I pulled into my driveway on a sunny March afternoon like I had hundreds of times before. Before I exited my Jeep I could see the screen of my kitchen window was shredded and a power cord from some electronic device was dangling from the sill. It was clear that an unwelcome visitor had used the window as a point of exit from my home. What was unclear, was the condition of my beloved golden retriever, Coda.
I cracked open the kitchen door and yelled for Coda. The normal scurry of his nails across the wood floors was absent. There was no bark of relief or whimper of fear. I was afraid that Coda either fled the house during the crime or was killed. I called the police from my cell phone and waited outside.
Two police officers arrived and entered my home with guns drawn. A few moments later Coda came barreling out of the house and into my arms. Apparently the burglars locked Coda in a bedroom while they alleviated me of most of my possessions. They took my 46-inch television, video game system, and an assortment of handheld electronic toys, from iPods to cameras.
I suppose you could say this started me on my path of minimalism. But you would be wrong.
The months that followed the burglary were some of the toughest of my life. Not because my stuff was stolen, but because just two weeks before the burglary I had shut down my martial arts school of six years and was going through bankruptcy. And I couldn’t find a job. I sold anything that I could get a dollar for to buy groceries and keep the lights on. I sold all my DVD’s, books, and the old equipment remaining from my martial arts business.
Some might think this pushed me further down the road of minimalism. And they would be wrong.
I didn’t want to be a victim of a theft crime. I didn’t want to sell my Fight Club DVD to get cash to buy a meal. Before the burglary, I was leaning on my big screen television and video games (not to mention a hell of a lot of beer) to numb the woes of my business failings. The last thing I wanted was to get rid of my stuff.
Eventually the emptiness I felt after losing my business shifted. At some point I looked at myself in the mirror through another morning’s hangover and I knew it was time to change. I was ready to start putting the pieces back together, and I was going to start with clearing my physical clutter. I made a decision to get rid of ten items per day for thirty days.
Although most of my sales-worthy possessions were already gone by that time, I still had plenty of clutter to purge. It started with donating old clothes and shoes to Goodwill and soon crossed into territory of emotional crossfire.
Did I still need the karate uniforms that I used to wear when I taught my classes? Did I need the large yearly group photos of my former students? What about the black belt that I knotted around my waist nearly every day for six years? I kept the black belt and decided that everything else was redundant in the memories they cued.
With each drawer pulled and closet door opened there seemed to be an item I kept unnecessarily for memory’s sake. I evaluated material possessions that I had emotional attachment to and made the decision to let them go—from an old broken cell phone with the first text from an old girlfriend, to my prized punching bag I could vividly remember my father hanging in our old basement when I was twelve years old. I realized memories are within us, not within our things.
At the end of the thirty days, two out of the three bedrooms in my home were completely empty. The only furniture that remained was a bed, a couch, a pub table, and a chair. A small part of me felt free.
That taste of freedom made me question everything I owned. I canceled my cell phone contract and funneled all calls and texts through Google Voice. I pared down my clothing to only what would fit in a single load of laundry. With each item I relinquished, my sense of peace and freedom grew. I gained a long missing sense of clarity and made a major decision.
I decided it was time for me to leave Columbus, Ohio (my city of nearly twenty years). I left my three bedroom house and moved into a 400 square foot studio apartment in Austin, Texas. Within three hours of arriving in Austin, I drove to one of those huge car malls and sold my Jeep. I was ready to rebuild my life. I was ready to let go of the unnecessary stuff in my life.
These days I enjoy my new life in Austin. I go to the gym, take Coda on about eight walks a day, and contribute to others largely in the areas of weight loss and fitness through my work online.
There is a pleasant flow to my life now because I made a conscious choice to eliminate the things—whether they be possessions, persons, or habits—that disrupt my path of contribution and personal growth. I’m streamlining towards strength. And it started with a decision to live with less.
Afterword by Joshua Fields Millburn
We don’t accept guest essays at The Minimalists, but occasionally we ask friends to write something that our readers can benefit from. I first met Vic this year when he lived in Columbus (before he moved a few thousand miles away). He’s a great guy with a great story: he’s been through a lot of shit, he knows how to overcome adversity, and, even though he’s 40, he’s likely in better shape than anyone I know. I get a lot of my personal fitness and diet advice from Vic. Check out his website for some great personal fitness content and inspirational life lessons.