This is part of our Rockstar Book Review series.
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“Everything That Remains” is an Entertaining and Thought-Provoking Memoir
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, good friends since the fifth grade, hold no punches in this raw memoir. They take the reader on a journey from their early days to the present as each, in their own way, went about building the life they thought they wanted – by getting the right job, marrying the right girl, buying the right house, car and stuff – only to find out that this life wasn’t at all what they wanted. It might have looked like the perfect life to others, but inside they were broken, empty vessels. They’d lost themselves by spending too much time looking from the outside in instead of the inside out.
Joshua woke up first as a result of having to divest himself of his late mother’s possessions, and then also thanks to his discovery of this thing called minimalism. First, he stumbled upon Colin Wright (Exile Lifestyle) on TV, then Joshua Becker (Becoming Minimalist), Courtney Carver (Be More with Less & Project 333), and Leo Babauta (Zen Habits). Their lifestyle and their beliefs about what success looks like intrigued him enough to take action.
It wasn’t too long before Ryan started to notice changes in Josh’s attitude and level of personal life satisfaction, which led to Ryan’s own awakening in a much more abrupt manner: the Packing Party. Ryan packed everything he owned and, over a period of time, rid himself of everything that he did not use on a regular basis.
The authors’ respective journeys are relatable, entertaining and informative. They make us as readers start “what-if-ing”. What if I changed what I do for a living? What if I downsized my living space? What if I got rid of all this extra stuff? What if…?
Further, in much of their memoir, the word “debt” could be a substitute for “stuff”, which makes the book just as relevant for readers who don’t feel the push toward minimalism, but who do have an appetite for more freedom – though I appreciate these are inextricably linked by the mere fact that they are both tied to consumption.
Lessons from The Minimalists
The Minimalists’ memoir includes some powerful lessons. Among these:
- We are not our stuff
- Relationships matter more than anything
- Everything that is not essential to us in the present is a distraction
#1. We Are Not Our Stuff
Both Joshua and Ryan’s experiences point to the same conclusion: our default as people is to maintain the status quo. And, what they call anchors (career, status, stuff, debt, empty/negative relationships), tend to keep us from making changes.
In essence, our identity starts to be defined by our stuff and external labels & obligations as opposed to the other way around. The world starts to act upon us as we live our lives. We let ourselves become puppets, actors in our own lives. It’s a sad realization, a harsh wakeup call that helps us take action, at least once we’re unhappy enough to be receptive, to wake up and listen.
[I]n today’s world of achieving and earning and endless striving for more, the American Dream really just seems to imply that we are fat and in debt, discontented and empty, every man an island, leaving a void we attempt to fill with more stuff. (pg. 40)
#2. Relationships Matter More Than Anything
The memoir repeatedly points to the importance of strong, fulfilling relationships, both with ourselves and with others. The thesis is that we can better fill our time by developing strong bonds with others than we can by acquiring stuff that requires attention but rarely returns it.
The authors point to connection as a source of happiness. They also emphasize that seeking understanding through contemplation and conversation, as well as through continuous learning by connecting with others and with ourselves, is rewarding beyond measure. And, to do that, we need each other.
At the end of the day, will we care that we didn’t make more money or buy more stuff, or will we cherish the connections we made and nurtured throughout our lives?
How many relationships had my pursuit of possessions ruined? And just as bad, how many potential relationships—new friends, neighbors, people in my community—had I missed out on while amassing my shiny treasures? (pg. 56)
#3. Everything That is Not Essential to Us in the Present is a Distraction
“Just in case” is a phrase that holds more power than the three little words would have us believe. It came up during Ryan’s packing party as a reason to keep various items. Joshua’s reflections on this idea of “just in case” provide clear direction: shed it and you’re not likely to regret it. And, in the rare instances when you have discarded an item you find you could use, it’s most likely highly replaceable, with little cost or inconvenience.
In his estimation, the payoff of reducing our possessions far outweighs the pain of realizing we discarded something we ended up needing. This disproportionate benefit of divesting is based on two realities:
- It focuses us on the present—on where we are now—not on where we were or where we thought we ought to be, and
- We will more than likely never use just in case items.
Despite these realities, we’re repeatedly willing to pay the mental, emotional and physical carrying costs required to continue owning “just in case stuff”.
After reading this passage, I’ve come to realize how much “just in case” storing I’ve been doing myself. I haven’t been able to look at my living space the same way since!
Just because something adds value today, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily add value tomorrow. (pg. 72)
I encourage anyone who does or doesn’t already live a downsized lifestyle to read this book, or at least watch their documentary “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things” (available on Netflix at the time of this writing) and/or their TEDx Talks.
Both authors are entertaining and informative for anyone who is contemplating making a move toward simplifying their life or who wants to keep successfully maintaining the positive changes already achieved. After all, it’s a way of life that requires focus and maintenance because living simply is more work than it may appear to be on the surface.
If you’re looking for other books about minimalism, I can recommend books from a number of the authors The Minimalists identified as the source of their inspiration, as well as other individuals quoted in the documentary: “Simplify” by Joshua Becker, “Enough” by Patrick Rhone, “My Exile Lifestyle” by Colin Wright, “You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)” by Tammy Strobel and “The Overspent American” by Juliet B. Schor.
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