Everybody wants more. Everybody wants to have the bigger house, the faster car, the nicer suit. When the new phone comes out, we want it. We need it. When we get to six figures, we want seven, and if we’re lucky enough to get to seven, we want eight. Everybody always wants more.
But what would happen if everybody wanted less? What if you offered somebody a mansion and they simply said, “No thanks, my studio apartment is just fine.” What if you offered someone an Armani suit and they said, “That’s alright, I’ve already got all the clothes I need.” Because interestingly, that seems to bring people a lot closer to happiness than you’d think.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My friends wanted to be firemen, or soldiers or race car drivers. But not me. None of that stuff really jumped out at me. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be rich.
This dream carried through my teenage years and into adulthood. When I started work as an accountant, I would fawn over my clients’ bank statements, mad with envy.
“Bro, come look at this one!” I’d say to my colleague, and we’d huddle around it, staring at the endless zeroes, in awe of these guys who were ordering European cars like Domino’s and living in million dollar houses. I would run through their entire statement, looking at the $2,000 dinners they would buy and the weekend shopping splurges they’d have on clothes and holidays.
“That’ll be me one day,” I would smile to myself.
I was going to upgrade from this shitty job, work at some big bank in London, get a gig on Wall Street. I was going to be that guy who drove around the corner in the $400,000 car and everyone would stop to watch me drive past. I’d be the guy that finally bought that $3,000 bottle of wine on the menu. I had a nice life, but I wanted more. I always wanted more.
My first trip to Africa started to change that. I worked with many vulnerable children and families during my time there, and interestingly, began to admire them a lot more than I’d admired those millionaires in my client folder. It forced me to question the value of my dream and where it was taking me, and I began to wonder why I had been chasing a life of excess when in reality, I already had everything I could possibly need.
I spent the next 3 years travelling the world, and with these thoughts in the back of my mind I started to embrace the simple life. I stopped buying new things, simply because I didn’t have any room to carry them. And as I stopped buying new things, I stopped wanting new things. And as I stopped wanting new things, I noticed that new things didn’t have any effect on my happiness at all.
With only five t-shirts, my body felt the same as when I had twenty t-shirts.
With one pair of shoes, my feet felt the same as when I had five pairs.
Somehow, my shoulders didn’t seem to complain that I wore the same jacket each day.
Instead of wanting more, I wanted less. And slowly, I realised I’d been chasing the wrong things all along. All those years I’d been working 40 hour weeks to buy more and have more, and now suddenly, there was nothing I wanted to buy. So what good was a job after that? What was I supposed to be working for?
I didn’t need to work for anything. I was free.
And just like that my dream had come true. I was rich.
Over the past year, I can count on one hand the physical things I’ve bought that cost more than $100.
A cellphone, and a juicer.
I’ve largely managed to remove “stuff” from my life. And despite not earning a lot of money and not buying a lot of things, the year gone by has been one of the richest years of my life. Without the burden of a job, mortgage, car and house full of stuff, I’ve managed to spend my entire days on more fulfilling activities such as writing, reading, learning, meditating, exploring, exercising, cooking, relaxing, and interestingly, almost all of these things are free. Some would say I’m living like a retired millionaire, and maybe I am, but I don’t have much money at all.
I’ve learned that when you stop buying things, you stop needing a lot of money, and when you stop needing money, you no longer need a regular job, and when you no longer have a regular job, you have time, and when you have time, you can literally do whatever you want. And isn’t that the meaning of happiness? To do whatever you want?
In the west especially, we place a lot of value on material things. We often define people by what they have, rather than who they are. Just the other day I remember asking my friend about someone in her family.
“What’s he like?” I asked, to which she responded, “He has a helicopter”. It puzzled me. A helicopter? Is that who he is? I guess a few years back, that would’ve impressed me, but the reality is things are just things. And they have nothing to do with who you are.
Ask yourself, who are you as a person? Who do you want to be? What do you want to learn, to be good at, to experience, to see?
Because what makes you rich and unique is not what you have, but how you have lived. It’s in the stories you’ve collected, the lives you have touched. It’s in the memories you have to take with you.
Since I’ve been travelling, I’ve had a lot of plane rides and bus trips to sit and reflect, and the one thing I always tend to think about is happiness.
What does it mean? And where does it come from?
Many of you, like I did, might consider that getting your dream apartment, a European car, a walk in wardrobe with all your favourite clothes, and a million dollar lottery win will probably get you there. But imagine you had all that tomorrow. Picture yourself with all of that. What would you do next? I’d assume you would say you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing things you love, like travelling, or relaxing on the beach and surfing, or writing music, or spending time with your kids. But if you think about it, you can already do all these things. You do not need the house, or the car, or the million dollars for that fulfillment. And that should tell you that in reality, your happiness has nothing to do with those material things at all.
If you find yourself unhappy, not having the time or money to live the life you desire, start asking yourself, why? What are you missing in your life? Chances are you’re spending too much time working, and not enough time on the things you love. But what are you working so hard for? What do you need to buy that you don’t already have?
There is a Swedish proverb that goes something like, “He who buys what he does not need, steals from himself.” Take a moment to think about how much you’ve stolen from yourself. What did you spend your paychecks on last year? Were they essential to your survival? Will you remember those things ten years from now?
You can buy a car for $10,000, or you can travel the world for a year. You can buy a $1,000 iPad, or you can buy 10 flights around Asia. You can buy an $800,000 penthouse apartment, or you can spend the rest of your life relaxing in beachfront huts for $20 a day.
Think about the stuff you’re buying. Is it bringing your dream closer? Or pushing it further away?
In The 4 Hour Work Week, the author talks a lot about lifestyle costing and design. The basic premise is, what is your ideal lifestyle, and how much does it cost to live it? I love Asia, so for me, I’d probably live there, at least for now. A decent bed is $12 a night, great food is $5 a day, a massage is $5 and other miscellaneous costs might run me $5 more. That works out to $27 a day to live a comfortable life at the beach (or in the city). So ideally, that is what I’d aim to earn, and the rest of my time would be spent living, i.e. doing what I love.
What about you? How much money do you really need?
The beauty of this equation is that it highlights the value of minimalism and living a simple life with less. If your lifestyle is too expensive, want less. Make do with less. Everyone has a choice between living with more and working more, or living with less and working less.
Which will you choose?
People often ask me, what’s my secret? How do I do it? How do you spend the entire year travelling the world?
I suppose there is a secret, and to live this lifestyle it’s mostly been about one thing – spending less money.
Everything of importance to me I can fit into my 70 litre backpack. There’s a couple of pairs of shoes in there, my laptop, my camera, some clothes, some toiletries, and that’s it. I live with the contents of this bag year round, and need nothing more and nothing less. It almost feels like I own nothing. But I have more than I could possibly need.
I can’t remember the last time I went “shopping”. I don’t remember the last time I bought a new shirt. I do not spend my day dreaming of things to buy, but rather reading about things I want to learn, writing about things that are on my mind, and seeing places that I’ve always wanted. I take photos, I sleep in, I walk, I exercise, I read and write, I explore and I relax. That is my day.
In this age of hyper-consumerism and extravagant spending, I’ve been liberated by simply living a life of minimalism. I am no longer enticed by shiny things. I no longer believe in the lie that success consists of earning more and buying more. I buy only what I need, and I simply live.
In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden famously said, “The things you own, end up owning you.” You buy a house, and it owns you. You cannot stop working because of it. You cannot travel because of it. You cannot spend more time with your family because of it. You cannot quit your job because of it. Your entire day, your entire life, becomes about earning more money to pay for your house.
Ask yourself; do you own the house, or does the house own you?
When you buy a car, you need to finance it. You need to service and clean it. You need to pay for petrol, insurance, warrants, parking. You worry about where to leave it, whether someone will dent it, whether it will be stolen, whether it’s been registered. The car you wanted so badly is now always on your mind, sucking in all your time, money and energy.
Ask yourself, do you own the car, or does the car own you?
When the weekend finally comes you have two precious days free, but you need to spend it cleaning the house, the car, the boat, the second house, the clothes, the garage, the garden.
Let me ask you, what if you had nothing? How much simpler would life be? Instead of 5 rooms to clean, what if you only had three? Two? One?! How much more time would you have to read, surf, run, play the piano, go out for dinner, travel, stargaze, dance?
Instead of wanting more, maybe it’s time we started thinking about less. Instead of filling up your shelves, empty them. Instead of buying something every weekend, sell something. Instead of wanting everything, want nothing at all.
You might just find your dreams are a lot easier to get to, when there’s less stuff in the way.