“The strength you gain by letting go is more important than any object you own.”
—Julien Smith, The Flinch
Introduction by Joshua Fields Millburn
There were five people who inspired me to make radical changes in my life over the last two years. Julien Smith was one of those people.
I started reading Julien’s blog a few months before Ryan and I started The Minimalists. His essays were the kick in the pants I needed at the time. No one 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. Julien has the unique ability to get in your face without seeming pompous or arrogant or judgmental. His writing style can be best described as heartbreakingly honest.
In that same vein, Julien, who also happens to be a New York Times bestselling author, just published his first solo book, The Flinch, with Seth Godin’s Domino Project. Much like his online musings, The Flinch is direct, in-your-face, and incredibly inspiring.
Oh, and it’s free.
During nearly every stop of our Meetup Tour, we’ve discussed this book with our readers. Their reactions have been great so far.
A Conversation with Julien Smith
Joshua: 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 than other material on the subject. Every page is filled with some incredibly 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 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.
Perhaps the book’s most powerful line is “The strength you gain by letting go is more important than any object you own.” For me, this is the essence of minimalism. We’ve talked about your attraction to minimalism in the past. 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 “stuff” 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?
There is literally no reason not to get one. It is zero dollars on Amazon. All barriers, all flinches, are removed.
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, and it’s free.
Afterword by Joshua Fields Millburn
Julien was one of the first online heavyweights to give me a shot. He asked me to publish an essay on his popular website well before we established a large audience at The Minimalists.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Flinch. It’s the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year (omitting my own two non-fiction books for obvious reasons). I encourage you to read it and share it with people who need it. The book is short and can be read in one sitting. You’ll likely read it more than once, though.
Julien Smith is a New York Times bestselling author and speaker who has been involved in organizing online communities for over 15 years, from early BBSes and flashmobs to the social web as we know it today. Along with being the co-author of Trust Agents, one of the social web’s most recognized books, he is a contributor to publications such as GQ, Sirius Satellite Radio, Cosmopolitan, the CBC, and more.
Julien’s work is often about leaning into discomfort and pain, into self-examination and discipline, intending both to provoke and unbalance. The lessons from The Flinch came from self-defense professionals, security experts, weightlifters, parkour practitioners, and more.