Sunday, February 21, 2010

New Image Needed for Minimalism

Almost without exception, ask someone to describe a minimalist lifestyle, and you will get “Getting rid of everything you own and living without much of anything.”

That’s not minimalism. In polite circles, that’s a Spartan lifestyle. For those of us prone to being too blunt, that’s dumpster thinking. Life in a cardboard box.

Minimalist art certainly is not about eliminating everything. It is about simplifying background noise to allow viewers to focus on the simple, obvious item in front of them. It is about eliminating the unnecessary. Minimalist living should be the same. The public image requires re-branding to drag the lifestyle from obscurity to avante garde.

Today’s environmentalists are on the cusp of minimalism. Their public persona is that of caring for the world around us, of reducing our eco-footprint, of living clean, and independent of the noise of pollution. How is that different from minimalism?

One of the major impediments to large-scale embrace of the minimalist approach is the people with whom the concept is identified: radical artists, reactionaries and starving, idealistic youth. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are perceived as well-educated, somewhat affluent and insightful.

To explain to an acquaintance that you are a minimalist, you invite their view of you as living on the cusp of poverty. In my world, I deal with a variety of bureaucrats, a wealth of money-handlers, and an army of potential entrepreneurs who are looking to score their millions. To explain to them that I live a minimalist life would immediately cause them to revisit their beliefs in my competence as a business developer. I know. I’ve done it, and am not likely to repeat that error!

I have compensated. When I leave work, none of my clients are invited into my personal life. I go home to my barebones home, in my ultra-economical Echo, and change into my $5 tee-shirt and $16 jeans. In the morning, I climb into my suit, pick up my Blackberry and laptop, and rejoin the “normal” world. Am I comfortable with this compromise? Not really. But the public image of minimalism currently does not allow for coming out of the minimalist closet.

While my approach may seem hypocritical, it is essential to survival.

When one adopts a divergent approach to anything, and is called to defend it, a person almost always takes one of three tacts: deny passively, adapt, or defend aggressively. As a solid environmentalist, I support forest conservation. I do not support the approach of radicals who pound spikes into trees to thwart chainsaws. As a solid believer in small business, I do not support the heavy-handed irresponsibility of multinationals. I also do not support those protesters who inflict violence and destruction on innocent businesses at the G-9 conferences. Unfortunately, those extreme approaches are the very visible reactions by people who are challenged to defend their divergent views, and are unwilling to passsively accept any alternative.

Minimalists tend to overreact. (That comment is sure to get a rise out of those readers who choose the more divergent approach to the concept, by divesting themselves of every piece of comfort and every stick of worldly possessions). However, what I mean by the comment is that we tend to want to show our dedication to the philosophy by throwing away everything, and every link to conventional lifestyles.

A more moderate approach is much more successful if change is to be sustained. Obviously, I now have both a barebones wardrobe, and the more worldly one. My two suits and five shirts are more than adequate to “put on the Ritz” when needed. On out-of-town business calls, I rent the occasional mid-level intermediate sedan. I own technology, but I do not subscribe to more than basic cable (news channels are an essential!). I largely “live off the land,” but bring along store-bought (instead of homemade) wines when I socialize. The transitions are easy.

For me, the move to minimalism was more abrupt than for most of you, in many ways made out out of necessity. Maintaining the lifestyle became a choice. But for most, the move to minimalism should be made gradually, partly because of the shock to the system when you first seek out your fine jewellery for that special outing (and it is no longer there) or when the children come crying fore the latest designer clothes because their friends are mocking your kids’ perceived poverty. But gradual moves will enable you to integrate your public persona with your private lifestyle, and allow you to be selective in your new minimalistic approach.

Getting rid of everything may give you a momentary feeling of triumph, but climbing into that cardboard box at night is sure to send a feeling of chill down your spine!

To be sure, minimalism needs a new image, but, to paraphrase the old saying, “image-building begins at home.” Get your own head around what minimalism means to you, before you try to convince the outside world of the rightness of your divergent approaches.

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