Despite having so many luxuries and so much stuff, I wasn’t happy.
Back when I was a child I was spoiled. On Christmas and birthdays, presents would be piled to the rafters, and my parents bought me whatever I desired throughout the rest of the year.
The trouble was, I always wanted more, and that pattern continued into my adult life. I also had a real problem with letting go of things from my past.
When I started minimising, I felt an amazing sense of freedom, but something else started to happen as well – I no longer desired the latest smartphone, or a hundred books, or a game room filled to the brim like the collectors I admired on Youtube.
It’s also become virtually impossible to tell family and friends what I want for Christmas or my birthday because, truthfully, there’s very little I desire.
If you’d asked me that question two years before, I wanted so much that it was hard for me to choose what to ask for. The things I didn’t get, I could find in the January sales.
But now I realise that I never needed a bigger house, or any of the other luxuries I craved.
The more I’ve downsized my collections, the more I’ve realised I didn’t need a bigger house or more storage. A bigger house would just mean more maintenance and time wasted. And I’ve never been a party animal.
The reason I was so unhappy was because I wasn’t challenging myself.
I was living in mediocrity, staying at the same level I always had, doing the same job I’d always done, and was content letting my husband take care of the important stuff. After all, I was looked after and fine, so why change anything?
I soon learned just how dangerous that mindset was.
One day, he was driving us to work as usual, and we had a near miss with another car who pulled out on us from the left. As he swerved to avoid it, another car was coming at full speed from up ahead. I started screaming and my life flashed through my brain at a thousand miles an hour.
Mainly all the stuff I hadn’t done.
If my husband hadn’t had super-sonic reflexes that morning, we wouldn’t be here today and this blog never would’ve started.
For the rest of the day, I felt shaky and couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if I died without accomplishing what I wanted in life. I also came to the sickening conclusion that I’ve always been looked after, and if anything happened to him, I would be as helpless as a child.
Life can be taken away in an instant. Dreams extinguished along with it.
Minimalism has revealed that I don’t need stuff to make me happy. I need to be able to stand on my own two feet.
I need to be fulfilled. I need to help others. I need to become a full-fledged author and a successful counsellor. I need to make an impression on the world – not my stuff.
That’s why when my husband asked what I wanted for Christmas this year, I was delighted when he suggested that he pay some money towards my training rather than something else that will end up forgotten on a shelf.
I was also more than happy when, for my birthday, my mother paid for my hair to be done. She said she would rather get me something useful than something I would shove in a drawer.
After a year of feeling misunderstood as a minimalist, I can’t even begin to express how much that meant to me.
Now, I also want to say that it’s totally OK to enjoy giving gifts at Christmas, or to ask for a physical possession, as long as it’s something that’s well thought out, and will be loved for a long time, rather than something that will give a quick dopamine hit and end up in a charity shop by summer.
What I want is to invest in my future so that I can be fulfilled and support myself and my family. I want to be of value to others and to enjoy myself in the process.
Does that mean giving up every physical thing I enjoy? No. Of course not. And I’m not ungrateful when people do buy me things because that would make me into an asshat. Being ungrateful for how others choose to show their love is also a surefire way to end up miserable and frustrated.
This week, I finally completed a videogame I’ve had for years called Alien Isolation. For years I would make a certain amount of progress, only to get stuck, scared out of my wits, and quit.
It’s only in the past few months I plucked up the courage to restart it after a friend said, “don’t let your fears rule you”. I realise how cheesy that sounds, but that’s exactly what I was doing. I was acting the same way I used to in real life.
In the end, I pushed through that fear, and my failures when the alien killed me again and again. And in doing so, I finally reached the end credits. I was successful.
But most people don’t keep on pushing through when they fail. Like I once did with Alien Isolation, they give up at the first few hurdles. So many people stay stagnant.
They won’t go for that career opportunity, or start a new business, or ask that guy/girl out, or attempt to learn a new skill, or travel somewhere new, or stand up for their beliefs.
Life is tedious but safe. Unfulfilling yet secure.
At work I stayed in the same old position for ten years, despite many opportunities for growth. Why? Because I was too terrified of failure to try anything else. My life was on autopilot. Go to work, get paid, buy new shiny stuff to feel more alive, dream of winning the lottery, dream of writing, rinse and repeat.
Because of turbulence in my life as a young adult, I felt that I should be grateful for even having a job. My mother often drilled the last part into me.
The message was clear: Stay where you are. Don’t try anything else. Don’t push your luck. Don’t even think about it.
And I didn’t. I fought the symptoms of undiagnosed chronic illness, and when I finally got diagnosed, I thought, This is it. My cards have been dealt. Now I need to fight to keep going, to keep my job. It was the first job which I genuinely loved (and still do).
Supporting students was highly rewarding, and I grew over the years. I became a better TA, better able to build relationships, gained more empathy than ever before, and a wider view of the world.
But there came a point where I started longing for more. Dreaming about creating content that would help and inspire adults. Fantasising about becoming an author. About helping people with their life problems. And I stayed like that for many more years.
Just dreaming and wishing.
Whenever I saw somebody else become successful, it was like looking through a telescope from across a vast, raging ocean. Success was something that only happened to gifted people. Whenever students left the school with their grades and a blank slate, I longed to go back to the past.
If only I had chosen the right courses (journalism or creative writing). If only I hadn’t been so scared to pursue what I really wanted. If only I didn’t have a chronic illness.
All of that was faulty thinking based on limiting beliefs I had at the time: That I was now too old to chase my dream. That I was a crap writer and had nothing worthwhile to say. That I was dumb and didn’t deserve better.
The truth is, if I had made different choices, and if I was free of illness, I wouldn’t have learned the things I have. I wouldn’t have met my husband, and most likely, would be a completely different person. I wouldn’t be writing my first book which is all about coping with chronic illness, and I probably wouldn’t have discovered minimalism and grown as a person, so I wouldn’t be writing this blog.
It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in life, or how old you are, you choose how you play the cards you have been dealt in life. You choose if to keep playing or surrender your hand.
It’s only over the past year I’ve wrestled back control of the steering wheel and have a clear aim. Minimalism helped clear my vision. And once I had a clear view of what I wanted and how I was going to get there, I just went for it.
I made this blog and carried on writing even when the writing gremlin told me I was crap. I applied for a BACP counselling course, even though the sneering voice of self-doubt piped up, Pfft. You? You’ve spent years on the wrong path. What makes you think you can help others to find theirs?
I could have listened to that voice and not applied for the course. But I remembered that it was because I had gone down the ‘wrong’ path that I came to the revelation I did.
It’s the people I met along the way. The lessons I’ve learned by teaching others, and by overcoming challenges in my relationships. Relentless studying and reading every book on success and communication I could get my hands on.
Slowly but surely, as I kept reading, applying what I learned, and clearing more clutter from my home, my old limiting beliefs fell away.
I had proved that I could become minimalist, even though I was a hoarder for most of my life. Why couldn’t I work for myself when there are people who have overcome massive adversity and still achieved their dream?
Reading about some of these people, I realised there was always a common thread. They all had a clear vision of what they wanted. And they all worked their asses off to get there. They all kept pulling themselves out of the quicksand. They stopped drowning and kept kicking their legs until they started swimming.
It turns out that some of the world’s most successful people had also been told they would get nowhere in life. Often by teachers, other authority figures, and by the attitudes of the people they were surrounded by at the time.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s parents noticed his affinity to physical labour and suggested that he could become a furniture maker, or a mechanic. But what he wanted was to become a famous body-builder. His friends at school thought he was weird for his strong desire to go to America, because he talked about it all the time.
Do you think any of that stopped him?
Can you imagine if Arnold had played it safe, instead? If he had only done what others expected him to do?
One of my favourite authors, Bryan Hutchinson, struggled throughout his education, and was told he would never be a writer. He was even humiliated in front of a whole class once by a tutor who didn’t believe in his abilities. Eventually, he pushed through his limiting self-beliefs and the remarks from his past. Now he owns a successful blog and has published several books.
Once you start believing, and you put in the hard work, the life you envisioned materialises bit by bit, like the sun after a heavy storm.
I decided I was never again going to let myself be told that my dreams were ‘unrealistic’, or that I was being ‘ungrateful’. Of course, I’m grateful. Gratitude is important. The problem was, I took being grateful as meaning to always stick with what you have.
I never took risks because ‘realistically’ I could fail and look like a fool. I could see people saying “told you so,” with a satisfied smirk. I could see readers making fun of my writing. But being realistic and safe was making me miserable and unfulfilled.
Not too long ago, I put all talented people, or people in a higher position than me, on a pedestal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was so fascinated by these people that I saw them like a celebrity. In my eyes, I saw a mystical human before me and felt privileged just to be around them.
You can imagine how I saw myself.
I didn’t see the seeds they had planted in the past. All the years of grafting and climbing the ladder, while feeling just as insecure as most other people.
After chatting with these people for a while, I started to notice how different their attitude was. They didn’t complain or hang around in cliques. But they avoided negative people and meaningless tasks as sure as a cat avoids showers.
I was one of those negative people, and I didn’t even realise it. So it was no wonder these more successful people didn’t talk to me for too long.
You attract who you are.
You’ll notice that gossipers tend to hang around and attract other gossips, that toxic people are never far apart. But the successful ones are well out of the way, hanging with positive people and doing whatever it takes to live the life they want.
These people still treat everyone with respect, even if they’d rather be elsewhere in that moment. They understand the importance of positive relationships, and that what they say reflects who they are or who they are becoming.
I’m not talking about people who are in a successful position, but who then abuse that power to make others feel small. You could argue that they’re not successful because their power plays come from a place of deep insecurity and fear. They haven’t mastered their fears and perceived shortcomings, so project them onto others.
Truly successful people are living the life that they want to live, never stop growing, are humble, and treat everyone with respect. They aren’t perfect, because nobody is perfect. But they know that the best way to live a sub-par life is to bring others down, brag about their life, and stop learning once they’ve reached a certain point.
Notice how I never said that successful people are all walking around with high-paying jobs and a briefcase? That’s because it’s nothing but a stereotype. An idea sold to you via the media, through marketing, and by the rest of society.
Success isn’t about having a certain job and wearing a custom-fit suit. It isn’t the amount of stuff you own, or the amount of money you have in the bank. It isn’t the amount of friends you have or the sexual conquests you’ve had.
In fact, there are some obscenely rich and popular people out there who are drowning in misery and can’t quite figure out why.
Success is living the lifestyle you want to live, with the job you want, with quality friends, and continuing to grow as a person.
If happiness, to you, is working a 9-5 while voluntarily working at homeless shelters, and that’s what you do with your life, you’ve been successful.
If it’s about having a happy marriage, and you have many joyful married years behind you, you’ve been successful.
If you’re a stay-at-home parent who values raising children, and you have happy kids, you’ve been successful.
Be careful not to mix happiness up with mediocrity- that is staying safe and settling for less than your potential.
It’s important to know that there are many areas of success which add up to a whole: job, marital, friendship, financial, parental, spiritual…
And you can be successful in as many areas as you want. Not perfect. Successful.
Owning a big house just because you can is meaningless. Owning the latest gadgets wears off fast. Wearing a suit to work every day and earning hundreds of thousands a year is meaningless if you’ve got no plan but to chase more.
People who tie happiness to possessions, or success to a suit and briefcase are destined to become mere shells of themselves.
Some people get caught in the trap of waiting to become a certain way before they go after what they want. But they forget one important thing: It’s our experiences that help shape who we are and how we think.
Without failing, you can’t grow. You can’t know what you need to do to improve, to move further along.
Yes, hone a positive growth mindset. But don’t wait for perfect. Because perfect never comes, and success never comes to those who sit and wait.
Always remember your values. Don’t stray from them. And value yourself highly.