Forgive the rant.
There’s this funny trend happening on the Web the last few months. It started with people like Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Patrick Rhone of Minimal Mac, both of whom have sites I read daily and love. Their basic hypothesis is this: we have too much unnecessary stuff, and it affects our lives negatively. So they preach “minimalism,” the systematic getting rid of the extraneous.
That idea, valiant as it is, has warped. As the trend of minimalism has caught on, the definition has changed, and the mantra has gone from being about getting rid of the unnecessary, to looking around your room and saying “what can I get rid of to show everyone how little I have?” Minimalism has given way to lessism.
That’s how we get bloggers writing about how they have 6 pieces of furniture in their apartment. You know what? If having six pieces of furniture works for you, neat. But why is it somehow a badge of honor, as if furniture is a competition scored like golf, where the fewest pieces wins? If I want a large, ostentatious piece of art in my hallway that serves absolutely no purpose to anyone except to give me enjoyment when I look at it, then screw you – I’m keeping it.
The tech angle here is similar: there’s been a rebellion against “feature-bloat,” which I’m all for. Too many pieces of software do so much to the point where they don’t really do anything, or let you do anything. Once again, though, the rallying cry has been “less!” to the point where we’ve stripped features we need.
One of my favorite examples (sorry Leo) of unnecessary lessism is a Zen Habits offshoot called Mnmlist. I like the site, the content’s great – only problem is, there’s no way to do anything useful on the site. Can’t find other posts, can’t figure out how to subscribe, can’t search, can’t really do much of anything. There’s less on the site, sure, but to what end? It makes the site a less enjoyable experience, all to prove that less is better.
My other favorite example is word processing the hip new thing to do is write in text editors instead of Microsoft Word, because they don’t have all the other features that “just distract us.” As far as I’m concerned, if the debate between making a word bold or italicized is so paralyzing that you can’t get anything done, computers might not be for you. The features exist to make the work we do better, and to help us – if it works for you, use it! There’s almost a stigma that’s developing against Word, the overly-bloated and impossible to use application. That’s ridiculous. It does everything you need it to – and sure, probably a little more – but it’s much to ignore something you don’t need than to work around the absence of something you do need. Instead of isolating only what we need, we cut out everything, all for a race to the bottom, to see who’s the most minimalist.
The most minimalist. Therein lies the problem, if you ask me. Minimalism is not, and cannot, be a competition; it is totally and utterly different for every single person. Take me: I’ve got 21 items in the Dock on my computer, nine of which are currently open. I’m listening to music, IMing with my girlfriend, texting my friend, and writing this article at the same time. That works for me. Something completely different might work for you, and that’s fine too, but I would argue that what I’m doing right now is as minimalist as sitting in the 4’ x 4’ box that you’ve created, with chalk and a wall (way more minimalist than paper and pen – I mean, the wall’s already there, why not use it?).
Minimalism is about finding exactly what you need, and nothing more. The minimal life has everything you need, optimized to make you the most productive, most efficient, and least stressed as possible. It has nothing extraneous, nothing useless. Minimalism is about identifying and keeping everything you need, and shutting everything else out. It’s not about getting less, wanting less, or needing less – unless that’s what you need. It might, in fact, require you to get more, if you need something that’ll work better for you than what you have now.
Dropping your RSS reader isn’t necessarily minimalist. Neither is getting rid of items in your Dock, or having a black background on your computer. What is minimalist? That’s up to you. Not me, not Leo, not Patrick, and not anyone else. It’s a process, a thoughtful one and a useful one, but one that’s totally and utterly up to you.
And if you want to keep all your furniture, then you keep it, damn it.
Update: Two people I respect and admire, Chris Bowler and Patrick Rhone (who I mention above), have talked about this before, and had some incredibly insightful things to say.
Chris: “I’m fairly sure I could lose 2 days of work looking for ways to configure those tools to be accessed in some other fashion. But why? Just so I can post screenshots that will cause others to say, “This guy is so zen. He’s must be in the zone all. the. time!”
Minimalism in computing is not about how your computer looks. It’s about how you use it — ensuring it has everything you need and nothing you don’t.”
Patrick: “I believe the most minimal computer is the one that is optimized for you. How you work. The menubar items you need. The dock items you need. The applications you need. The system you need. The peripherals you need. The tools you need to get the job done.
I believe most of us do not take the time often enough to evaluate what that need is. The entire mission of this site is to help you ask those questions and find the answer that is right. The only answer that is right. The one that is right for you and only you.”