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the house where we grew up

” First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross

The image conjured up is of a fast-talking, cheaply dressed guy with a face unctuous and pocked with acne. He avoids eye contact but acts like your best friend even though you just met. He is not someone one would trust with important financial decisions.

This is how I picture the typical sales guy. Which is highly ironic since I have been in and around

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a three-legged workhorse

There are 38 pairs of shoes on the floor of my closet.

Thirty-eight. For two feet. 

I’ve known for a long time that I had a lot of shoes. But it wasn’t really a problem until I came across Joshua Fields Millburn. With his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, he wrote Everything That Remains, part memoir, part manifesto of a journey from excess to minimalism. 

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They didn’t start the minimalism movement. But the pair have joined the movement which they journal at their website, theminimalists.com. They currently are on a book tour promoting Everything That Remains.

Through Millburn I learned minimalism is not simply living as a hobo out of a backpack, having one pair of jeans, one white shirt and a toothbrush, washing dishes in one restaurant after another on a cross-country quest to find oneself.

Millburn writes: “There’s nothing wrong with shopping at IKEA, just as there’s nothing wrong with owning a couch or a television or any of this stuff. The real problem is me. The real problem is that for the last decade–the last three decades–I haven’t questioned my unchecked consumption.”

He continues: “But our pacifiers can pacify us for only so long. Desire always begets more desire. And thus the American Dream is a misnomer, a broken shiny thing, like a new car without an engine. There is blood on the flag, our blood, and in today’s world of achieving and earning and endlessly striving for more, the American Dream really just seems to imply that we are fat and in debt, discontented and empty, every man an island, leaving a void we attempt to fill with more stuff.”

I have 60 pairs of running socks.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

Millburn’s explanation of how he relieved himself of most of his possessions in order to find consciousness–and peace–has worked its way deep into my psyche. Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, I realize I, too, have too much stuff.

 Now, I run.  A lot. More than half of my shoes are for running, which, last I checked, wears shoes out. And, for those who aren’t familiar with the shoe-collecting habits of runners, I’m certain my little cache is nothing compared to some of my runner friends. I would even say paltry in comparison.

I bet Fields had more than 38 pairs of shoes once.

The numbers themselves are not so much the problem as the way we acquire what we acquire–the shoes and clothing and furniture and electronics and cars and houses. We look at what is missing in our lives most often in terms of things. Then we compare what we have to what others have and, inevitably, feel like shit because that woman or man has more. This is what Millburn and Nicodemus are saying.

I have 1,507 songs in my iTunes library.

Millburn lost both his mom (to cancer) and his wife (to divorce) in the same month. He  looked around at his losses and at his six-figure job and his expensive too-big house and IKEA purchased adornments and realized that instead of being fulfilled, he was bankrupt emotionally.

Everything That Remains has become a manifesto for me in my quest for authenticity and originality, which are really labels for my mission to find meaning in life. I’m not in the same place as Millburn was and I’m lucky for that. Yet his struggle to measure the loss of his mother and his wife as well as come to terms with what was truly important in his life also led me to look around at all the things I have and, more important, how they came to be mine.

I have 24 dress shirts.

Through my troubles the past several years with my divorce and raising my kids and on-again, off-again descent toward depression, I started measuring my life by the experiences and relationships instead of possessions.

My reaction since reading Everything has been a dramatic shift further in that direction bound to make some people uncomfortable and make me look a little silly. For example, it’s not like she stands at the door, like they do at Costco, monitoring everything that goes out to the parking lot, but I wonder if Elin, my wife, is getting concerned about the garbage bags full of things I have been donating to the Salvation Army lately.

Here is a recent conversation:

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Counting all my stuff,” I said.

“Why?”

“I have too much.”

I have seven running jackets and six pairs of running tights.

The real benefit of this examination is, eventually, you wind up with the stuff you really want and when you buy new stuff it also is stuff you really want or need. No more mindlessly spending $100 at Target because, well, that’s just what everyone does.

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about.

In reading Everything, I have learned to ask, as Millburn suggests, “how will buying this make my life better?” before buying anything. It’s made it easier to stop buying things just because I have a $20,000 credit limit and I can.

I have 13 coats in the downstairs closet.

Minimalism is a way to appreciate the process of earning and acquiring things to make our lives better by complementing them. Rather than being owned by our possessions and building our debts to acquire more, it is a way of consciously approaching our lives.

On this, Millburn writes: “And so we tend to hang onto things–jobs, relationships, material possessions–in an effort to feel secure. But many of the things we cling to in search of security actually drain the satisfaction from our lives, leaving us discontented and overwhelmed.”

Just counted: Eight sweaters and eight sweatshirts.

Take, for example, how we pursue finding work. Often, he says, “We hold onto jobs we dislike because we believe there’s security in a paycheck.”

Pursuing minimalism takes courage for this very reason. Adopting a minimalist mindset is tantamount to becoming deliberate about who we actually are and what we want our lives to be about. And that’s scary, for if we are not these jobs we do and these relationships we have and these possessions, then what are we?  Consciousness requires self-awareness about some of our deepest questions. It demands commitment to staying with who we are and who we want to be, even when that is inconvenient or uncomfortable. Most of us don’t do very well with uncertainty.

Security, or the lack thereof, was a real problem for my ex-wife. It made taking leaps of faith on potential work a real problem for her, and ultimately, for the two of us as a couple.

“We hold onto stuff we don’t need,” Millburn says, “just in case we might need it down the road in some nonexistent, more secure future. If such accoutrements are flooding our lives with discontent, they are not secure.”

Twenty-nine t-shirts are in my dresser drawer.

“In fact the opposite is true. Discontent is uncertainty. And uncertainty is insecurity,” he says. “Hence, if you are not happy with your situation, no matter how comfortable it is, you won’t ever feel secure.”

A normal reaction to the unease of uncertainty might be a quick trip to Amazon.com or the mall to buy back security.  Thanks to Joshua Fields Millburn, my sense that contentment is not found in what we own so much as how we experience our lives has been reinforced: whom we surround ourselves with, in what relationships we choose to invest and, along the way, the things we invite into our lives to complement rather than drain them.

I have at least 87 books.

This approach is not going to be always easy. But searching for originality and authenticity, having awareness that there is a different way, is exciting. Part of my mission in honoring these two ideals is deliberately deciding what I want in my life. I will choose whether something I want adds value. And if I not, I’ll let the next guy buy it.

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If you are interested, here is the Youtube trailer for the Everything That Remains book tour

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it’s like falling on the ice

Monday afternoon a few weeks ago.

A little before 4 pm. I get a call informing me that I am fired.

Moments such as this can be dizzying. There are a couple things in life that create the feeling suddenly of having no ground beneath you. Your spouse or lover says,, “Divorce.” Your doctor says, “Cancer.” Your mom says about your dad, “Dead.” Your boss or someone above him or her says, “Fired.”

It was like the first time I stepped onto the ice at the temporary ice rink at Burns Park in brand new used hockey skates.   I fought to keep my balance, doing a little dance as I tried desperately to make my skates stop skating and stay put on the ice. The harder I fought, the faster my feet slid from under me. And I fell.

The words, “You’re fired,” are like that last little push as you try to make your skates grab an edge and take hold. Much like being on ice, it can be just as hard to get back up.

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This isn’t the first time I have been in this position. Lucky for me. I’ve felt the same bewilderment, confusion, hurt and anger before. Perhaps so many times that this time most of the edge of being fired quickly fell away. The anger was still there, for sure, but I also felt a sort of calm detachment as I ticked off a checklist of what needed to be done immediately: update resume, notify  network, hit the job websites, set up appointments  to talk with people about new job possibilities. I became hyper-focused on what to do next. In the moment the management notified me of my forced departure, I left the job and became so disconnected it was like I had simply walked through an opening and closed the door.

Tasks and projects in which I was involved no longer mattered. The goals and mission of the company I was formerly a part of suddenly became someone else’s focus. But then I worried about the people I was mentoring. Who would watch over them?

The knife in my back was that I was expected to work as if nothing had changed for a time and I was not allowed to notify anyone outside of management if I wanted to receive my severance salary. It was if they were saying, “By the way, since you’re down take this. We might as well make it harder to get up again.”

It took a couple weeks for the black clouds of another job loss and the depression that accompanies it to settle in. My wife noted a change in my mood. I went to my journal and could only write dark things. I used words like “hopeless,” “sadness” “despair” in trying to decipher my feelings. It’s easy to feel that this moment will be the way it always will be. What’s worse is that the sadness morphs into a giant hairball of despair as I began to apply this one event, this loss of a job, to failures in every other aspect of my life. The one raincloud became a massive trough.

It took a couple days to dig out.

In the grand scheme of our lives, bad things happen. Like many, I’ve faced my share of challenges and setbacks. The tapestry of my life is rife with snags and tears as well as long stretches of beauty. Mine is no different than others’.

I tried to look at this sudden event as an opportunity. I don’t always believe things happen for a reason nor do I believe in spending all of my time trying to figure out a reason for everything. Sometimes things just happen. I’m sure I bear responsibility for not meeting the expectations of the management and this led to my firing. I also believe that management is often dysfunctional and in this case they were overbearing, narrow-sighted pricks.  I did a lot of good in this job.

In the days and weeks following my firing, I began to articulate that I had felt for a long time that my ladder was on the wrong wall. Things felt “off” but I wasn’t able to say exactly what I should be doing differently in  life. I do believe that everything we do leads in some way to the next good thing, if we are aware and have the courage to take risks. This is a time to take a long view and decide what direction will be the most fulfilling for me over the next five, 10, 20 years. This will involve embracing some risk.

I don’t want to do what I’ve always done. I want to make this a chance to do something authentic that uses my skills and challenges me. It would be easy to slide back into doing the same things with a new company. And then face the same uncertainty and dark clouds again.

You remain where you are unless you change. I’m aware just how hard our brains work to resist change. I hope to have the self awareness to forge the kind of refashioning that will make this firing not simply another step in sticking with the familiar but a step toward evolution.

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