What makes a rich person rich? When I was a teenager I thought I had to earn $50,000 a year to be rich. Then when I started climbing the corporate ladder in my early twenties, I quickly began earning fifty grand. But something was wrong. I didn’t feel rich.
So I went back the to drawing board and discovered my error: I forgot to adjust for inflation. Maybe $75,000 a year was rich. Maybe $90,000. Maybe six figures. Or maybe owning a bunch of stuff—maybe that was rich.
Whatever rich was, I knew that once I got there, I’d finally be happy. So as I made more money, I spent more money, all in the pursuit of the American Dream. All in the pursuit of happiness. But the closer I got, the farther away happiness was.
Five years ago, my entire life was different from what it is today. Radically different. I had everything I ever wanted, everything I was “supposed” to have: I had an impressive job title at a respectable corporation—a successful career managing dozens of employees. I earned a six-figure income. I bought a shiny new car every couple years. I owned a huge, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-thousand-square-foot condo. It even had two living rooms. (Other than maintaining several play rooms for my cat, I have no idea why a single guy needs two living rooms.)
My cat and I were living the American Dream. Everyone around me said I was successful. But I was only ostensibly successful. You see, I also had a bunch of things that were hard to see from the outside.
Even though I earned a lot of money, I had heaps of debt. But chasing the American Dream cost me a lot more than money: my life was filled with stress and anxiety and discontent. I was miserable. I may have looked successful, but I certainly didn’t feel successful. It got to a point where I didn’t know what was important anymore. But one thing was clear: there was this gaping void in my life.
So I tried to fill that void the same way many people do: with stuff. Lots of stuff. I was filling the void with consumer purchases. I bought new cars and new electronics and closets full of expensive clothes. I bought expensive furniture and home decorations and all the latest gadgets. And when I didn’t have enough cash in the bank, I paid for expensive meals and rounds of drinks and frivolous vacations with credit cards. I spent money faster than I earned it—attempting to buy my way to happiness.
And I thought I’d get there one day. Eventually. I mean happiness had to be somewhere just around the corner, right?
But the stuff didn’t fill the void. It widened it. And because I didn’t know what was important, I continued to fill the void with stuff, going further into debt, working hard to buy things that weren’t making me happy. This went on for years—a terrible cycle. Lather, rinse, repeat.
By my late twenties, my life on the outside looked great. But inside, I was a mess. I was several-years divorced. I was unhealthy. I felt stuck. I drank—a lot. I did drugs—a lot. I used as many pacifiers as I could. And I continued to work sixty, seventy, sometimes eighty hours a week, forsaking the most important aspects of my life. I barely ever thought about my health, my relationships, my passions. Worst of all, I felt stagnant: I wasn’t growing, and I certainly wasn’t contributing to others.
My life lacked: Meaning. Purpose. Passion. If you would have asked me what I was passionate about, I would have looked at you like a deer in headlights. What am I passionate about? I had no idea.
I was living paycheck to paycheck. Living for a paycheck. Living for stuff. Living for a career I didn’t love. But I wasn’t really living at all. I was depressed.
Then, as I was approaching age thirty, I noticed something different about my best friend of twenty years: Josh seemed happy for the first time in a long time. Like, truly happy—ecstatic.
But why? We had worked side by side at the same corporation throughout our twenties, both climbing the ranks, and he had been just as miserable as me. Something had changed. To boot, he had just gone through two of the most difficult events of his life: his mother had just passed away and his marriage had ended. Both in the same month. He wasn’t supposed to be happy. And he definitely wasn’t supposed to be happier than me.
So I did what any good friend would do: I bought him lunch at a fine-dining establishment (we went to Subway). While we were eating our sandwiches I asked Josh a question: “Why the hell are you so happy?”
Josh spent the next twenty minutes telling me about something called minimalism. He talked about how he’d spent the last few months simplifying his life, getting the clutter out of the way to make room for what was truly important. And then he showed me an entire community of people who had done the same thing.
He introduced me to a guy named Colin Wright, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who travels to a new country every four months carrying with him everything he owns. Then there was Joshua Becker, a 36-year-old husband and father of two, with a full-time job and a car and a house in suburban Vermont. Next he showed me Courtney Carver, a 40-year-old wife and mother to a teenage daughter in Salt Lake City. And there was Leo Babauta, a 38-year-old husband and father of six in San Francisco.
Although all these people led considerably different lives, they all shared at least two things in common: First, they were living deliberate, meaningful lives; they were passionate and purpose-driven; they seemed much richer than any of the so-called rich guys I worked with in the corporate world. And second, they all attributed their meaningful lives to this thing called minimalism.
So, being the problem solver that I am, I decided to become a minimalist right there on the spot. I looked up at Josh and excitedly announced, “Alright, I’m in. I am a minimalist! Um, now what?”
You see, I didn’t want to spend months slowly paring down my possessions like Josh had. That was fine for him, but I needed faster results. So we came up with a crazy idea: let’s throw a Packing Party. (Everything is more fun when you put “party” at the end.) We decided to pack all my belongings as if I were moving. And then I would unpack only the items I needed over the next three weeks.
Josh came over and helped me box up everything: my clothes, my kitchenware, my towels, my electronics, my TVs, my framed photographs and paintings, my toiletries, even my furniture. Everything. We literally pretended I was moving.
After nine hours and a couple pizza deliveries, everything was packed. There we were, sitting in my second living room, feeling exhausted, staring at boxes stacked halfway to my twelve-foot ceiling. My condo was empty and everything smelled like cardboard. Everything I owned—every single thing I had worked for over the past decade—was there in that room. Boxes stacked on top of boxes stacked on top of boxes.
Each box was labeled so I’d know where to go when I needed a particular item. Labels like, “living room,” “junk drawer #1,” “kitchen utensils,” “bedroom closet,” “junk drawer #7.” So forth and so on.
I spent the next twenty-one days unpacking only the items I needed. My toothbrush. My bed and bedsheets. Clothes for work. The furniture I actually used. Kitchenware. A tool set. Just the things that added value to my life.
After three weeks, 80% of my stuff was still in those boxes. Just sitting there. Unaccessed. I looked at those boxes and couldn’t even remember what was in most of them. All those things that were supposed to make me happy weren’t doing their job.
So I donated and sold all of it.
And you know what? I started to feel rich for the first time in my life. I felt rich once I got everything out of the way, so I could make room for everything that remains.
Author’s note: Joshua and I donated a year of our lives in 2014 to visit 100 cities in eight countries and talk about something that changed our lives: minimalism. In those cities, we hosted 119 free events at which we shared our personal stories and answered thousands of questions. The above essay is an excerpt from my live talk. If you couldn’t attend, you can watch our entire TEDx Talk here.