It's hard to read or write about the Minimalists. You can start, but it's difficult to click through their blog or look at their spare yet lovely home and not start mentally tallying the extra things in your house. Surely I, too, could be a more graceful and inspired person if I could get by owning literally one mug, if my only electronic device was a slim Macbook, if I didn't keep empty liquor bottles because they might make cute vases one day.
The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, are gaining a reputation for living the simplest of clutter-free lives. After making headlines for ditching big cities to live in a nearly empty house in Philipsburg, they recently moved to Missoula to continue writing and to launch a publishing company. World traveler Colin Wright decided to join them, making a trio.
The three men, all around the age of 30, almost seem superhuman. They look and dress like Abercrombie models, and are well-spoken, confident and articulate. They sit around their front room, graced only by a wooden table, chairs, guitar in the corner and their own books—A Day in the Life of a Minimalist and Simplicity: Essays, for instance—displayed on shelves. They play off each other, telling stories they've told many times.
"Me and Ryan have known each other since we were fat little fifth graders," Millburn says. "We thought we'd be happy if we made a bunch of money in our 20s, but it didn't pan out quite the right way."
When Millburn's marriage ended and his mother died in the same month, he says he started searching for what would really make him happy. He stumbled upon writings from Wright, who ran a successful design firm in Los Angeles before quitting his job, getting rid of his things and starting a blog, Exile Lifestyle, where readers can vote for which country he'll visit for four months.
Millburn didn't want to become a world traveler, but he was intrigued by the idea of only owning essentials. He gradually cut down on the extras. Nicodemus, who says he was intrigued by Millburn's noticeably happier demeanor, eventually joined him in the project.
The Minimalists support themselves by self-publishing and advocating for a philosophic lifestyle that calls for only carrying the things one truly needs. Their new company, Asymmetrical Press, is currently working with two authors to print fiction. Its first printing, The Flute Player, by Shawn Mihalik, a novel about a young village musician, is due out in print and ebook in March.
Wright uses phrases like "sweat equity" to describe how Asymmetrical Press will skip the traditional models of buying the rights to an author's work and paying royalties.
"We'll say, 'We believe in your work, we want to invest in you,'" Wright says.
The Minimalists also seem aware that their philosophy addresses a primarily first-world problem. "Go tell some Cambodian school kids that you own only 50 things," Wright says, "and they're like, 'You own 50 things? How can I own 50 things?'"
Nicodemus says they've had former CEOs and welfare recipients alike come to their book readings. He says it might seem easy for three single guys to get by with few things, but points out that they know other people, like a couple with six children, who practice minimalism in different ways.
Minimalism isn't about tossing things you like, Wright says, but about considering your future purchases. "We're not giving up anything, except the stuff that doesn't add value to our lives," he says. "... I always tell people, 'If you love owning unicorn statuettes, if they make you happy, buy as many fucking unicorn statuettes as make you happy, but don't buy the big screen TV, too, just because it's there."
Millburn says he and Nicodemus grew up poor -- "I have to take my shoes off to count how many times we had the electric turned off when I was a kid" -- but he still would advocate minimalism for his mother, if she were still alive.
"I got that 'seeking happiness through things' from her," Millburn says. "Consumption is an unquenchable thirst."
As for the group's future in Montana, they say they've committed to staying six months, and then they'll evaluate whether to plant roots or to pack up. So far, they say they love the town and it's an affordable place to run a business.
For their upcoming five-city tour, which kicks off in Missoula, the Minimalists will talk about their experiences and how the publishing industry has changed.
"I don't have a college degree, but I was able to get out there and make things happen on my own," Millburn says. "That's our message: You don't have to wait for anyone's permission."
The Minimalists appear at Shakespeare and Co., 103 S. Third St., on Tue., Feb. 26 at 7 PM. Free.