Why I Gave Up on Extreme Minimalism


backpackbnwWhen I arrived in Japan just over a year ago, I had nothing but a backpack, a small purse, and a laptop bag. I had just spent three months in Honolulu, Hawaii trying to find a way to make a living through freelance work online, but things weren’t working out too well. The atmosphere of Honolulu didn’t fit me as well as I’d thought it might, and I found myself missing Japan more than ever. The stress of trying to “pull myself up by my own bootstraps” in such an expensive city also made it nearly impossible to focus on what I really wanted to do at the time: Make music. Realizing that both my sanity and my wallet were growing dangerously thin, I decided to use my last remaining frequent flyer miles to take a one-way flight to Tokyo and find work. (Thank goodness I had those miles, because I couldn’t have afforded the flight otherwise.)

After about a month of searching and completely emptying my bank account, I ended up taking a job teaching kindergarten. The school helped me find an apartment, and although it would take a while to get completely back on my feet financially, it was a huge relief knowing I didn’t have to worry anymore. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually loved teaching kindergarten, so I’ve now signed on for a second year.

They say you can tell a lot about a people by looking at their bedrooms. But if you had seen my room back in Honolulu, you wouldn’t have been able to tell much about me. I did have a ukulele sitting in the corner, so maybe you would have guessed I play. Other than that though, there was pretty much nothing in that room expressing who I was. The walls were completely bare, and there were no gizmos or gadgets sitting around. I could have thrown all my belongings into a backpack and flown away at a moment’s notice (which I obviously did).

If you could see that room compared to the apartment I live in now, you would probably never guess the same person lived in them. I look around me now and see that I’ve accumulated a good amount of “stuff”– definitely more than I could fit into a backpack. My lonely ukulele has now been joined by a second ukulele, two guitars, and a piano. On my desk I have speakers and a microphone, and a small but growing collection of books (mostly all language learning books). My wall is decorated with greeting cards and concert tickets and drawings and kindergarten crafts. And I’m sorry to say that my floor is currently a complete mess, with several articles of clothing and empty grocery bags having scattered themselves carelessly onto it. This, I’m sure you would agree, is not the apartment of someone who might call herself a minimalist.

There are a lot of bloggers who advocate minimalism, especially in the travel and lifestyle design niches. And there is definitely something to it. Most people in the developed world have more stuff than they really need, and it can be very freeing to get rid of it. Having less stuff can make it easier to stay organized and to focus on the things that are most important to you. And of course, it also makes it easier to move around a lot, if that’s something you want to do. But after having tried a rather extreme form of minimalism, I’ve found it has downsides that outweigh the benefits for me.

As explained in a previous post, throughout my life I’ve had a variety of intense interests that come and go unpredictably. So I might be obsessed with reading psychology books for several months, then suddenly become possessed by an overwhelming desire to learn to play the flute. (That’s just a hypothetical example, but it could totally happen.) I have called myself a “serial obsessive”, but people like me have also been referred to as “scanners“, “multipotentialites”, “polymaths”, and “renaissance people”.

It’s hard being this way sometimes, because society doesn’t consider it the norm and provides no guidelines for how us “renaissance people” might build our lives in a way that suits us. We’re expected to pick one specialization and build a career around it. We’re supposed to start thinking about this at a very young age, because there’s not much time before we’re supposed to be sure enough about it to invest thousands of dollars to earn a degree in a subject it is assumed we will stick to until we retire. Talk about pressure.

It took me a while to figure out that this model simply does not work for me. I can’t pick something I’m passionate about and build a career around it, because I have too many passions and none of them are constant. For instance, I love to draw– but only when I feel like it. So if I were to become a professional artist, the art I once loved would feel like a burdensome chore whenever my passion for it decided to go on sabbatical, and I would be dying to spend my time doing some other random thing instead. I would suffocate, and probably go broke because I simply would not be able to force myself to draw all the time.

For a while I thought I just needed variety, and that moving around to different countries and traveling a lot would be a good way to get it. So right after I got my bachelor’s degree (in Asian Studies, after having switched from Music Composition), I moved to Taiwan to teach English. I moved to Japan the following year, moved to France a few years after that, and visited quite a few other countries in between.

It was an exciting lifestyle, but as the years went on I found myself feeling more and more burdened by the amount of “stuff” I was carrying around. (Trust me: You’ll never really know how much stuff you have until you try moving. And I was moving every one or two years.) So I gradually reduced my possessions, until finally I got down to the extreme of a single backpack. Ironically though, by that point I was starting to feel unfulfilled with all this moving around and traveling. The idea of exploring new countries and learning new languages didn’t seem as exciting to me anymore, and I was feeling a growing desire to immerse myself in making music instead.

Japan has always felt like home to me, so I decided to “settle” here– at least for a while. I got another teaching job, rented an apartment, bought some music gear, and started making music in my free time. For a while it was amazing, and I felt happier and more fulfilled than I had in a long time. I got so into making music that I even felt convinced I simply had to pursue a music career. Not long ago I was quite seriously scheming about how I might get myself a record deal and become a full-time musician.

I don’t know why I was so set on this, or why I was so convinced my new-found passion for music would never wane. I should have remembered the day I suddenly woke up and didn’t feel like drawing anymore, or the time I dropped everything to watch every documentary I could possibly find about polygamous societies (yeah okay, so my interests are a little weird sometimes). And I shouldn’t have been surprised a few weeks ago when I lost interest in making music, randomly decided to start learning German, and quickly became obsessed with it.

But you know what? I’m glad this happened as soon as it did. I’m glad I didn’t get so far as to actually become a professional musician living out of a tour bus. Because you see, I can go back to making music whenever I want. All my instruments and all my recording gear are still sitting here in my apartment, and I can pick them up at any time. My German books are also sitting on my desk, and I’m free to continue plowing through them for as long as I wish. I’m also free to let them sit and gather dust for a while, because they will still be there whenever I want to get back to them. I have drawing paper and watercolor pencils and paints in my apartment, and although I haven’t felt like drawing for a while, I can easily do so whenever inspiration hits.

Do you see what I’m getting at? The things I have here aren’t just things. They are tools I use to explore my passions. I don’t want the place I live to be a bare-bones place devoid of expression, because that’s not who I am or how I want to live my life. There’s no road map for people like me, so it may very well be that I still haven’t found the best way to “do me”. But I seem to function best when I’m free to go with the flow of my fluctuating interests. And it’s easiest to do that when I have the tools I need readily available to me.

My apartment now feels like a playground, like a sanctuary of possibilities. And I simply can’t fit all of that into a backpack.