On Scarcity

As a child growing up in an immigrant family, I’ve always been taught to treasure every hard earned penny. Whenever I did make a big purchase, whether it was for something fun like going out with friends, or even for something I genuinely needed, instead of enjoying it I would feel guilty about it for days.

Looking back, I understand now that I was operating under a scarcity mindset. I was taught by my parents that you couldn’t be sure that there would always be enough, so you better make every penny count because one day you might really need it.

To be fair, this kind of attitude was true to their experience. There were times in their childhood when they genuinely didn’t have enough to eat if they didn’t work hard for it. So they did everything they could to set up a life where that wouldn’t apply to their children.

It worked, because fortunately I’ve never had to go hungry. But I inherited their scarcity mindset about everything, including their attitude towards money and possessions. Growing up, we would hang onto everything we had, including furniture, clothes, toys, everything and anything, and hardly threw stuff away, even if we didn’t need it anymore.

It wasn’t until I discovered minimalism as a teenager, and spent the next decade writing and developing my own life philosophy around it that I was able to change. I was motivated from being able to see that my parents weren’t much happier, even when they were surrounded by all the money and stuff they earned and saved over the years.

Thanks to discovering minimalism, I got rid of things I no longer used and didn’t feel guilty about it. I stopped caring as much about what people thought of me, so I no longer felt the need to buy things I didn’t need. With my savings, I was able to quit my job and start my own business. Now I never have to worry about not having enough, and that makes me feel more free than ever. I am thankful every day for that.

Living in scarcity feels like having a daily dose of fear. It helps you survive, and sometimes it’s what you need. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve learned now that it’s only by living with a mindset of abundance that you can thrive.

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On Appreciation

What phenomenon happens to every person on earth every day of their lives without anyone realising it or learning from?

The answer is hedonic adaptation. It’s the tendency of humans to go back to a stable level of happiness, even after something good (or bad) has happened to them.

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing or buying something that seemed unobtainable at the time, thinking, “I’ll be happy when I have that”, then after getting it you find yourself getting so used to having it that eventually you move onto wanting something new, you’ve experienced running on the hedonic treadmill.

You keep chasing bigger and better things, but you’re not really going anywhere. That’s how people who win the lottery revert back to the same level of happiness after a few years, and even billionaires have their own problems. In the end there is never enough money/stuff/fame/power/achievements/love that you can’t get used to eventually.

It may be in our nature to always be seeking more, but it’s a recipe for perpetual unhappiness.

What can we do about it? It turns out, insatiable human appetite isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s a conundrum at least 2,000 years old because even in ancient times the Stoics were thinking about it. They may not have been pining for the latest smartphone or sports cars back then, but they had the same issues we do today—how do we find a balance between our unlimited wants with trying to live a virtuous and happy life?

Their solution was simple—imagine the worst that could happen. They called this negative visualisation. Essentially it’s an exercise where you take the things you value the most, it could be anything at all, and imagine for a minute not having it. You’ll realise just how much you take it for granted.

For example, think of a beloved spouse, family member, or child. It sounds horrible, but imagine they will die tomorrow. What will you do on their last day? Would you waste time watching TV or staying late after work? No! You would spend every moment you could with that person, savouring every minute of it.

Compare this with someone who takes the more common approach of banishing all negative thoughts from their mind. They think they’re better off but they are living in denial that their beloved could one day be gone. So they go about their daily lives as most people do, without realising that they’re taking the most precious things for granted. In the end, they will probably have more regrets about how they spent their time

You might think this is all quite morbid, but who do you think is the person who is happier and more grateful for their loved one? Is it the person who periodically thinks about the fact that nothing lasts forever so they better make the most of it, or the person who doesn’t think about it at all? Who do you think is more grateful? Who do you think will have the fewest regrets?

The same could be applied to anything—you could imagine for a minute losing your home, or your job, or your health, or specific things such as your eyesight, access to the internet, running water, or political stability in your country… there is an infinite number of things that would be terrible or uncomfortable to live without. There is so much to be grateful for.

The Stoics advised doing this kind of exercise every now and again, maybe a few times a week or daily at most. Imagining the worst isn’t supposed to make you worry or become a morbid pessimist. It’s a reminder to appreciate things while you have them, and mitigate utter disappointment when not everything goes your way.

Saying that, exercising negative visualisation doesn’t mean anyone wouldn’t be devastated to lose something that is important to them. It’s not intended to be a magical solution to all problems. But learning to be grateful for what you already have, even for a few moments, will give you a break from running on that treadmill. 

Indeed, often when I do this, when I realise I still have whatever it is I was thinking about losing, it feels like I’m waking up from a bad dream. I’m so relieved that it even makes me smile. So I encourage you to ask yourself today—what do you value most that you take for granted?

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On Saying No

Learning to say no is an essential part of living minimally.

Most of the things we’re asked to or recommended to do/see/try/buy etc. are rooted in other people’s desires, needs, and expectations, not from our own.

You only have a certain amount of time in life. It’s a zero sum game—the more you fill it with one thing, the less you have to fill it with something else. It’s a direct trade off. 

By saying no, you avoid wasting time and effort on things that distract you from what really matters.

It takes courage and discipline to say no, especially if people are relying on you. That’s when you have to ask yourself the hard questions about what’s most important to you, and then do what you need to do. 

If you’re not sure what to do then try this—if it isn’t a ‘fuck yes!’, then it’s a no. 

Go on, live your life protecting your time as if it’s your most precious resource, because it is. 

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On Parents

There is a lot that I owe to my parents for everything they’ve done for me. For Mother’s Day this year, I wrote an appreciation post (which you can read here via Minimal Student).

It’s good for me to reflect on topics like this because it makes me think about how far we’ve come as a family.

As I’ve grown older and have developed more of an equal relationship with my parents as a fellow adult — as opposed to having a childish idolisation of them— I’ve come realise that they have flaws just like anyone else.

We have our disagreements about things, and sometimes I get (very) frustrated with them but I should try to remember where they come from. It was a completely different world to mine, and they had to work extremely hard to keep up with it all.

My parents were never the affectionate kind. They always showed their love by doing things for me and my siblings. They loved us because they looked after us, and they looked after us because they loved us. I didn’t realise how much of an effect that had on me until I was in a long term relationship of my own and found myself doing the same for my partner.

As I look to a future where they are getting older, and I’ll soon be having children of my own, I find myself hoping that this next phase in our relationship is a fulfilling one. The years of hard labour are behind us now, but that doesn’t mean the hard work is over. Even from here I can see there’ll be other obstacles ahead of us, but as long as we stick together we’ll face them together as a family.

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On Tidying

Inspired by her Netflix show, I’ve been re-reading Marie Kondo’s books ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ and ‘Spark Joy’ and decided to do a write up about it on Minimal Student comparing her method with minimalism.

It’s been a good exercise to question again what minimalism means to me. When I moved into my current home, I could fit everything in a suitcase and a couple of bags. Now, having settled in the same place for three years, I’ve accumulated a lot of things which has both added and subtracted from my quality of life.

On the one hand, I’m proud to have some furniture to call my own. To be able to have exclusive use of things that belong to me, that I’ve earned every penny to buy, is a good feeling. The same goes for my own clothes, books, and other stuff that I own. It’s comforting.

On the other hand, I can feel what were once empty spaces shrinking around me. Things are starting to gather and pile up in areas that used to be clear. We are still pretty minimalist on the grand scale of things, but one day we will have to move on from here and a lot of it will have to go.

For most things, I won’t mind gratefully saying goodbye. A big change for me was getting into the habit of saying ‘thank you’ to things before getting rid of it. And to be able to sell/give away things to people who live locally who want and need it. It makes letting go much easier.

The category I struggle most with is my books. I mainly read non-fiction so I like to get physical copies so I can refer to them often. Many of them border on sentimental as they’ve come into and helped me at different phases of my life. So much so, I’ve basically justified having them because getting rid of them means I’ll end up buying another copy again anyway.

This is where thinking of things that ‘spark joy’ really helped. Why should I get rid of something that makes me happy anyway? It’s already enough of a struggle to find happiness in life, there’s no sense in making it harder by chopping out things just for the sake of it.

So I would still call myself a minimalist. The main reasons why I have written about minimalism for almost ten years now is because I wanted to spread the word that life doesn’t have to be about stuff, and that everyone can have their own definition of what minimalism means to them. After all these years, my definition is still evolving and adapting to wherever I am in life, and I’m glad for it.

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Last Year Reflections & Resolutions for 2019

At the end of each year, I find it a helpful exercise to look back on different areas of my life to see how things have changed, for better or for worse. Thankfully, with time and deliberate effort, this year I’ve managed to make good progress in most areas of my life:

People/relationships—The biggest thing that happened to me this year is that I got engaged! My partner and I have been happily together for six years now, and we’re very excited to move onto the next chapter in our life. With my grandma passing earlier in the year I made a special effort to spend more time with my family, including going on two trips abroad with both of my parents, something they hadn’t done in years.

  • People lesson of 2018: Even though it’s always possible to change and improve, many people choose to see the world as they want to. Whether it’s as a victim of circumstance or an agent of change, it’s not my responsibility (or even within my ability) to help everyone. Also, there is such a thing as people who love you for you are, but at the same time make you a better person for being with them.
  • People resolution for 2019: Don’t waste time and heartache on stubborn people. Make time for those who make me happiest.

Health—Although I managed to train and complete a marathon in 2016 and 2017, with my business taking up more of my time this year I couldn’t fit in the training for another marathon and settled on regularly attending fitness classes instead. So I didn’t participate in any major running events but I have improved in areas such as strength and flexibility. In 2019 I plan to do a yoga teaching qualification—hopefully the anticipation of the course and the training itself will motivate me to get exponentially stronger and more flexible.

  • Health lesson of 2018: A healthy body isn’t just about being slim—it’s about being strong, flexible, durable, adaptable, fast, and eating well.
  • Health resolution for 2019: Inspired by this Instagram, I will do something that contributes to my strength and flexibility everyday, even if it’s only a few stretches. Also, I will try to get my yoga teaching qualification, finally after 5+ years of practising yoga.

Business—I’ve increased the size and net income of my investment portfolio by a third over the last year which is a great achievement, but I had originally aimed for a 50% increase. Circumstances at the end of the year meant that I couldn’t complete in certain investments before the end of the year, but I should be very grateful for what I’ve accomplished and keep the momentum going.

  • Business lesson of 2018: how important it is to not get involved with things that will cause unnecessary anxiety later on, and how often something that seems like a big deal now won’t matter in a week/month/year’s time.
  • Business resolution for 2019: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep better track of my net worth and focus on the bigger picture.

Self improvement—At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about how I was often unable to concentrate on a single task for longer than a few minutes before being distracted by something else. So I reduced distractions in my life by not reading the news on a daily basis and turning off notifications. As a result, I managed to write at least once every month for this blog, and read 52 books this year.

  • Self improvement lessons for 2018: The power of setting a big goal, then breaking it down to yearly/monthly/weekly/daily tasks cannot be underestimated. Most things can be accomplished through discipline and hustle. Compare yourself upwards with people who you want to become to push yourself to improve, not downwards with people who haven’t done what you have to make you feel better.
  • Self-improvement resolution for 2019: Stay hungry, stay humble.

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Posts of 2018

While I’ve been travelling over the holidays, I’ve been working on a post about my reflections for 2018 and resolutions for 2019. In the meantime, here are the best posts of 2018:

January: On Sundays — how we spend our days is how we spend our lives

February: On Vanity — how valuable things can actually be worthless

March: On Maturity — What would I tell myself if I could go back 10 years?

April: Dear Grandma

May: On Productivity — the difference between efficiency and effectiveness

June: On Productivity II — the power of focus

July: On Quiet — in praise of quiet moments

August: On Perspective — how a stolen bike made me rich

September: On Nature — minimalism and our natural biology

October: On Materialism — a case for stuff

November: On Values — how they change the course of our lives

December: Posts of 2018

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On Values

and how they change the course of our lives

Ask people what is most important to them—what they think is the foundation for the best kind of life—and most would reply, “love, happiness, and good health.”

They’re not wrong. There’s lots you can live without, but if you don’t feel anyone cares about you, or fulfilled in any way, or if your body is failing, it’s hard to imagine life being that great.

On top of those, there are many other things that people value in life, such as:

  • Security (the feeling of safety and stability)
  • Intimacy (feeling connected or close to others)
  • Adventure (seeking fun/thrills, wanting to try out new things)
  • Freedom (being independent, ability to make own choices)
  • Contribution (making a positive change or difference)
  • Success (feeling accomplished)
  • Passion (doing enjoyable things)
  • Growth (learning new things, self-improvement)
  • Integrity (being honest and having strong moral principles)
  • Comfort (seeking pleasure, avoiding pain)
  • Many others…

What each value means and how important they are varies between each person. How you rank these values can affect everything from what kind of job or career you have, to who you choose for a partner (or, at least, what/who you would be happy with in the long term). One might value passion over security, and choose a job or person they love over one that earns more. Another might be horrified at that idea and do the opposite.

Values can be opposing or overlapping. Contribution might be synonymous with success for some, whilst others believe sacrificing security is necessary for success, in their startup for example.

What’s more, some people have higher values in one area, and a different value in other areas. Someone might seek security above all else in their relationships, but go all out adventurous in their travels.

The whole topic of values can be quite complex, but the main point is that you’ll hardly find two things on the anyone’s list that the majority of people in the modern world are spending most of their waking life on—money and material things.

Money and material things are not really values, but are means to get some of the feelings we do value. Money may give people a sense of security or freedom, and having nice things gives some people comfort, or a feeling of accomplishment.

Rarely are money and things actually valuable to people, deep down. Yes, money can afford you basic necessities and healthcare, but it can’t buy you love and fulfilment. Ask anyone who has bought something that they’ve long dreamed of buying if they would happily die now, you’ll hear a resounding no.

Living minimally is a reminder to focus on our values. Instead of being caught up with keeping up with the latest trends on Instagram, or what people think of us, we instead try to minimise distractions and bring our actions back in line with what’s really important to us.

Would you buy the biggest house on the street if you didn’t have time to spend in it with your family? That depends if you value love over what the neighbours think. Would you get into debt for the latest gadget or designer shoes? That depends if you value security and freedom over appearances.

Our values don’t make us who we are but how we rank them influences everything we do. Our actions should be aligned with our values, but you’ll be surprised by how many people haven’t even thought about it, or spend years ignoring the signs, or even doing the complete opposite of what would actually make them happy.

If we can agree that the best life is spent dedicated to what mattered to us the most, then let’s not waste any more time. Cut out, pare down, simplify. Clear the path ahead. By deciding what we value the most, we create our life compass, pointing us in the direction we want to go.

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On Materialism

An often misunderstood part of minimalism is that it is an all or nothing deal.

With popular books, articles and videos showing ‘minimalists’ living in white boxes with just three shirts, two plates, and one pen, it’s no wonder why most people get the wrong idea.

A minimalist lifestyle is defined by each individual’s own terms. For some, owning less than 100 things is their definition. It’s not wrong, but it’s doesn’t fit every aspiring minimalist. Rather than being defined by how much you have or don’t have, it’s about being mindful of the things we introduce and keep in our lives.

Sometimes things have a use, and that’s okay.

A case for stuff

It has become fashionable to demonise acquiring material things as a waste of money and a pointless exercise. Most of us know that buying more won’t keep us happy in the long term, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it.

The feeling of satisfaction or superiority that comes from buying certain things is superficial, which is why the rush doesn’t last long. But some possessions can actually be meaningful to us.

A new suit gives us a much needed confidence boost at work, a set of paintbrushes reveal our creative side, a language course booked to learn something new, a tablet computer connects us to family and friends, a skiing holiday pushes us to take risks, a photo album full of memories makes us smile, a full bookshelf reminds us of how much we’ve learned over the years…

Things like this are needed as part of a life well lived. It may be an unpopular conclusion to come to on a blog about minimalism, but perhaps sometimes buying stuff is not a complete waste after all.

Importantly, however, is the realisation that just having useful possessions is not enough by itself to transform us for the better. Even religions like Zen Buddhism which encourage the use of mindfulness bells acknowledge that a bell by itself is not enough to make us paragons of calm. But for many monks and laypeople, every ring feels like it’s tuning them little by little into the kind of person they aspire to be.

Approached in the right way, material goods can help us become happier people, but achieving the right balance can be difficult. Here is where minimalism as a practice comes in—helping us become more disciplined with our desires and mindful of distractions that tempt us away from the kind of life we want to live.

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On Nature

Based on thousands of years of evolution, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to reward us when we feel pleasure, and punish us when we feel pain. If you do something that your body likes, it rewards you with a rush of dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals making you feel happy. It hardly matters what the consequences are in the long term.

The major flaw in this system is that any pleasurable feelings that you initially felt for doing/eating/getting something will always fade away. This is so that you’ll go out of your way to get it again.

Imagine if a chimp ate a banana and felt happy about it for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of starvation whilst his chimp friends whose dopamine hits faded away would go on to seek the feeling again. The most well fed chimps would be the strongest and most likely to find mates, thereby passing on their dopamine seeking genes. Meanwhile our chimp who got everlasting happiness from his first banana wouldn’t be motivated to do much else, and would likely end up dying without having passed its genes.

Multiply this by thousands of generations of evolution and couple it with the fact that we can get dopamine fixes as easily as buying a new pair of shoes and we begin to understand why living a minimalist lifestyle is so difficult.

To intentionally abstain from the fun and flashy things that wins us social approval is basically going against human nature itself. Indeed, humans are especially difficult to please because it doesn’t take long for our brains to become normalised to the hit of buying the latest gadget before having it is no longer enough. At least chimps are happy with bananas—if they were human they would inevitably get bored and find a way to upgrade to the latest version.

What can we do about this? Unfortunately, short of reprogramming our evolutionary biology, we can’t do a whole lot about the way that our brains react to pleasure, or absence of pleasure. But as Homo Sapiens we do have the ability to override our biology using our intellect. We can look back into the past, come to conclusions about our decisions, and make predictions about the future.

We can look back and see that for almost every material thing we have bought in our lives, the ‘happiness’ we felt in that moment eventually faded. From this we can conclude that continually buying new things may not be an effective or sustainable way to obtain happiness. Instead, we can decide to concentrate on the kinds of things that make happiness last, such as our hobbies and achievements, memorable experiences, and close relationships.

Being human can be both a curse and a blessing. When I see how happy a pet dog is playing in the grass, or how satisfied with life a house cat is, I sometimes wonder why we humans have to make things so complicated.

Maybe if we spent half as much time and effort learning how to be happy as we do on buying stuff, we could actually do it. Just as we can choose to have carrots over cake, our biology can be overcome—it’s a factor, not an excuse. Perhaps the real determinants of happiness are how ready we are make the most of the situation we’re in, and our willingness to make the hard choices. That’s what makes a difference.