The Value of Things

I consider myself mostly a minimalist these days. It was something I was kind of heading toward, at least in some areas of my life, when I stumbled across the The Minimalists’ documentary on Netflix some time back. The whole idea of minimalism had already been seeded for me with a realization that I had way too much photography gear and that I actually felt more creative and comfortable when I worked with a minimal set of equipment. After shedding a bunch of photography related stuff, I started looking at the other things in my life. After a lot of introspection, I realized that in general I’m most at ease when my choices are limited. Things, or at least the excess of, truly brings stress to my mind. Thus began a slow and deliberate purge of the excess.

Really though, I don’t think “minimalism” is an accurate word to describe my evolving belief system and lifestyle changes. In my experience, a lot of what is labeled minimalism these days might be more accurately described as intentionalism. I’m more intentional in what things I choose to bring into my life and in what I retain in my home. Minimalism as a term often seems to bring about an idea of deprivation and that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not a competition to see how few things you can own. Well, at least not for me. Rather, it’s about keeping a perspective that things are just objects that can help bring value to my life or not.

I got to thinking about the Marie Kondo craze that has captured a lot of attention these days. Her method seems to be mostly geared toward organizing and decluttering from what I can tell. I haven’t read her book, although I did try watching her show. It took 10 minutes to decide it wasn’t for me. Mainly, I can’t seem to relate to the whole “does this thing bring you joy” idea. It’s an evaluation of things based on emotion and that doesn’t work for me. Value — that’s a better word than joy for describing how to evaluate things, in my opinion. Does this thing bring any value to my life? That’s the question I ask myself about everything I own.

Experiences and relationships are what truly bring joy, not things. While I am a photographer, my camera doesn’t bring me joy as an object. There’s nothing emotional or magical about holding it in my hands. It’s what I do with it that creates joy. That thing is valuable to me for that reason. It’s an important distinction — the camera has value as a tool and I do things with it that result in joy. I’m not emotionally attached to the object as a source of joy.

As I look around my home periodically, I ask myself if things truly bring me any value. Or do they cause me stress? Are they in the way? Are they there “just in case”…except that a case for owning them hasn’t surfaced in the past decade? Does the clutter they contribute to a disruption of my clarity of mind? Am I storing things that I no longer get value from that maybe somebody else would get value from now? A feeling of joy over an inanimate object doesn’t come into play for me in my evaluation of my belongings.

If something is deemed to have no current value or any value in the foreseeable future for me, it gets removed from my life. Only you can decide what things are truly valuable in your life. The Minimalists, Marie Kondo, or any other guru of better living can’t figure that out for you. If owning something is causing grief in your life then the answer is obvious. And really, it’s not just about getting rid of all your shit purely for the sake of being tidy. Everyone is different and some people do thrive among a surplus of possessions. I have friends, for example, who have collections of guitars to the point where it would appear that sanity and reason have fallen by the wayside. But they play these instruments and they obviously enjoy the unique experience of playing each one. They make amazing music with them.

Some people may find a collection of things — be it guitars, cameras, whatever, to be fuel for creativity. Know thyself. It wasn’t until around age 50 that I understood my own mind to the point that I know I am at my best mentally when my choices are minimal and my environment is free of excess stuff. Too many things and choices to make regarding those things is mentally crippling. I’m much happier grabbing my one camera bag with my one camera in it rather than standing in front of a shelf of camera bodies and lenses while over-analyzing what to take with me that day.

Getting rid of the stuff that I truly found no value in has been liberating and my careful, objective scrutiny of the things in my life has contributed the development of a more mindful way of thinking that brings better focus and clarity to my personal and professional life. Figure out what adds value to your life and, in turn, helps you to create your joy. Then get rid of the shit that doesn’t do that.