadn’t — there was an overwhelming feeling that I was, at that very moment, meant to be in the exact place that I found myself in. I know it sounds weird, but it’s one of those things you just have to experience yourself to understand.

After graduation, I took another job at a much bigger, more prestigious magazine. I didn’t like it. But the name recognition worked in my favour and slowly, I began acquiring more clips which led to finding a job at a smaller publication in my area.

I still needed to find other gigs though, so I started consulting, blogging and taking on all these creative projects.

The recession had sparked an entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of people who realized that they may as well create their dream job than waiting for someone to give it to them. Most of the people I interviewed were people who gave up fancy corporate jobs to become artisans or were folks who, after being laid off, decided to finally start the business they had always dreamed of owning.

I wrote fiendishly, produced a marketplace and started making crafts and beauty products. It wasn’t a miserable time. But once I decided to come up for air sometime last year, I felt completely rung out. It was like cleaning your house before vacation only to return home to discover you failed to take out the trash before you left.

It wasn’t that I had failed to pay bills or ‘adult’ while in this hurricane of creativity, but that I had never set a deadline for when this creativity had to pay off. Sure, I was getting by. There were even times when I was financially thriving. But the gig economy isn’t stable and stability starts looking like a million bucks when you start growing older.

Photo Credt: Amaury Silas

On days that I worked outside of the apartment, I’d return feeling like I was placing a weight around my neck. There it all was waiting for me. Mail neatly stacked on the kitchen table. Camera equipment and workout gear pushed against walls. Little figurines and bottles collected throughout the years lined windowsills and a hoard of jackets in leather, wool and polyester warmed the backs of kitchen chairs. My apartment had become a living metaphor for my life. It wasn’t utter chaos, but it wasn’t beautiful either.

I thought about what the people I wrote for would think if they saw the way I lived. Every interview and meeting I showed up, stylish as an extra in The Devil Wears Prada. Little did they know that almost every surface in my house was home to a piece of clothing, paper or some piece of junk I had failed to throw away.

I was filled with panic and disappointment whenever I saw the place. It constantly reminded me of things I needed to do, things I wanted to do, and things I once did. There were so many pieces of lives from other apartments-former Hollys. And no matter how much I tried to move things around I could not reassemble things to reflect the life I was attempting to live.

So I did what any sane person would do.

“We need boxes,” I told my boyfriend. “I’m sick of this mess.”

“What kind of boxes?”

“All kinds. Big, little, whatever. I’m sick of this mess.”

Translation: I’m sick of me.

Enter: The World of Minimalism

I start watching YouTube videos about minimalism and finances, and while they play in the background I start filling the boxes my boyfriend brings home. And bags. Lots of bags.

What isn’t donated is recycled, tossed in the garbage, or left on the side of the road for somebody who might want it. One of my Audrey Hepburn posters, Precious Moments piggy banks, gothic style candle holders — all must go. I scrub, soak, sweep and polish till my forearms hurt.

Minimalism, financial planning, and evaluating where you are in life have one thing in common and it’s that they each require you to answer two things: what do you want and what do you need. As I began to bag things for Good Will, I began to unpack the reasons my life felt suddenly unmanageable.

Many of us would like to know how to become more productive. It’s not just the competitive job market driving us to bullet journaling and scheduling apps, but that we’re living in a hustle culture where rising and grinding is looked at like a virtue.

As a society, we love the lore of the self-made man. We love it because it makes us feel that we too, with just enough sleepless nights and elbow grease, can move on up to a place of financial security and all the social cache that affords.

Americans have always loved stories where a person rises from the heaps of nothingness to utter success (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a favourite example), but social media has made it easier for us to see real-life tales of rags to riches stories. Seriously, what are influencers other than people who create content 24/7 and shamelessly self-promote until brands like YSL and Skinny Tea companies give them sponsorship deals?

Our language is littered with terminologies that indoctrinate us into the mindset that anything can be achieved if we want it bad enough. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps, someone says. My grandpappy started with nothing and built an empire!

As a society, we love the lore of the self-made man. We love it because it makes us feel that we too, with just enough sleepless nights and elbow grease, can move on up to a place of financial security and all the social cache that affords.

The Cult of Busyness

The cult of busyness is a real thing and it stems from not a drive towards wealth but validation from our peers.

‘Many of us have been praised, rewarded and validated for our output since childhood,’ says Sally Nazari, psychologist and host of the podcast Beyond the Couch.

‘This principle simply spills into adulthood with everything from quotas to commissions to bonuses at work.’

Some of us internalize the desire for approval. Instead of trying to do it all to impress others, we try to do it all to impress ourselves. The problem with this is that we end up spreading ourselves too thin. Nothing ever receives our full attention. We don’t give ourselves time to celebrate triumphs but quickly move onto the next obstacle to crush.

This was me. Running from one project to the next, trying to do it all, from getting more clients to making it to my weekly dance classes, to helping my family and making sure my house was filled with meal-prepped dinners. None of these things were bad in themselves, only that they each required me to do a bunch of little things to take part in them. It’s always the little things that get you.

Everything I wanted to do was preceded by something I had to do. Want to go to dance class? Then you better wax the floors. Need to visit your parents? Better bring your laptop so you can edit that story.

To do one thing, something had to be sacrificed and everything felt necessary. It became so bad that all my quiet moments were spent quietening the part of my brain that told me that I wasn’t moving fast enough and if I didn’t hurry the eff up, I was going to miss out.

Eventually, though, I had to ask myself: ‘What was I going to miss out on?’

What Exactly Did I Need?

Unpacking my emotions as I packed up the clothes I never wore, I realized much of my feelings of dissatisfaction came from fear. The fear of trying and never getting to this mythical place of completeness that I wanted to reach. The fear that if I didn’t show up to classes or every social event that my friends would forget about me. The fear that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I’d still be this case study of what not to do.

I was worried that people would look at me and think I was pathetic. I worried that I would look at myself and think the same thing.

After a lot of come to Jesus moments, listening to podcasts and journaling, I said, Fuck it! I decided to give a middle finger to my worries and strip my life down to the essentials. What did I really want to do? Who did I really want to be and why? What exactly did I need?

There was a part of me that believed if I could transform my space into this aesthetically organized showcase, it would mean I wasn’t a total mess. But that’s bullshit. You know it. I know it. The only thing that makes us feel together is doing the work. Not the type that involves waxing floors or starting a small business, but the type that’s done when you reckon with yourself.

As I looked around my place, I realized that maybe I was never going to be this super-polished, chic person. Maybe that was okay.

I did do away with things I didn’t need, not only in terms of donating unused Kitchen Aid appliances, but tasks, too.

I gave myself permission to say no to things that didn’t serve me. Social functions were declined, as were assignments with little ROI. I turned off my phone’s notification to Instagram and my work email. It was a simple act but almost immediately I felt better.

I allowed my hobbies to just be hobbies, because you know, it’s okay if you don’t want to turn your ability to make awesome wall hangings into a side hustle.

Photo Credit: Jamie Hagen

As the surfaces in my home began to clear, so did my calendar. Ironically, instead of making my life feel emptier it felt more open. Becoming less focused on curating this wonderful life freed me up to live more of an authentic one.

I could read books at leisure, take on assignments I cared about, and mop the floor without checking my email every ten minutes. I could spend time with my family.

One day I came home and didn’t feel like screaming. The space hadn’t magically turned into the aesthetic vision of my dreams, but somehow, through the weeks of decluttering and dusting, it had been transformed into a calming one-bedroom oasis.

There was nothing there that I didn’t need or want. I’m not sure if we should seek for much more than that.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Holly J Baptiste

Written by

Writer living in New York. Charming souls since the 80s. Find me on twitter @miss_holly_j

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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