10 Lessons on Minimalism from Walden

Modern guidelines to finding your Walden.

Many people consider Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, to be one of the first minimalists. Or at least one of the first to write about it.

If you don’t know, Walden is written by a man who goes off into the woods to build a house, live on his own, and document the experience.

Title Page Image of “Walden”

Now, if you’ve read “The Search for the ‘One Product’”, you already know I have minimalistic instincts. But Thoreau’s writing hit home. The book lay bare many truths about minimalism and ignited a desire to find my own Walden — that is, to forge my own deliberate way of life.

Here are ten lessons I learned from Walden that serve as guides toward a simpler life.

1. Stop equating possessions with happiness.

“I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”

2. Don’t equate possessions with wisdom either.

“With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.”
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

3. To discover what you need, attempt the simplest life possible.

“It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them.”

4. Train yourself to hate waste and excess.

“Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes be content with less?”
“My greatest skill has been to want but little.”

5. The more you cut down on possessions, the more free you become.

“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

6. Analyze the criteria by which you make purchases.

“As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.”

7. Take the hidden costs of a purchase into account, such as upkeep, space, and distraction.

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

8. If you do have to own things, at least make them portable.

“When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all — looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck — I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it will be a light one and do not nip me in the vital part.”

9. Prioritize your life above your house.

“Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.”

10. You will be rewarded with understanding whenever you simplify your life.

“In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

If you haven’t read Walden yet, I recommend at least reading the first section, titled “Economy.” You can find it online here, though I recommend getting a physical copy.