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Smarty Pants Book Club: Stripping down to the essential

December 10, 2015

“In a world of rampant materialism and manifold opportunities, many people these days are apparently learning who they are by choosing what they can do without.” David Brooks

At our November meeting, the Smarty Pants Book Club looked for ways to strip away the superfluous in our projects, closets and lives. The books we read around the theme of minimalism lead to great conversation about how one decides what is really essential. Many of us live with the luxury of too many choices. In design and in life, boundaries and priorities define experience.

We started our conversation with a great science fiction novel. The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian tells the story of an immortal alchemist and a gargoyle who has come to life. These two mythical characters become involved in a murder mystery that requires them to decipher an ancient text. Much of the character introduction describes how their immortality requires them to live minimally. When you’re going to be around forever, your potential to collect stuff is endless. In a never-ending progression through time and space, it is completely impractical to haul around centuries of accumulated things.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo also focused on minimalism regarding the “stuff” in one’s life. Kondo provides a detailed method for systematically de-cluttering your home. By sorting through possessions category by category, rather than room by room, you can more effectively eliminate clutter and create a tidy and inspiring space for yourself. Kondo goes on to anthropomorphize possessions. Each pair of socks you own want to give you warm feet. If your drawers overflow with more socks than you will ever actually wear you are depriving many of those socks the opportunity to do their job. In short, surrounding yourself with more stuff than you really need creates bad energy in a variety of ways.

Surrounding yourself with more stuff than you really need creates bad energy in a variety of ways.

Our Book Club discussed how the desire to keep and hold physical things is in some ways a manifestation of the fleeting nature of our lives. We know we are not going to be around forever, so we cherish the things we have while we have the opportunity to do so. Gathering up things can enhance memories or provide comfort, and every time you let go of an object there is a feeling of finality. By refusing to get rid of things, even if they are no longer useful, we can postpone the inevitable goodbye.

In addition to the ‘stuff and things’ aspects of minimalism, we also discussed minimalism as it relates to goals or activities. Both Essentialism by Greg McKeown and The One Thing by Gary Keller offer strategies and advice on how to focus attention exclusively on your top priority. These two books were similar in their descriptions of habits that are detrimental to productivity and success. They push the reader to be highly selective in deciding what is Essential, avoiding distraction and making the greatest possible contribution to things that really matter.

In our discussion of McKeown and Keller’s books, we wondered if consultants can really be minimalists in the manner they describe. Working with clients from a wide variety of industries allows us the luxury of changing what is Essential as we move from project to project. While some career paths are relatively prescribed, the work of an innovation consultant is one of frequent, if not constant, flux. There is always a responsibility to make good choices and prioritize what is essential about the task at hand, but our unique vantage point as an outsider allows us to ask “what is the one thing I can do right now?” rather than “what is the one thing I will do in perpetuity?”

Clutter can be physical. It can also be mental. In our frenetic world that’s packed with stuff, ideas and opportunities, taking the time to mindfully order your external and internal spaces seems like a wise exercise in sanity. It might also give you a good excuse for skipping the mall this holiday season.

 Written by Leah Ujda