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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

20 Questions for a Minimalist

Media interviews are often a rollercoaster in my world: the peaks can be fun, exciting, and necessary, but the valleys can be a great distraction.

Sometimes, in a concerted effort to get the word out, I will agree to literally hundreds of newspaper, television, and radio interviews. I did this in 2014—asked for it, even—and it beat the crap out of me. But thankfully it paid off: our readership grew significantly, and our simple-living message reached more people than ever.

On the flip side, however, I’ve gotten good at saying no to superfluous commitments that keep me from saying yes to important work. Right now, I’m not doing any media for a while because a) I’m focused on creating new creations, and b) after roughly 400 interviews last year, I have nothing new to say—at least for a little while.

Of course, there’s a delicate balance between feast and famine—a decorous dance between creative expression and purposive communication. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that getting people to experience your work—whether it’s 100 people or four million—is the final part of the creative process. I call this balance communicative expression.

In other words, a book, blog post, movie, or album may be finished once it’s published—and yet it is still incomplete. You see, the work isn’t complete until people are reading, watching, hearing, experiencing it. As writers, we’re just journaling if we’re not writing for a readership, which is fine unless you’re attempting to communicate with other human beings. Ergo, interviews can be an important part of the creative process. But the interviews themselves are not the point: exposing people to the message is, and an interview is one vehicle to accomplish that.

In 2013, while feverishly working on the final draft of Everything That Remains, I said yes to only two interviews all year, one of which was with my friend Jason, who asked some fantastic questions that required quite a bit of cerebration. I decided to reprint that interview here in its entirety.

The cool thing about this rather expansive interview is seeing how my views have altered, albeit slightly, on certain topics (television, education, stress, etc.). But because none of my beliefs have actually changed—if anything they’ve just updated over the past two years—I left the answers how they were originally written. Perhaps I’ll write a companion addendum in the future, outlining the nuances of my sharpened beliefs.

Though it’s great conversation, it’s a long one, especially the first ten long-form questions (the final ten are rapid-fire questions, with succinct, one-sentence answers), but it’s chock-full of gems. If you’re a longtime reader, this tete-a-tete might serve as a nice refresher—you’ll find several topics I’ve written about before in books and essays, amended and appended here to better suit Jason’s questions. Enjoy.

Interview with a Minimalist: 20 Q’s for JFM

10 Expansive Questions

1. Who are you, and what are you passionate about?

A great question. Thank you for positing it this way, Jason.

Me? I’m a simple man.

I’m most passionate about writing—especially literary fiction, although I’m best known for my essays at The Minimalists, where I and my best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, write about living meaningfully with less stuff. I like to think of my writing as one part David Foster Wallace, one part Christopher Wallace, and one part William Wallace.

I’m also passionate about indie publishing. I’ve published several books myself, including a bestselling memoir, and so alongside our author friend Colin Wright, Ryan and I founded Asymmetrical Press, a publishing house for the indie at heart. We’re not a traditional publishing company, though; rather, using asymmetrical techniques, we aim to improve the quality of independently published work. Much like great indie films, and great indie bands, I see a need for more great indie authors. The age of the authorpreneur is right around the corner.

2. You may notice I didn’t ask, “What do you do?” in the first question. I actually got this from you when you spoke at Misfit Con earlier this year. Can you talk about why people should stop asking, “What do you do?” 

It’s a dangerous question. Unfortunately, it is often the first thing we ask strangers: “What do you do?” On the surface, it seems like a fairly innocent question, a servile four-word nicety we utter so we have something—anything!—to talk about.

But let’s face it, the majority of the answers are boring, soundbite-ish ripostes we have standing by at the ready, prepped for the next dinner party or networking event: I am a director of operations. I am a regional manager. I am the senior vice president of who-gives-a-shit. Whoop-de-doo. Good for you.

Truth be told, we regurgitate these canned answers because they’re easy to repeat, trance-like and semi-conscious, over and over and over again. No one wants to talk about their boring day job ad nauseam, but it sure is easy to state your name, rank, and serial number: it’s easy to prove that you’re a cog in the wheel or a rung on the ladder—just like everyone else. It’s much harder, however, to talk about other, more important aspects of life. So, instead of finding more meaningful discussions, we go about our days providing lifeless answers to this lifeless question, our collective discs set on repeat.

But think about this question for a moment. In reality, it’s such a broad, salient question that any answer would suffice. What do I do? I do a lot of things: I drink water. I eat food. I write words sloppily onto little yellow legal pads. Once you scrape away its cheap gold-plating, however, you’ll find a series of pernicious inquisitions lurking beneath the surface.

Sadly, what we’re actually asking when we posit this question is: How do you earn a paycheck? How much money do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you? Am I a rung above you? Below you? How should I judge you? Are you worth my time?

There is a better way to answer this query, though: by changing the question altogether—as you brilliantly did at the onset of this interview.

Hence, the next time someone asks you what you do, try this: Don’t give them your job title. Instead, tell them what you’re passionate about, and then change course by asking them what they are passionate about.

I practiced this exercise during my last year in the corporate world. It helped me remove the importance of my job title from my life and ultimately opened me up to discussing my passion for writing with others (which eventually allowed me to walk away from my six-figure corporate career). Sure, I had an impressive job title, but it didn’t make me happy: it didn’t fulfill me. And now I’m more fulfilled by pursuing my dream than by any title.

Think of this shift as changing a noun into a verb. Instead of giving people a title (i.e., a box to put you in), let them know what you enjoy doing—what you’re passionate about—and then discover what they enjoy, as well. The conversation will morph into something far more interesting, and you’ll learn a lot more about each other than your silly little job titles.

3. I’m not going to make you explain who The Minimalists are and what minimalism is, because everyone does that. Instead, I’m really curious to know in the two years you spent getting rid of all your debt and all your useless possessions, how the heck did you do it? What were the actual steps you took?

Baby steps.

I think there are three ways you can jettison the superfluous possessions in your life:

First, you can do what I did and take baby steps. Start small with one room and then gain momentum. Ask yourself, “Does this item add value to my life?” Then do that over and over and over again—with everything you own. Constantly. Habitually.

Nowadays, I don’t own many things, but everything I own adds value to my life. Each of my belongings—my kitchenware, furniture, clothes, car—functions either as a tool or gives some sort of positive aesthetic value to my life. That is, as a minimalist, every possession serves a purpose or brings me joy.

Over time, though, situations’ll change. They always do. And so I’m forced to ask the same important question over and over and over again: Does this thing add value to my life?

But it’s not just material possessions at which I posit this query. I ask it, too, in regard to relationships, social media, and any other potentially superfluous matters in life. I constantly ask this question because circumstances constantly change. Just because something adds value to my life today, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily add value to my life tomorrow. So I keep asking, and I adjust accordingly.

Or, the second option: you can venture down to the extreme end of the spectrum: rent a dumpster, throw all your stuff in it, and move on with your life. Truthfully, this is the best solution, but it’s not possible for most people—not emotionally anyway. I certainly couldn’t’ve done it: I was too emotionally tied to my sentimental items, so I took it slowly instead, constantly questioning everything until that questioning became habitual. But if you can do it—if you can just throw out (or donate) all your stuff—then just do it. Move on. I’ve never, ever missed anything I’ve parted with.

Then, of course, there’s the third path: the middle-of-the-road approach, which is the path my best friend, Ryan (the other half of The Minimalists), took…

After my newfound happiness was apparent—a happiness I attributed largely to getting the excess crap out of the way so I could focus on what’s important—he, too, decided to give this minimalism thing a shot. But he didn’t want to spend months slowly paring down his possessions like I did: he wanted immediate results. So, being the problem-solving guy that he is, he decided to throw a party—a Packing Party. I, of course, volunteered to help.

We decided to pack all his belongings as if he were moving, and then he’d unpack only the items he needed over the next three weeks. I helped him box up everything he owned. We literally pretended he was moving.

Ryan spent the next 21 days unpacking only the items he needed. After three weeks, 80% of his stuff was still sitting there in boxes. Just sitting there. We looked at those boxes and couldn’t even remember what was in most of them. All those things that were supposed to make Ryan happy weren’t doing their job.

So he donated and sold everything. Like me, he got everything out of the way so he could focus on everything that remains.

Regarding debt, I had a boss who once said to me, “The quickest way to give yourself a pay raise is to spend less money.” I agree with that sentiment.

I’m 32 years old, and this year, for the first time in my adult life, I am free of debt. That’s a weird thing for me to be able say, because, you see, from the time I was eighteen—when Chase Bank granted me my first line of credit, a MasterCard with a $5,000 limit, which would’ve made any poor kid from Ohio salivate—until earlier this year (2013), nearly fourteen years later, I’ve had some sort of debt. As my twenties mounted, so did my tab with the creditors.

First it was just that one credit card, and then, when that one was maxed out, it was two. And then three. Visa, MasterCard, even Discover (American Express wasn’t irresponsible enough to grant me a line of credit, not for several years at least).

But that’s OK, I was “successful,” so I could afford it, right? Fresh out of high school, I skipped the whole college route and had instead found a sales job that “let” me work six, sometimes seven, days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. I wasn’t great at it, but I learned how to get better. By age nineteen I was making $50,000 a year. But I was spending $65,000. Unfortunately, I was never great at math. Perhaps I should’ve financed a calculator before maxing out half-a-dozen cards.

I celebrated my first big promotion at age 22 the same way I imagined anyone would: I built a house in the suburbs, financed with zero percent down. Everything in my culture reaffirmed this decision, even told me I was making a solid investment (this was five years before the housing crash). It wasn’t just any old house, though: it was an oversized, two-story monstrosity, complete with three bedrooms, two livingrooms, and a full-size basement (the ping-pong table I never used came later, also financed). There was even a white picket fence—I shit you not.

Soon after building the house, I got married to a wonderful woman—but I was so hyper-focused on my supposedly impressive career that I hardly remember the ceremony. I know it rained that day, and that my bride was beautiful, and I remember fleeing to Mexico for our (financed) honeymoon after the wedding, but I can’t recall much else. When we returned, I got back to work, filling our two-car garage with luxury cars and our new home with fancy furniture and appliances, stacking debt on top of more debt in the process. I was on the fast track toward the American Dream, just a few years ahead of my contemporaries who were all spending likewise, albeit five-or-so years later in their late twenties. But I was ahead of the curve, an exception, right?

At 28, a decade into my accumulation, I was forced to looked around at all the stuff surrounding me. It was everywhere. My house was full of things I’d purchased in an attempt to find happiness. Each item had brought with it a twinge of excitement at the check-out line, but the thrill always waned shortly after each purchase. By the time the credit-card statements arrived, I was overwhelmed with guilt—a strange kind of buyer’s remorse. And so I’d do it all over again, soaking in the suds of consumption—lather, rinse, repeat—in search of something that resembled happiness, an elusive concept that got further and further away the more I chased it.

Eventually, happiness was just a speck on the horizon, way off in the distance.

Turns out I’d been running as fast as I could in the wrong direction. Oops. The stuff wasn’t doing its job: it wasn’t making me happy. In fact, the opposite was true: instead of happiness, I was faced with stress and discontent and anxiety. And massive, crippling debt. And, eventually, depression. I no longer had time for a life outside of work, often laboring 70–80 hours a week just to pay for the stuff that wasn’t making me happy. I didn’t have time for anything I wanted to do: no time to write, no time to read, no time to relax, no time for my closest relationships. I didn’t even have time to have a cup of coffee with a friend, to listen to their stories. I realized that I didn’t control my time, and thus I didn’t control my own life. It was a shocking realization.

What I did with that revelation, however, is much more important than the revelation itself. Faced with epiphany, I turned around and started walking—not running—in the right direction. I spent two years living under new spending standards, what I refer to as my “Ramen Noodles Meal Plan,” slashing all my nonessential wants and likes along the way: I sold the big house (at a significant post-crash loss) and moved into a small apartment; I paid off my car and kept driving it without considering a new one; I cut up the credit cards and started paying for everything with cash; and I bought only the things I needed. Ultimately, I discovered that I truly needed far less than I thought I did. For the first time in my life, I could see happiness getting closer and closer as I walked away from the stuff I thought would make me happy and I started walking toward real happiness. My friends and family started noticing my changed demeanor, too. Over time, life was calmer, less stressed, simpler.

I spent time paying off debt, incrementally, month by month, bill by bill, getting rid of everything superfluous so I could be less tied to my income, less tied to a job that ate up all my time. I didn’t simply jump up and quit my job, though—that would’ve been stupid. Instead, it was a long road: it took two laser-focused years to eliminate 80% of my debt, and after I left my career, as I approached age 30, I took a sizable pay cut, but I still focused on paying down the debt, spending two years slapping around that remaining 20%, never losing sight of the freedom that hid behind it.

4. You have this theory about “just-in-case” items and how people get psychologically attached to things and won’t let them go. I think there’s a great parallel there when it comes to people with their businesses or passions. Someone may not be willing to try something new because they think the thing they’ve always done might eventually work. Thoughts?

We are all familiar with the age-old hypothetical situation in which our home is burning and we must grab only the things that’re most important to us. Of course most of us would not dash into the inferno and reach for material things first: we’d ensure the safety of our loved ones and pets. Then, once they were safe, we’d grab only the irreplaceable things—say, photo albums, computer hard drives, family heirlooms. Everything else would be lost in the conflagration.

I tend to look at this situation a tad differently, though, taking the hypothetical a bit further…

There is a scene in Heat in which Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) says, “Allow nothing in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat.” Although my life isn’t anything like McCauley’s (he’s the movie’s bad guy), I share his sentiment; that is, almost everything I bring into my life—material possessions, ideas, habits, and even relationships—I must be able to walk away from at a moment’s notice.

Many people disagree with me because this ideology might sound crass or insensitive, but I posit it is actually the opposite: our preparedness to walk away is the ultimate form of caring.

If I purchase new possessions, I need to make certain I don’t assign them too much meaning. Being able to walk away means I won’t ever get too attached to my belongings. And being unattached to stuff makes our lives tremendously flexible—filled with opportunity.

If I take on a new idea or habit, I do so because it has the potential to add value to my life. New ideas shape the future Me. Same goes for new habits. But over time, my ideas change, improve, expand; and my current habits get replaced by new habits that continue to help me grow. Hence, our readiness to walk away from ideas or habits means we’re willing to grow—we’re willing to constantly pursue a better version of ourselves.

If I bring a new relationship into my world, I know I must earn their love, respect, and kindness. I also expect that they are willing to walk away should I not provide the support and understanding they require. This means we must both work hard to contribute to the relationship. We must communicate and remain cognizant of each other’s needs. And above all, we must care. These fundaments—love, understanding, caring, communication—build trust, which builds stronger relationships in the long run. It sounds paradoxical, but our willingness to walk away actually strengthens our bond with others. Plus the opposite stance—being chained by obligation to a relationship—is disingenuous, a false loyalty birthed from pious placation.

There are obvious exceptions to this rule. There are certain things we cannot easily walk away from: a marriage, a business partnership, a job that pays the rent, a passion. The key, then, is to have as few exceptions as possible.

Naturally, though, even these exceptions aren’t exceptions for everyone.

Marriages often end (mine did after six years). So do businesses. People get laid off, and passions change over time. So even though we might not be able to walk away from these things in “30 seconds flat,” we can ultimately walk away when these situations no longer add value to our lives (or worse, when they drain value from our lives).

When all is said and done, everything I allow into my life enters it deliberately. If my home was aflame, there’s nothing I own that can’t be replaced. All my photos are scanned. All my important files are backed up. And all my stuff has no real meaning. Similarly, I’m prepared to walk away from nearly anything—even my website or teaching or writing—if need be. Doing so safeguards my continued growth and improves my relationships with others, both of which contribute to a fulfilling life, a life of meaning.

It was C.S. Lewis who, fifty years ago, eloquently said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” In today’s material world, a world of fear-fueled clinging, his words seem more relevant than ever. It’s OK to let go: we needn’t hold on to things just in case.

5. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see up-and-coming creative people making? How can they avoid those mistakes?

Something I refer to as “public masturbation.”

Before I dropped out of college, I came across a ridiculous hand-written sign hanging in a dorm bathroom: in big bold letters it said, “Please masturbate in your own rooms!”

It seemed funny at the time, but doesn’t this sign seem appropriate for today’s masturbatory Internet culture? Many of us get so caught up in displaying ourselves online that we are willing to do just about anything to get attention.

These days, it seems like the quick fix is the new black: it’s in style. Everyone wants it: the overnight success, the secret formula, the magic pill. We all want to Go Viral.

But have we stopped at any point and asked ourselves why? Is there a reason why we try to create the viral video, why we want to write the over-shared blog post, why we need our tweet retweeted 1,000 times?

Everyone is striving for their fifteen minutes of fame. Everyone is attempting to aggregate as many eyeballs as possible in their direction. We have moved past the Information Age and stumbled face-first into the Overcommunication Era.

Once upon a time we all wanted to be liked; now we just want to be “Liked.” It all seems dangerously narcissistic, an entire generation vying for everyone’s most precious resource: our attention.

There is, however, an alternative. Instead of Going Viral, I like to focus on one thing: Adding Value. These two words regularly pop their beautiful little heads into my daily conversations. Habitually, before every book I write, every blog post, even every tweet, I ask myself: Am I adding value?

6. I’m willing to bet all the T-shirts in my closet that a minimalist wouldn’t see going to a standard four-year college as adding value to their life. Taking unnecessary classes, spending tons of money, wasting so much time with things that don’t make you happy. However, most young people don’t see another option or figure it out after the fact. Would you advise young creatives to go to college or take some other path?

I think the education system isn’t broken: it’s just outdated. It worked well during the Industrial Revolution, but it works poorly for today’s creative people.

We enter this world as creators, curious to discover ways to express ourselves visually, auditorily, kinesthetically. But, over time, we are taught to be more “realistic,” to be “safe” and “reasonable” and “normal.” When, in truth, we never wanted to be safe or reasonable. Maybe we wanted to be normal, but today’s normality template is far from what most of us had in mind at age five.

Growing up, we all just wanted to be ourselves: that was normal. But soon we were placed in a classroom, told to stand in line and speak when spoken to, and prescribed ADHD medication if we got out of line. This methodology worked great for creating factory workers and farmers, which seemed ideal when 90% of the population was either the former or the latter.

Today, however, most people are neither factory workers nor farmers (and even those positions have changed radically in the past few decades), and yet we’re all graced with the assembly-line mentality, systematically programmed for compliance, expected to adhere to external standards while disregarding whatever our own internal normal was.

During this process, our creativity is quashed and replaced with a vast emptiness—a desire to create, even though we’re told we’re not creative. It’s no coincidence we start focusing more on consuming around the same time, looking for any(material)thing to fill the void.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Picasso had this observation a century ago, and, unfortunately, these words ring even truer in today’s postindustrial world, a world where our vocations no longer ape the form of pseudo-creation (a la farming and factorying), and thus the gap between creation and consumption widens as we attempt to buy what no one can possibly sell: individual creativity.

The strange thing about this antiquated system is that most of its gatekeepers—government officials, school administrators, and teachers—aren’t operating out of malice. If anything, their reaction is birthed from apathy or comfort (or both). Many teachers are just as disenchanted with the whole mess as we are, though they often feel like just another faceless cog in the wheel, powerless amongst the tyranny of bureaucracy.

Thankfully, there are alternatives: For children, there’re home schooling, unschooling, and wonderful programs like 826 Valencia. And for adults, the options are endless—there are books, blogs, classes, and conferences. Plus, there are scores of people like me—people who’ve rejected the system and aligned their lives with their values and beliefs—who function not as teachers, but as unteachers: we help people unlearn the bullshit they’ve acquired over the years so that they, too, can become unteachers and help further the spread of creativity and ideas.

Most of the time you can circumvent the system—I know first-hand. Even without a college degree, I teach an online writing class. Even without a college degree, I climbed the corporate ladder and managed 150 retail stores by age 27. Even without a college degree, I’ve spoken at Harvard Business School and the University of Montana and dozens of other places I’m not “qualified” to speak (I even have an office at the University of Montana’s start-up incubator). That’s not to say that some routes don’t require traditional learning—you and I wouldn’t do business with a DIY surgeon or dentist—but even those folks can benefit from the new forms of learning. Even traditionalists benefit when they embrace the above-mentioned alternatives.

Of course, none of these alternatives are easy per se, but then again it is way too easy to stand in line, to raise a hand when we want to speak, to blindly follow authority, to capitulate, and, above all, to comply. No thanks.

7. Let’s shift gears to health. Most entrepreneurs don’t realize how closely nutrition and exercise are tied to happiness and success. I lost over 40 pounds a year ago, you lost a staggering 80 pounds in your twenties. What are your eating habits like these days and how do you make it a lifestyle and not a “diet”?

The best thing about my dietary lifestyle is I never get sick anymore—not even after hugging thousands of people during our last book tour.

You see, a few years ago, I used to be a meat-’n’-potatoes kind of guy, and consequently I used to catch a cold several times a year: even when I wasn’t sick, I didn’t feel great. To be honest, I felt like shit most of the time. I used to weigh 70 or 80 pounds more than I weigh now, I had stomach problems, and I was tired and sluggish and I lacked the energy necessary to live an active, fulfilling life.

Today, my diet is markedly different, and I’ve never felt more alive. I no longer have issues with energy or focus. And most important, I feel better. My stomach problems are gone, the excess weight is gone, I no longer get sick, and the spring is back in my step, as it were. And this is why…

Food. My diet today consists mostly of plants and unprocessed foods. I eat an abundance of vegetables and fruits. I’m particularly fond of avocados, spinach, broccoli, anything green—not because they taste good, but because these foods makes me feel outstanding. I also consume rice at most meals, and I eat fish and nuts several times a week. My ideal meal looks something like this: a bowl containing a small portion of rice, half an avocado, a diced tomato, a piece of grilled salmon, a handful of almonds, and a massive spinach-carrot-cucumber salad with almond oil and lemon.

Avoid. There are quite a few foods I’ve drastically reduced—or completely eliminated—from my diet: bread, pasta, sugar, gluten, meat (other than fish), bottom-feeding seafood (lobster, crab, and other garbagemen of the sea), most dairy products, and anything processed or packaged. There are many so-called experts out there—I am not one of them—but it was my friend, Common Sense, who advised me to avoid most of these foods. Think about it: besides humans, do you know of any animals who drink another mammal’s breast milk? What other animal eats bread, pasta, or candy bars? Our bodies are not meant to consume this junk (one can make a good argument for eating meat, but I know that I feel much better without it, and feeling better is my true barometer). But how do I get enough protein, calcium, iron? Well, how does the world’s strongest primate, the gorilla, consume enough of these nutrients? Gorillas eat vegetables and fruit—leaves and bananas (many green vegetables are comprised of 20–45% protein). And you likely need less protein than you think.

Intermittent Fasting. I eat two meals a day (generally no snacks), both consumed within an eight-hour window, usually around 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. I fast during the day’s remaining sixteen hours (i.e., 7 p.m. to 11 a.m.), consuming only water, herbal tea, or black coffee during those times. This is much easier than you think. If you want to lose weight, particularly fat, then intermittent fasting will make a drastic difference in your life. And yes, this means I skip breakfast.

Water, Liquids, and Juice. I drink roughly half my bodyweight in ounces of water each day. I weigh 165-ish pounds (I used to weigh 240 pounds), so I drink 80–90 ounces of water a day. I’m also fond of drinking one to two powdered green drinks every day for increased vitality. Additionally, I own a masticating juicer that’s great for juicing fresh vegetables and fruits, which directly supply my body with the nutrients I need. I also drink coffee, albeit appreciably less than I used to, as well as herbal tea and almond milk—but I eliminated cola and all sugary liquids from my diet (including fruit juices, which contain shockingly high amounts of sugar).

Exercise. I exercise every day, but I don’t spend a ton of time, effort, or focus on it. Instead, I do only two things: 1) I walk five-to-ten miles a day, allowing me plenty of time to think, breathe, and de-stress as I meander the streets of Dayton, Ohio, or Missoula, Montana (where I’m from and where I currently live, respectively), and 2) I workout for eighteen minutes a day, alternating between various bodyweight exercises (pushups, pullups, squats). I’m not worried about building vanity muscles: I’m concerned with how I feel. I’ve discovered that when I eat and exercise in ways that help me feel good, lean muscles are a nice bonus. You don’t have to kill yourself to become fit.

Sleep. Because of diet and exercise, I need less sleep than I used to. Most mornings I wake around 3:30 a.m., after five or six hours of sleep. Some days, however, I sleep later, until 7 or 8 a.m. I let my body dictate how much sleep I need, which happens to be far less sleep than just a couple years ago.

Stress. You don’t get stressed, you do stressed. If I were to ask you what a stressed person looks like, you’d easily be able to mimic his or her physiology. When we start to feel stressed, we do certain things with our bodies: frowning, shallow breathing, muscle tensing, etc. Once you become aware of your stressed physiological state, you can change your physiology—the way you move your body—to become unstressed. Sure, nearly everyone feels stressed these days, but I am significantly less stressed than I’ve ever been, because I make an effort to be aware of my triggers and change my physical movements accordingly. When I feel overwhelmed, I’ll change my breathing pattern, I’ll take a walk, I’ll exercise, I’ll look in the mirror with a big grin, or I’ll make sure no one’s looking and I’ll jump up and down like a crazy person—anything to get me out of that stressed state. (N.B. these techniques effectively combat depression, anger, and sadness, too.)

Most important, after changing my diet and embracing a healthier lifestyle, I feel amazing.

Perhaps you think my diet sounds boring. Well, I don’t think so, but then again I no longer look at food as entertainment. Food is fuel, nothing more. I can still enjoy a great conversation over a healthy meal with friends: I simply don’t need to let the food be my source of entertainment. I enjoy the food I eat—very much so—but I enjoy the rest of my life, too.

Does that mean my exact diet will also work for everyone? Yes, most likely. But maybe not. People ask me about this all the time, and I always say: There’s only one way to know for sure—test it out. You can emulate my diet for ten days and see how it makes you feel, see what aspects work for you. Or try any one aspect for ten days: go without meat or bread or processed foods, add green drink or fresh juice or daily exercise, and notice the changes. I’m certain you can do anything for ten days. See how those changes make you feel, adjust accordingly.

Entrepreneur or no, improving one’s health is the foundation of living a meaningful life. Without your health, nothing else matters. Truth be told, I don’t care what you eat or how you exercise: I’m not looking to convert anyone to my way of eating. I don’t care if you’re a vegetarian, a vegan, or a primal-paleo-whatever. None of these labels apply to my own dietary lifestyle, and arguing the particulars is silly anyway. What I do care about is how you feel. I want you to feel great so you can better enjoy your life and contribute beyond yourself.

Oh, and not getting sick sure is a nice bonus.

8. I usually hate being asked this question, so I never ask it, but I’m really curious to hear what you have to say: Where do you see yourself in five years? You’ve changed so much in your life, do you think that far ahead?

People have all sorts of clever words to describe what they want to do in the future: Objectives. Targets. Plans. Endgame. Outcomes. Goals.

I used to be the Goal Guy when I was in the corporate world. I had financial goals, health goals, sales goals, vacation goals, even consumer-purchase goals (I wish I was kidding). I had spreadsheets of goals, precisely tracking and measuring and readjusting my plans accordingly.

These days life is different, and I no longer have goals. Instead of an arbitrary target, I prefer to have a direction in which I travel. If you’re searching for a sunrise, it’s important to be headed east—for a sunset, west.

I do, however, believe there was a time in my life when goals were direly important: when I was in a hole and I needed to get out. In all honesty, most of my goals were irrelevant (e.g., purchasing and accumulation goals), but a few of my goals helped immensely (e.g., getting out of debt and losing 70-80 pounds).

I liken these latter goals to escaping a crater in the middle of the desert. When I was fat and up to my eyeballs in debt, lingering in that bowl-shaped cavity beneath the ground, my goal was to break free from the sun-scorched basin and find the earth’s surface. You see, I couldn’t even fathom a direction from down there: I simply needed to get out of the hole. And my goals helped me do that. (N.B. I don’t want to give too much credit to the goals, though, since it was actually my consistent actions over time that got me out of those fat and debt craters, not the goals themselves.)

Once I found the surface, though, I no longer needed goals. I simply needed to look around and pick a direction in which I wanted to travel—there were mountains to the west, flat plains to the east, sand dunes to the south, and whispering-pine forests to the north—all blanketed by the complete sum of endless blue heavens above. If I wanted to be on the mountain, I’d need to travel west. If I wanted to get lost in the forest, I’d head north. And so on.

It was Lao Tzu who said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” I obviously agree.

The nice thing about choosing a direction is that you never know what you’re going to get. You might head west in search of the mountains on the horizon, but along the way find a beautiful river instead. Or you might traverse the sand dunes only to find a village a few miles from the crater behind you. Suffice it to say, you never know what’s around the bend.

Once I got out of my craters, I didn’t need goals to enjoy my life: my daily habits help me do that.

I discovered that sometimes it’s OK to wander in the direction of your choice. And if you get lost, so what? I mean, really, would that be so bad? Once you’re out of the crater, you simply need to stay out of other craters. You can always change your direction if you’re unhappy.

My entire life is different from my 27-year-old self’s life. Radically different. But I don’t imagine that my 37-year-old self will be as different. Sure, he will have grown significantly, he will have learned, contributed, and stumbled from time to time, but he’ll’ve been out of those craters, headed in his direction of choice, just enjoying the scenery.

9. You’re so confident and poised when you talk about your current lifestyle, but it had to be scary when you were making these drastic changes. How did you overcome that? How can other people who are scared to make a change overcome their fears?

I’m honestly shocked that I come across as confident or poised.

Risk scares the bejesus out of me. It does the same for most people. Many of us associate risk with failure, failure with pain. Yet we’re told we have to take plenty of risks to succeed. Thus, success must be painful, right? Not necessarily…

When it comes to challenging our preconceived notions about risk, the common platitudinal question that gets tossed around by kindhearted friends and self-help gurus is, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Truth be told, some risks are fairly benign: getting rid of most of your material possessions, asking a cute guy or girl for his or her phone number, learning how to start a blog, writing the first page of the book you’ve always wanted to write. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Likely, nothing at all: there is no real risk in these innocuous endeavors.

Other risks, however, probably should scare the shit out of you: skydiving, purchasing a home, quitting your job. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Umm, some pretty awful shit actually: death, debt, and poverty, respectively.

Although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take these risks: it means you should approach each risk with logic, reason, and intuition. Peer over the edge before taking your proverbial leap, and if it makes sense, then leap—because not leaping can be a much bigger risk.

The difference, then, between the benign risks and the real risks, is that the latter possesses potentially life-altering worst-case consequences, while the former poses virtually no threat at all.

But, when you think about it, the benign risks can also hold life-altering consequences if you change the question: What is the best—not the worst, but the best—thing that could happen? Perhaps getting rid of your excess stuff will free up time, money, and space and give you some much needed peace of mind. Perhaps that phone number will lead to a fulfilling relationship. Perhaps blogging will allow you to communicate with an audience in a meaningful way. Perhaps writing that first page will lead to a second and then a third and so on until you’re staring at a bestseller. Any of these outcomes would likely change your life for the better.

Similarly, the real risks can have tremendous upsides. Jumping from a plane could be the most exhilarating experience of your life, the first time you’ve felt truly alive. A new home might be ideal for your family, a place in which you enjoy meaningful experiences, an investment. Walking away from your career could be the catalyst toward starting your own business, or a life of growth and contribution (it certainly was for me).

That doesn’t mean you should undertake any of these risks, either: it just means that maybe we ought to ask these two questions more frequently. After all, what’s the worst or best thing that could happen if we did?

10. What keeps you inspired these days? Other artists, music, blogs you read, offline activities?

I don’t spend a ton of time online: I don’t have Internet at home (which was the most productive thing I’ve ever done in terms of writing, as well as just living more intentionally). Nor do I own a television. Not because I think TV is bad or evil, but because I’d watch it. A lot. When I used to have a TV, it would just sort of stay on like a fireplace, creating a false sense of warmth. There’s a Zen apothegm that seems apropos here: “Let go or get dragged.”

Music and literature are the two art forms that most inspire me: both mediums provide an exchange of consciousness that can’t be found anywhere else.

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriters (my novel, As a Decade Fades, was about a troubled singer-songwriter), as well as literary fiction (e.g., Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Barth, et al.). I really enjoyed Adelle Waldman’s most recent novel, Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.; she seemed to be able to walk through the mind of a thirty-something male better than most male writers. And I think Matt Sumell is the best short-story writer alive.

10 Rapid-Fire Questions

Please answer with only one sentence. Your thoughts on…

11. One place in the world you’re dying to visit?

Maine, which I’m finally going to visit next year during our tour (Editor’s note: Portland, Maine, was awesome!).

12. The process of writing a book?

Tedious, but rewarding: 80% of my time I want to put my head through a wall, but the other 20% is the best—or maybe second best—feeling in the world.

13. The last thing you got rid of?

A teeshirt I no longer enjoyed wearing.

14. The last thing you purchased?

Table and chairs for my dining room.

15. One book everyone should read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, although I know only two other people who have actually finished this 1,079 tome.

16. Favorite hip-hop artist from the 90s?

Ras Kass.

17. What outfit are you currently wearing?

My one pair of jeans, a blue oxford, and a thermal undershirt (it’s cold in Montana).

18. Wikipedia?

Adequate citation source.

19. Your preferred medium for writing? Laptop? Typewriter? By hand? 

I have a strange process: notes by hand, laptop for the first draft, second draft by hand, and then third, fourth, fifth (etc.) drafts on the laptop again.

20. Final thought or last piece of wisdom?

You can’t change the people around, but you can change the people around you.