When I left Los Angeles in 2009, I wasn't just leaving a city; I was leaving behind almost everything I owned.
I'd been an entrepreneur for what seemed like forever but had only begun to see financial success a few years prior. I used money to gauge my self-worth, so that payoff felt good, but the moment I had the chance to step back, I realized that my achievement had come with a cost.
My health was suffering. My relationships had become superficial. My sense of identity and worth were inextricably tied to the number of digits in my bank account. This should not have come as a surprise. I was, after all, getting maybe four hours of sleep per night, eating whatever I could grab in between meetings, and carrying a worryingly high level of stress all day, every day. But recognizing what my life had become in the pursuit of that cash-centric definition of success was still a shock.
It's amazing what we have the capacity to ignore when we focus on the wrong things.
This all changed when I stopped and took a look at the bigger picture. The increased context allowed me to see where my life was headed and helped me realize that the dreams I'd been sold were misaligned with what I actually wanted out of life. Not wanting to spend any more of my time pursuing goals that were never really mine to begin with, I gave myself a deadline. In four months, I would leave LA to start pursuing my actual dream: I would start traveling the world, full-time.
In the months between making that decision and leaving, I had to scale down a town house full of stuff to what I could fit into a carry-on bag.
The core idea of minimalism is focusing on what's most important so that you have more time, energy, and resources to spend on the really vital stuff. Packing for a trip, or for a new life, is an incredibly practical manifestation of that theory. You're forced to ask yourself, over and over again, "Is this something I truly value, or something I've been told I'm supposed to want?"
Traveling light is a wonderful metaphor for living simply. Everything you take with you is a literal weight you carry. Some items will be worth far more than the calories you burn to take it with you, and some will be dead weight.
These are the questions that helped me decide what was truly worth carrying with me on my new life and what was better left behind. May they help you achieve a more minimalist life, whatever it may look like for you.
1. What am I trying to accomplish?
It's normal to look at other people's Instagram galleries and jump to the conclusion that you want their lives. If you stop and take stock, however, you'll likely find there are things you would do differently. Aspire to build something you-shaped, then figure out how to make that a reality.
2. Does this help me achieve my goals?
Determine which possessions help you get where you'd like to be. Some things will be obvious. If you want to make a living as a graphic designer, you'll likely need a computer, and ideally a decent one. Other things will require more thought: How many clothes will I need? Where will I be wearing them?
3. Is this the best way to accomplish that goal?
There are many possessions we're sold on owning but that we don't actually need because we can get the same results in other ways.
Ask yourself if you need to lug around a computer all day or if you can get away working on a high-end smartphone. Or perhaps you can get by using public computers at libraries or co-working spaces. There's more than one way to accomplish just about anything, and access can be just as practical as ownership.
4. Is it a fundamental need or an expendable extra?
There's a good chance you'll need a toothbrush. But that particular brand of hair product that you love so much? Perhaps not. Allow yourself to consider alternatives, and question even the most basic assumptions.
5. Does this still serve its purpose?
Finally, it's important to revisit what you own from time to time so that you can be sure to cycle things out when they no longer carry their own weight and rotate in new items to fulfill fresh needs. Pay attention to that big picture and allow yourself to adjust as you grow.
Our possessions don't make us happy or depressed. They simply amplify what's already there. Make sure you're taking care of you and allow your things to be wonderful additions, wings that help you accomplish your goals rather than anchors that hold you back.