It recently struck me that minimalism shields us from chaos.
What I mean by that is when you only possess a few possessions and maintain a lifestyle well below your means, you have a tremendous advantage to not only survive but thrive when unexpected events inevitably disrupt your life. Nassim Taleb identifies these events as “Black Swans,” and argues that antifragility is the antidote to such events.
I believe that minimalist living is an antifragile lifestyle.
Living with less protects you from a variety of threats.
The most dangerous is lifestyle inflation. That you refuse to needlessly consume as a cure for boredom or status signalling, you (hopefully) leave more money in the bank for sudden emergencies.
Another threat is job loss. Given that you have separated personal satisfaction from your personal belongings, your standard of living will likely be less affected.
As Taleb correctly identifies, this relates to the philosophy of Stoicism. Seneca the Younger, perhaps the most famous individual associated with the philosophy, made it his lifelong mission to domesticate his emotions.
Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting — a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time.
To show how eminently modern this is, I will next reveal how I’ve applied this brand of Stoicism to wrest back psychological control of the randomness of life. I have always hated employment and the associated dependence on someone else’s arbitrary opinion, particularly when much of what’s done inside large corporations violates my sense of ethics. So I have, accordingly, except for eight years, been self-employed. But, before that, for my last job, I wrote my resignation letter before starting the new position, locked it up in a drawer, and felt free while I was there. Likewise, when I was a trader, a profession rife with a high dose of randomness, with continuous psychological harm that drills deep into one’s soul, I would go through the mental exercise of assuming every morning that the worst possible thing had actually happened — the rest of the day would be a bonus.
An intelligent life is all about such emotional positioning to eliminate the sting of harm, which as we saw is done by mentally writing off belongings so one does not feel any pain from losses. The volatility of the world no longer affects you negatively.
Many members associated with the Modern Minimalist Movement have openly discussed their battles with anxiety. For many, evaluating and controlling what is permitted in their environment is a form of power, especially in a world where so much is outside of our control.
This is also what drew me to minimalism. As someone who lives with anxiety and minor OCD-like tendencies, I feel empowered knowing that I am able to divorce myself from the status symbols I used to collect. The legal profession is flooded with lawyers who falsely believe that status signalling demonstrates superior advocacy skills.
I’m happy to have learned this at the beginning of my career, in part to accidentally stumbling across the Millionaire Next Door. Once I paid off my student debt, I have never found myself back in the clutches of nefarious financial companies (I have even transferred all my money to a credit union except for my emergency fund, which sits in an online bank).
A change of heart (and approach)
For most people, volatility is something to be feared. This is because most of us are planners. We like to know what to expect or, at the very least, rationalize what happens to us. Part of what makes Donald Trump so scary is that he is completely unpredictable. At this point, you could say that he is predictably unpredictable (and not in a good way).
But Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, wrote a terrific post about why he does not have goals. He argues that goals are to satiate the person we are now, not the person we will become. Instead, he views life as one continuous line back rather than striving towards Goal 1, accomplishing Goal 1, striving towards Goal 2, accomplishing Goal 2, and so forth.
This is in stark contrast to Cal Newport’s approach to life and work. On his popular blog, Study Hacks, he constantly reflects on how to define and achieve your professional goals, whether it’s completing certain work tasks in a given week or accumulating enough career capital so that you can have meaningful autonomy.
Over the past few years, I adopted the mindset and practical strategy of the latter. But now, in the current volatile climate that my profession is now experiencing, I’m increasingly attracted to the benefits of the former.
There is a randomness to life whose effects cannot be mitigated by all the planning in the world. Instead, we must be prepared to course correct as it comes. Think of it as continuous iteration on the project that is your life. This is tough to accept, and even more difficult to adopt when you are highly leveraged.
Our most valuable resource is time
Freedom does not exclusively mean financial freedom. There is also mental, emotional, and schedule freedom.
Part of the upside of minimalist living is that you often gain more free time since you are not online shopping, dispensing cognitive energy figuring out what to wear, and cleaning around all the clutter in your home.
I have used this extra time to diversify my income, making sure I’m not contingent on one sole employer. Instead of a single person or business who pays me, there are several hundred readers who pay me a little each month for my writing, as well as a few high-paying freelance clients every so often who pay a lot. This is, of course, in addition to my main job as a lawyer.
But the extra time should not simply be used to make more money. It is also to reconnect with the relationships in your life, including the one you have with yourself, which serve as a useful reminder to be grateful with what you have.
When volatility strikes, and it will, it is important to approach it with — at least — indifference and — at most — with enthusiasm. You will notice that proactively living with less stuff will help you achieve that.