“The things you own end up owning you”
In mid-2001, I lived in a high-rise Seattle apartment, having returned to a second stint at Microsoft as a refugee of the dot-com bust in Silicon Valley. Over my time in the high-flying late-90s, I had accumulated a dizzying array of books, CDs, DVDs, and assorted knick-knacks from my world travels.
One of these knick-knacks was a set of 8 goblets that I had found in Istanbul on a business trip. I had the opportunity to experience Turkish culture in the way that most business travelers get to experience any foreign culture: a 1 hour block of time sandwiched between meetings. I had never haggled over anything in my life. But I had haggled with the shopkeeper because I was told this is what people do in Turkey. Eventually, I was the proud owner of 8 gold-rimmed, gold-based, glass Turkish goblets.
One morning in early 2003, I woke up in my cheap Ikea bed, surrounded by cheap Ikea bookcases brimming with all the books I had read or pretended to have read, and reached for my cheap Ikea nightstand to shut off my cheap alarm clock. I stumbled across the bedroom floor into the kitchen surrounded by all manner of gadgets and appliances and gizmos. I looked out onto my apartment filled with an oversized Ethan Allen sofa and loveseat, a ginormous rear projection television, a massive coffee table, a dining table and four chairs, an ornate pedestal lamp with matching table lamps, and the kind of tacky modern art that a 20-something would think is profound. I opened a cabinet and I saw my goblets, within each was a couple of centimeters of dust.
I asked myself: Why on earth did I ever buy those goblets? Come to think of it… I’m single, why do I need a dining table with four chairs? Why do I need a large sofa and loveseat? Why do I need enough books to fill a Barnes & Noble? Why do I have a collection of DVDs that I never watch? Why do I need anything in any of these rooms?
So I donated almost everything. I kept a mattress, my computer, an alarm clock, a copy of The Great Gatsby, and my television. Everything else was given to the American Society for the Blind, who came into my apartment, took everything, and left me and my four pound Yorkie with a massive play area. No more sofa. No more cheap Ikea crap. No more dishes. No more cutlery. No more gold-rimmed Turkish goblets.
I had shocked myself into a culture of minimalism, and I loved it. I loved the freedom that an uncluttered space gave me. Freedom to play with the puppy. Freedom to just lie down on the ground and stare out the window onto the Seattle cityscape. Freedom to close the blinds and sit in the middle of an empty, dark space and just think. It’s intoxicating. I understand how difficult it would be for a family with kids, but for me, a single guy living in an urban environment, it was perfect.
Over the years, like anyone, I began re-accumulating the detritus of everyday living. Books, of course, were now on Kindle, CDs and DVDs on iTunes. I had less clutter, but I had more “stuff”. I moved into my own condo in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood and the accumulating continued. Soon, I once again had more furniture, more wine glasses, more pint glasses, more dishes, even new gold-rimmed goblets.
I hadn’t learned a thing.
In August 2012, I left Seattle for a job at Facebook in Menlo Park and an opportunity to return home to San Francisco. As part of my relocation deal, I opted for the lump sum cash payment and decided to move myself. So once again, I began another great purge. I discarded or donated 80% of my belongings. I kept a few key furniture items (I had graduated to owning…and liking owning…a bed. Girls like a guy who has a bed, it turns out.) Everything else fit into exactly 13 boxes and 3 dish packs. I had no car and little vestigial indicators of excess.
There are two inescapable facts about living in San Francisco that have been true since I first moved out here in 1995. First, no matter how much money you make, you’re opting to live in the greatest city in America, so be prepared to pay for the privilege…and budget accordingly. Second, unless you’re among the uber-rich (I am decidedly not), you’re going to have to downsize from wherever you moved from.
I got my apartment sight unseen over the phone. I wanted to jump into work and didn’t want to have to spend weekends looking for a place. It’s an ugly, drab corporate apartment complex in Mission Bay near AT&T Park. When I arrived in SF and got my keys, I began to plan out where my stuff would go. I realized that my tiny apartment would not accommodate even the minimal amount of things that I chose to bring. So, I acceded to a post-move purge.
While I was at it, I decided to try something a little different.
I would limit myself to at most 200 things.
If I wanted to buy something new, something old would have to go. Clothes, food, and consumables (shaving cream, soap, etc.) would not count.
Now I want to say something important here. Minimalism is not anti-capitalism. For example, I love Apple products. I buy new Apple products whenever they come out and hand my old products down to my nieces and nephews, who are thankfully too young to whine about a one year old iPad.
My new rule is simple: if you’re going to buy something, think twice about doing it, and then only buy the best. Go for quality, not quantity.
Thinking twice about buying things fits in very well with the budget-minded San Francisco ethos. Almost everyone here lives on a budget that’s invariably mostly housing with a pittance leftover for life. I’m no different. Being judicious in the things I allow myself to buy is totally congruent with the lifestyle I’ve chosen to live in the city I’ve loved since I was a child.
As it turns out, I missed nothing.
There are so many things I enjoy in life. I CrossFit 7x a week. I snowboard every weekend in winter. I play with my newest puppy. I go out to eat in the only city in America capable of giving New York a run for its money. I love cheap tequila and good wine. I like setting personal goals and achieving them. I love to laugh with old friends and make new friends.
I prefer experiences to things.
A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to buy the Philips Hue lightbulb set. This is easily one of the dumbest things ever invented, but I was a little bit exhausted and I had convinced myself that I would love it. Two days later, it arrived and as I unpacked it, I realized what I’d done. I had bought lightbulbs, but I actually owned no lamps. Indeed, there are no lamps in my house. There are no lamps on my list of 200 things.
I returned the lightbulbs. Buying lamps would take me over 200 things.
Ages ago, my mother told me something I didn’t understand until now. I guess it takes 40 years of life, love, and loss to truly appreciate it.
You will find joy in moments you would never think are joyous.
Today, as I write this in my nearly empty apartment, with a darling puppy snoring in my lap, a job that I love, a view of America’s most beautiful city, and plans to meet friends at a dive bar later tonight, I can finally understand what she meant.
I don’t miss things. I crave experiences.
I find joy in a puppy who rolls over and wants to be tickled. I find joy in walking along the Embarcadero on a crisp morning. I find joy in buying coffee for the people in line behind me and in need outside. I find joy in ripping off the bread on a sandwich and loving every minute of the meat inside. I find joy in mocking Seahawks fans and commiserating with fellow Redskins fans. I find joy in making new friends every single place I go.
I find joy in moments. Quotidian moments. Moments I would never think were capable of joy.
I really don’t miss things.
As the great Tyler Durden once said, “The things you own end up owning you.”
Today, and hopefully forever, I am free.