There were only a handful of people who inspired me to make radical changes in my life over the last few years: Julien Smith was one of those people.
I started reading Julien’s blog a few months before Ryan and I started The Minimalists in 2010. His essays were the kick in the ass I needed to help me step outside my comfort zone and do something different with my life.
No one has ever accused Julien of being passive. He is, in fact, one of the few people who can gracefully shake the hell out of someone and have that person thank him afterward.
In that same vein, Julien, who is also the New York Times bestselling author ofTrust Agents, just published his first solo book, The Flinch, with Seth Godin’s Domino Project. Much like his online musings, The Flinch an in-your-face, shake-the-hell-out-of-you book.
This week I had a conversation with Julien Smith, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for our readers.
JFM: Where did the original idea for The Flinch come from?
Julien: I fiddled with the concepts in The Flinch for a long time without having a name for it until the first riff in the book took shape. When that first part was written, about the boxing club incidentally—it’s also the gym I go to—everything fell into place. I started talking to people about the idea, like Mitch Joel, who got me in touch with the self-defense people like Tony Blauer. Then they got me in contact with security professionals from Gavin de Becker company. It all continued from there, but the connection to boxing was the critical moment.
That’s interesting because it’s not a book about boxing or self-defense at all, at least not in the traditional sense. It seems to me that The Flinch is essentially a book-length essay about being aware of your internal fears, but the content is communicated in a refreshing, appreciably different way from other material on the subject. Every page is filled with powerful, memorable lines. Entire chunks of this book will be quoted and retweeted by many. Did you intent to write this book in such a precise, succinct way when you started?
It’s my method of speaking and writing that just comes through very clearly, I think. But Seth Godin’s influence is visible for sure. Without him this book wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. He pushed me to make everything tweetable, memorable. He said, “make it like a poem that doesn’t rhyme.” I think I was able to do that.
A line that particularly stood out for me was “Would your childhood self be proud of you, or embarrassed?” This line reminds me of a question I asked myself about a year ago: “Is this what you’ve been waiting for your entire life?” Even though I had the big-boy corporate job, the 401k, the ostensible success, and all the trappings of the American Dream, I knew I wasn’t happy. Why do you think people continue do things that make them so unhappy?
The people you are talking about would defend the lives they have, the ones you claim make them unhappy. The reality is that there are millions of reasons why, but putting your finger on how to get through to them can be impossible. In this book I try to nail it—I try to get you to recognize the feeling in your chest when it happens so that you can know when it’s happening.
One of the book’s most powerful lines is “The strength you gain by letting go is more important than any object you own.” For me, this is the essence of minimalism. What about minimalism and its principles seem most attractive to you?
It’s interesting that you were attracted to that line. We’ll see very clearly from the Amazon aspect which lines connect well with people. You may be right that it turns out to be strong.
I have a difficult relationship with minimalism because of the ability to own an unlimited amount of “digital things.” That doesn’t seem like minimalism to me at all, which is instead about an intentional poverty to arouse a depth of the spirit that normally lies dormant. To me, like you say, it’s about recognizing that living without means you just find other things inside you. But you can’t do that and claim to be minimalist while checking Twitter on your Macbook Pro … or can you?
Yes, I believe you can. I think minimalism is about stripping away life’s excess in favor of what’s important, which is different for every person. It’s about living consciously. Getting rid of superfluous stuff clears the runway and allows a person to consciously live a meaningful life, which, as you point out in your book, isn’t always easy. I also believe that, in the same spirit as your new book, minimalism allows people to question the meaning we give to our possessions and other things that shouldn’t be as important as we make them. But, unfortunately, in today’s world, we often give more meaning to our material possessions than our health or our relationships or pursuing our passions. Is this, in a way, a form of “the flinch”?
This is why I ask people to give the book away and do other uncomfortable things. It’s about coming up against the walls of your programming and do things that make them uncomfortable. It makes them see first-hand who is in the driver’s seat.
Would you rather ride on a train, dance in the rain, or feel no pain? Why?
I think I would rather ride on a train. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked trains and the idea of going somewhere.
Why should people get a copy of this book?
Get one because, at the very least, you will be part of an experiment in how a non-commercially oriented, anti-authoritarian, unsellable book can fly when you bring 21st century pricing into it.
Or, get one because it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
The Flinch is available on Amazon.