OCTOBER 10, 2017
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Sonrisa Andersen’s parents were hoarders. The tide of extraneous stuff was out of her control. “I tried to clean it up, but as a kid, you could only get so far,” the 31-year-old recalls when we meet at a bar in Cincinnati, Ohio. At 17, she joined the Air Force and moved to New Mexico before landing another military job back in Colorado. But the oppressive environment of her childhood had changed her relationship to possessions: “I started to accumulate, because everything I couldn’t have growing up, I was like, I need it.”
Across moves to Alaska and then to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she now lives with her husband, Andersen’s house began to overflow with decorations from Ikea, gadgets from Amazon, souvenirs from running marathons, and piles of scrapbooking materials. She bought things on reflex, more out of a desire to buffer herself against scarcity than actual necessity. She ended up with $13,000 in credit-card debt, on top of debt from two cars and her husband’s student loans. “The idea of clutter would wear so heavily on my mind,” she says. “The inability to accept or live within our means took its toll.”
Then, Googling ways to get out of debt, she found the Minimalists. It’s a blog started by two guys from Ohio in their mid-30s, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Since 2010, the pair has carved out a lifestyle-guru niche for themselves through blog posts, books, a podcast with 6 million monthly downloads, and a Netflix documentary instructing their audience in getting rid of all the material possessions weighing them down and renegotiating their relationship to objects. Their doctrine of minimalism isn’t just a Marie Kondo–style cleaning method; it’s more of an anti-materialist moralism. “How might your life be better with less?” as Millburn often asks.
The Minimalists have found a rabid following among Americans exhausted by their own consumerism and stricken by a sense of lost agency. Problems with stuff — having too much of something or too little of another — abound, and the audience for an anti-materialist message is wide. Among Millburn and Nicodemus’s fans are millennials with no hope of buying real estate, much less retiring, without stringent saving tactics, as well as families who need to downsize because of lost jobs or divorce. Even for the wealthy, corporate jobs are uninspiring and McMansions tacky. We’re encouraged to build our identities on consumption, but lately capitalism seems less satisfying than ever, and not just for proto-socialists.
Millburn and Nicodemus are currently sermonizing in a national “Less Is Now” tour that’s selling out theaters from Boston to Los Angeles. Becoming a minimalist makes everything so simple: “You’re just happy with what you have,” Andersen tells me. “It’s a meditative thing, almost like repeating a mantra.”
By the time Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published in the United States in 2014, the country was already in the midst of a quiet cleaning binge. Call it minimalism, intentionalism, or just simple living; a group of bloggers had gathered around the idea that you don’t need as much stuff as you think you do. There was Joshua Becker, a Phoenix, Arizona, father who embraced minimalism in 2008 when he got overwhelmed with the clutter in his garage; Colin Wright, an entrepreneurial millennial traveler; and Courtney Carver, who gave her blog the aspirational title Be More With Less. But with their combination of multi-platform publishing and relentless self-promotion, not to mention the particular charm of their buddy-act, the Minimalists have become the movement’s American ringleaders.
I meet Millburn and Nicodemus one afternoon while they’re assembling their stage set (two chairs and two microphones) at Bogart’s, the sticky-floored music venue near the University of Cincinnati that’s one of the tour’s three stops in Ohio. Millburn is the brains behind the operation, prone to referencing Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Quiet, whip-thin, with a feline face and swept-back hair, he wakes up before 4 a.m. every day to write the Minimalists’ material. Nicodemus is stockier with long, dark locks like an aging metal guitarist, and contributes a gregarious charisma. He says man and dude a lot, and it doesn’t come as a surprise that he played tons of Halo before giving it up as a minimalist. Both are dressed entirely in black.
The pair grew up around Dayton, Ohio, in challenging circumstances: Millburn’s family was poor, and their electricity would sometimes go out for days at a time; Nicodemus was raised as a zealous Jehovah’s Witness, and his parents separated when he was 7. They became close friends as students and cheered each other on toward that emblem of the American dream: well-paid corporate jobs. Eventually, they both reached high positions in sales at a local telephone-service company coordinating hundreds of employees. By the time they were 28, they had everything they thought they wanted: “the six-figure salary, the luxury cars, the designer clothes, the big suburban house with more toilets than people,” Millburn says, setting up the well-rehearsed parable.
But they got disillusioned, scrambling to keep up with 80-hour workweeks, in over their heads with drugs and alcohol (Nicodemus) and debt (Millburn). An epiphany arrived when Millburn’s mother passed away and he traveled to St. Pete Beach in Florida to deal with everything she left behind. “Three apartments’ worth of stuff crammed into her tiny one-bedroom apartment,” he says. Struggling with what to keep and what to throw away, he came across one of blogger Colin Wright’s videos about minimalism and was quickly converted.
Rather than packing his mother’s stuff in a storage unit, he donated it to Goodwill. “Our memories are not inside of things; they’re inside of us,” he realized, repeating one of the duo’s commandments. Back home, he challenged himself to throw out at least one thing a day for a month. When Nicodemus noticed how happy Millburn was with this newfound lifestyle, he wanted to join in, too. So the pair hosted what they now call a “packing party.” It’s less twee than Kondo’s “spark joy” ritual, but perhaps more efficient: You pack all your stuff into boxes and only take something out when you actually need it. After a few weeks, you get rid of anything still packed up.
The pair launched the blog in 2010, building an audience through national tours of cafés and bookstores. They self-published books, launched a podcast, and shot a feature-length documentary about minimalists around the world. Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things was acquired by Netflix in 2016, providing them a massive platform that brings in the majority of new fans today. The pivot to video “made the message a bit more accessible,” Millburn says between sound checks. “The average person in Cincinnati isn’t reading books anymore.”
A particular minimalist doctrine evolved that’s now codified on the duo’s website, designed to make participating as simple as possible to the point of glibness. You can play the “Minimalism Game”: Partner with a friend for accountability, pick a month, then throw out one thing on the first day, two things on the second, and so on. Or take the “21-Day Journey,” which devotes days to reconsidering your possessions as well as your beliefs — i.e., that objects will make you happy — and your relationships —surrounding yourself with people who support your newfound minimalism.
Like any cult of lifestyle, they created a specialized vocabulary. “Stuff” is our chief pathology. Possessions are needless “pacifiers”; “value” is to be sought above all else. Like an AA meeting for materialism, the podcast provides a consistent reminder to follow the principles, as does the Minimalists’ Instagram, which posts black-and-white memes with phrases like, “It’s easy to get what you want when you want less” and “Limitations breed creativity.”
Other minimalist bloggers might offer similar content, but Millburn and Nicodemus have the mainstream packaging down. They’re youthful and photogenic, with an air of worldly experience — they had a taste of that corporate success, and like two large prodigal sons, renounced it. They bring to mind an off-brand, non-sibling version of the Property Brothers, with their partnership giving fans access to two different personality types, the introvert and the extrovert (“He’s OCD and I’m ADD,” Nicodemus tells me). Part of their success can be explained in their lack of any ideology that might prove divisive. They are firmly middlebrow, de-emphasizing political beliefs, spirituality, and even class. “We’ll have Christians and atheists, men, women, old, young,” Nicodemus says. “I think minimalism is something where everyone can find at least one ingredient to help them.” You can be a millionaire CEO and still be a minimalist, according to the pair, as a handful of their fans are.
Kyle Schott, an energetic entrepreneur and Pilates instructor, volunteered as the Minimalists’ Facebook-group leader in Cincinnati after moving here from Chicago this year. “This feels like a change in the lens that you look at life through,” she says. Like taking up yoga, playing in a kickball league, or going to church, it also provides an ad hoc social structure, Schott explains: “I was totally looking to build my own community here.”
Several people ask if I’m a minimalist, too. I answer that most New York City–dwellers are by default, space being the ultimate luxury commodity. Possessions don’t build up in our basements and spare closets, because those places don’t exist. But Millburn and Nicodemus have connected a network across the country of people who are struggling, giving them a mutually recognizable label.
Once a month, the Minimalists’ local Facebook groups meet in person, discussing anything from cleaning strategies to personal problems. Online, however, the communities have a more obsessive vibe, as on the Minimalist Life, a 118,000-member group started by an Ohio fan named Heather Rose. There, homeowners post photos of their renovated kitchens, reduced down to four plates on open shelving. Replacements for toilet paper are often discussed (look up “family cloth,” or don’t), as are tips for downsizing as a single parent and how to tell relatives that you don’t want birthday gifts for yourself or your children. Like religious novitiates, everyone is on their own minimalist “journey” toward total clutter absolution.
We arrive at Bogart’s to find a crowd of around 500, surprisingly diverse in age and gender, if not race — from punk teenagers to entire families in sports gear, the dads swilling Rhinegeist in clear plastic cups. The lights dim; an apropos theme song plays (“Every little thing that’s just feeding your greed / Oh, I bet that you’d be fine without it”); and Millburn and Nicodemus walk out on stage, to raucous applause.
The event is halfway between a TED Talk and a hipster-megachurch sermon — the crowd is here for easy answers delivered in familiar patterns. Minimalism tends to attract seekers and life-hackers, anyone in search of a new idea to fine-tune their psyche and optimize their happiness. Yet the lecture is based on experiences and feelings, instead of data or doctrine. The guys are less authority figures than sympathetic fellow journeyers sharing what they’ve learned, a “recipe,” as they call it, for late-capitalist living.
“We’re not talking about an easy life, but a simple one,” Nicodemus intones. “To get there, we might have to get rid of some stuff along the way. Who here wants to talk about letting go?”
Letting go of your stuff — like they did — but also letting go of the idea that materialism can bring satisfaction. First, the pair recounts their origin story, and after an intermission, they take questions from the crowd. A 20-something man comes up to ask if he should take on loans to go to grad school. Answer: “If you don’t have a clear vision on why you want that, then you’re going to be chasing for the rest of your life,” Nicodemus says from his seat onstage.
Then, an older man asks how he can quit his corporate job while still maintaining health care for his diabetic son. “I wish I could tell you that minimalism is going to solve all of your problems, but it’s not,” Millburn says, suggesting that he figure out how much money it would take to sustain the health care and go from there.
The questions that the Minimalists get — how to leave unfulfilling careers, raise children to be happy, or simply find meaning — are as much about personal identity, about how to make a life in trying times, as they are about clutter. We can’t quit jobs because there are so few left. We worry about money because we pay so much for unsubsidized medicine and rent. We buy things because we’re missing other ways to measure our progress. Minimalism — taking up the least amount of room and resources possible — is presented as a solution when perhaps it’s more of a stopgap.
The mania over clutter seems like a symptom of a larger alienation. And though, on the surface, their message is more or less positive, there’s a tacit pessimism to Millburn and Nicodemus’s movement. Rather than trying to change this mindset of austerity (whether through therapy, politics, or protest), they advocate making do with the lack.
After the event, Nicodemus greets his mother and siblings, who live nearby. Kelly Nicodemus, a gruff presence in a multicolored caftan, says her son has sharpened his message from a few years back — “It doesn’t surprise me; Ryan’s a salesman.”
As fans file out of the theater, they gather in the lobby to buy books and join a hug line, which concludes every Minimalists event. At the front of the line, fans tell the pair how the documentary, podcast, or blog changed their lives, get books signed (Millburn suggests they “minimize” the books later), and then lean in for bear hugs and selfies. Some confess to the guys that they haven’t gotten rid of as much as they would like to; others talk about moving into smaller homes or pursuing their creative passions. “You’re here because the message resonates,” Millburn says. “We happen to be the messengers.”
I meet Andersen farther back in the crowd looking a little nonplussed. “I’m a late-stager; I don’t need any convincing,” she says, adding that it was nice to see the message reaching other people, the minimalist tribe growing, the stranglehold of stuff on our selves loosening. She paid off all that debt in February of this year and rid herself of the object-based dregs of the 20th-century American Dream. “You see it on TV and that’s what people aspire to be. It’s something we do without thinking,” she says, with a discernible hint of sympathy for those unconverted materialists.
We stand by as the long hug line furls out before the Minimalists, whose enthusiasm, at least, is undeniable and unflagging. When each follower steps forward, they squeeze the need for stuff out of them, one by one.