I never asked for this. I stumbled into minimalism serendipitously, haphazardly, not knowing what I was looking for. It was unintentional at first.
The year was 2009, early autumn. As the leaves resisted their change in color, my dying mother resisted the division of cancer cells in her body as they metastasized beyond her lungs to other vital organs and, eventually, her brain.
A month after she passed, my marriage ended abruptly, and I didn’t know which way was up anymore. All I knew was that I wasn’t happy. I had worked unimaginably hard for more than a decade, chasing happiness around every bend, but the faster I ran, the farther away it was.
As my twenties twilighted, I went searching for answers, looking for anything to help me figure it all out. At that point, any answer would’ve sufficed.
Then in November 2009, a single tweet changed my life. Someone I followed on Twitter, which I hadn’t used much up to that point, shared a link to a video from a young Midwesterner named Colin Wright. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I felt compelled to click the link.
Colin had an interesting story. He too had been unhappy with the status quo, tired of slaving 70-plus hours a week as a faceless cog in the corporate wheel. But unlike me, Colin had taken action to rid himself of his discontent. He’d quit his job and decided he could work for himself. He decided he could pursue his passions—traveling the world—while making less money.
He said this transition was easy for him, because he was a “minimalist.”
I didn’t have a clue what minimalism was, and I certainly didn’t have the desire to leave Ohio and travel around the world as a peripatetic writer. But when I heard him talk about his newfound freedom—how minimalism allowed him to focus on the most important things in his life—I immediately said, “I’m in.”
I spent the next eight months simplifying my life, shedding the vast majority of my material possessions, though it wasn’t always easy. As the saying goes, the things we own end up owning us. Over time, we become our things, and our possessions become a part of us—part of our identity. But I didn’t let that stop me. I knew a more meaningful life was out there, so I kept simplifying, questioning my stuff, forcing myself to give less meaning to my things and more meaning to my health and my relationships and the most important areas of my life.
By the time the summer of 2010 arrived, I’d drastically simplified the way I live. I was still working 70 hours a week, but I had more time to focus on my passion—writing literary fiction. Since I was 22, I’d wanted to write fiction. For me, fiction did something magical that no other art form could do: it allowed an exchange of consciousness between the author and his characters and the reader. I was spellbound by this exchange; it created an emotional resonance that made me want to participate, to create, to write. So at 22, I started tinkering around with fiction, writing whenever I could, whenever a free moment presented itself, cobbling together stories of lives far more interesting than the banality of my own corporate-driven existence.
In June 2010, a year before I turned 30, I decided to take a week off work and stay with a friend in Brooklyn, a week in which I planned to sort through things and determine the right direction for my life. A day before I left Ohio, I saw another tweet from Colin. He was back in the states for two months, and he wanted to know if anyone had a smartphone he could use.
He asked me to mail it to New York City, where he would be for the next week. Hey, I thought, I’ll be in New York too. Let’s do lunch.
It just so happened that Colin was starting an indie publishing company, and I wanted some advice about publishing my fiction. I’d been writing for seven years, and I’d become quite good at it, but all I had to show for it was a two-inch-thick stack of rejection letters from scads of literary agents.
In New York, Colin and I had lunch; he liked my writing, and so he offered me an idea: he said I should do something online—anything—I should start a website and see what happens. I dismissed this idea at first. Hell, I didn’t know how to start a website. And I was completely ignorant to the whole nonfiction genre. So I sat on the idea, not paying it much mind—at first.
Then in October 2010, a year after my mother died, my best friend, Ryan, began noticing a marked difference in my attitude. For the first time in a long time, I was happy. Life wasn’t perfect, and I still wanted to change a shedload, but I was happy and it showed. I shared with him what I’d done over the last year to simplify my life, showing him Colin’s site, as well as some interesting insights from Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, Courtney Carver, and Julien Smith.
Just as I had a year earlier, Ryan also unearthed the freedom that minimalism brought to his life. Together, we were able to sculpt an interesting story from our newfound purpose-driven lives. He understood that I was passionate about writing, and I knew he was passionate about helping people change, so we decided to document our journey into minimalism online, adding value to other people’s lives.
The rest of the story is history, as it were, though that history is the most exciting part.
Clueless and fumble-prone, we launched a website, The Minimalists, on December 14, 2010. And over the next year, something astonishing occurred: people actually found value in our words, and they shared our essays with their friends and loved ones. Our site grew, and thanks to some incredibly kind people we were featured all over the web. We left our six-figure corporate jobs and published three books, including my first fiction book, all three of which received phenomenal praise and ended up becoming bestsellers. And now, despite the fact that I don’t have a college degree, I’m teaching an online writing class to help people who want to learn from my years of writing experience.
Most important, Ryan and I have been able to contribute beyond ourselves. Minimalism has allowed us to shed the excess so we can live intentionally and contribute to others in a meaningful way. And that is the most fulfilling part of this entire journey.
All this, the result of a single tweet.
You never know what small decision will lead to great change. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t leapt down the rabbit hole that day.
Three Midwesterners Walk Into a Bar…
This year, Ryan and I are embarking on a new journey. We’re teaming up with Colin Wright to collaborate on a special publishing venture called Asymmetrical Press, an organization designed to help talented writers, artists, and content creators publish great work and find the best ways to get their work out to the world. Think of it as an independent record label (for publishing) with an online interactive community. Click here to get informed.
And don’t worry, everything at The Minimalists will remain business as (un)usual.
Speaking of tweets, the fine folks at Twitter recently gave me a cool new username: @JFM. Talk about minimal—following me is now easier than ever.