Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of the book, "Minimalist." Photo: Boston Globe
Chris nguyen has a thing about shoes, and until recently you could see it the moment he opened his front door. More than 60 pairs lined the hallway on shoe racks in his Melbourne home, sorted by colour, from red at the front through to black. There were also shelf after shelf of books, some read once, most never opened.
Then, one day early last year, Nguyen came across a book called A Day in the Life of a Minimalist by Joshua Fields Millburn, an American author who publishes The Minimalists blog with his friend and business partner, Ryan Nicodemus.
Millburn, 32, knows all about collecting books. He used to have 2000 - mostly unread - lining the walls of a massive house with three bedrooms in Dayton, Ohio, that he'd built with his wife when he was just 22 and earning $100,000 a year. He had a box routine, he says: lived in a box, drove to his boxy office in a box. And he did that six, maybe seven days a week.
After his marriage failed, Millburn realised he'd defined himself by his possessions and started getting rid of what he didn't use. But what makes this more than just an exercise in design aesthetics is that he extended the idea of shedding clutter to the rest of his life. "Once you clear the clutter," he says, "what you have remaining are the essential elements, which tend to be more beautiful, more elegant."
Millburn had been ignoring his health (he was between 40 and 50 kilograms overweight) and his close relationships, including his marriage, for money and status. He wanted to write books, but never had the time. So when, in late 2010, he was told by his boss to make a list of people to be retrenched from his workplace, he nominated himself first.
These days he and Nicodemus, 32, who also quit his job, live in Montana. There are just 288 items in Millburn's apartment, where he lives on his own. "There's not a single thing I've got rid of that I truly miss," he says.
Their message is striking a chord. The Minimalists blog has around five million readers and is doubling in size each year. They've already sold plenty of seats in Melbourne and Sydney for their Everything That Remains tour this November.
Nguyen will be seeing them. After reading their book and blog, he realised he was shopping without thinking. He got rid of most of his shoes, along with other belongings he moved from one house to another "like a weighed-down snail". He also cut down on activities and friendships that weren't working. "It makes such logical sense to me - and I feel happier for it," he says.
millburn and nicodemus started the minimalists blog in December 2010. It offers examples of how to live more simply, such as the 21-day challenge. This is where you pack all your possessions into boxes and only keep what you use over the next three weeks; what's still packed, you dispose of.
The pair's 2011 book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, debuted at the top of the self-help category on Amazon, while the latest, Everything That Remains, which came out in January, hit the retailer's overall top 10. They've given lectures at TedX and at Harvard Business School.
Minimalism isn't an end in itself, Millburn stresses: "You can get rid of all your stuff and still be miserable." At the core of their message is the idea of living mindfully - being aware of why you're doing something. Studies link mindfulness to emotional well-being.
The Minimalists suggest that people can accumulate possessions blindly, seduced by what Millburn calls "the fire hose of modern marketing". So their mantra when buying something is: does it add value to my life? This applies equally to actions and relationships. "For me, it was getting stuff out of the way so I could make room for what was important," says Millburn. "I didn't know what that was - I was stuck on the hamster wheel."
The Minimalists have many Australian fans and Millburn thinks their message's popularity is a reaction to "the dissatisfaction that's mounted" with the culture of consumerism.
Sahra Martin, 31, from Melbourne, was extremely well-paid but creatively unfulfilled in an information management role. She'd wanted to study design, but did fine arts instead and fell into government work. Now Martin is working part-time, is back at university studying graphic design, and is selling her surplus possessions - a shed full of exercise equipment, clothes, ornaments, jewellery. "I've been decluttering," she says. "That includes my work commitments. I've also re-evaluated some friendships, negative people in my life - I'm not spending so much time with them."
Nguyen left his human-resources job at a global publishing house to concentrate on writing and photography and to co-found a non-government organisation called DevelopEd, which offers adult education to rural communities in developing countries.
Contract manager Tony Campbell, 44, from Lilydale, Melbourne, has given up what he considers "wasted consuming" - his family and work cars each have more than 200,000 kilometres on them and he's not replacing them any time soon. He doesn't buy new music, but listens to the CDs he already owns. Clothing is bought to last. He's been able to pay off his mortgage, build $47,000 in savings and cut up his credit cards. He spends weekends outdoors with his family instead of inside watching TV. "Stuff doesn't make you happy," he says. "Your environment makes you happy."
Millburn has one minimalist friend, Calvin Wright, who never possesses more than 50 items. That's not for Millburn: he likes his kitchen table. Still, he thinks of other early minimalist bloggers he's met - one man with six kids, living in San Francisco; another with a full-time job, a house, a car, a wife and two kids; a woman with a husband and a teenage daughter. "These people are all radically different," Millburn says, "but they all share this principle that allows them to live more deliberately ... And they're all really happy." ■