“Like lifestyle Minimalism, Minimalist art is sometimes pleasant but generally uninspiring.”

Pretty much. On a trip to Venice last summer I had the pleasure of seeing some of the most beautiful classical architecture, staggeringly impressive floor to ceiling paintings, so detailed it would take you half an hour to properly take it in. Then I went to the Guggenheim and saw the exhibition of a renowned minimalist sculptor.

At times interesting to look at, but dreadfully uninspiring, especially given the stark contrast with all of the beauty outside. Perhaps it’s my own lack of culture and taste, or an underlying traditionalist bias (wouldn’t be surprising), but the experience sticks out in my memory as a significant strike against minimalism.

“Though I try not to be an armchair psychoanalyst for people who I’ve never shook hands or broken bread with, I can’t help noticing that those who are drawn to Minimalism have, as a rule, been dealt more than their fair share of damage, trauma or neglect in life."

My own experience leads me to agree with you on that. However, another thing I’ve noticed is that those who feel displaced, tend to accumulate more objects than others. Toys, books, objects that hold strong sentimental value become much more important, as they almost fill the gap that comes without having a real sense of “home”, or place.

“Until a pandemic hits and you can’t leave the house and you realize that your flat has the same square footage and number of amenities as a solitary confinement cell.”

Yikes. Big truth in there. I remember seeing photos of Scandinavian prison cells and thinking about how they look just like a nice apartment with regular minimalist decor. What that says about minimalists and Scandinavians I’m not sure.

“The only thing to do in such a dwelling is to go online. There is nothing that is not screen-bound and Internet-mediated, and we wonder why after a few months of this routine people began to riot and be beset by anxiety and depression and all the rest of it.”

You’ve absolutely nailed it. 2020 for most has been a year of endless scrolling and constant complaining. It’s getting to that stage where people are treating the (still ongoing) quarantines like New Year’s Resolutions - “I was going to learn how to play guitar but instead I watched all 10 seasons of Friends 3 times.” 

I certainly wasted my fair share of time during the lockdowns, but I got a lot done as well, almost all of which I keep to myself. Getting more practiced at the art of playing dumb as the years go on, and figuring out who is and isn’t capable of a proper open-minded conversation about a topic, without letting personal feelings interfere.

“And though materialism and greed are not the solutions to any of our problems, spending more time offline almost certainly is. Being more creative definitely is. And these activities require a certain amount of stuff. I don’t mean necessarily materials, the absence of which is a barrier to entry. I mean that sound mental health requires offline time and this requires having at least some books or physical music or instruments or games or basically anything that is fun and occupying and that doesn’t require a charger and a WiFi code.”

Bought a surfboard and went surfing Friday, then came home, got destroyed in chess by my younger brother (x3), wrote a couple thousand words and finished the day reading 100 years of solitude by GGM - can confirm that I fell asleep and woke up about as happy as I’ve ever been, the afterglow of which is still fresh as I’m typing this comment.

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As always there are so many different strands I could go into with this excellent comment (when I get a minute I will comb through all of the comment section discussions I have had with you and Sebastien and probably generate enough ideas for all of 2021’s newsletter docket!)

So I’m gonna pick out two aspects, pretty much at random...

1) playing dumb is huge and very much an art. It primarily involves ego suppression and resisting that urge to pontificate on your own viewpoint whether it is more informed and true than your interlocutor or not. In fact especially if it is superior. It’s an increasingly vital skill in these politically charged times. Avoiding the news helps, so that your playing dumb comes across as genuine. Reading ‘Lindy’ material has a way of keeping you well informed in the macro sense as human nature doesn’t change. I’m still working on improving at this.

2) As I have mentioned before I think surfers and rock climbers can make for good mimetic models. They discover their *thing* (I won’t say ‘passion’ as that term has been debased by self-improvement writers) and centre their lives around maximising the time they get to do it. What you do for a living, and what you own fades into irrelevance once you have your thing. From what I gather it invariably involves the outdoors, physical activity, artistic expression, God or some combination of these.

Thanks again Conor.

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Dec 7, 2020Liked by Thomas J Bevan

A predisposition to minimalism in the physical plane, usually means overconsumption in terms of information. For them, that's a feature, not a bug.

Coincidently, materialists and minimalists seem to be part of the same circle but on opposite sides.

On the other hand, I'd argue that the post-modern ideation of deconstructing the narrative necessitates an aesthetic facade in every -ism out there. It was never about functionality. It's about a clean, white look and negative space.

Minimalism can be looked as a coping mechanism for those who can't spend too much energy to handle the implied responsibility of a rich space and instead resort in preservation mode. You can hold on to a couple of pots but having one too many means that you don't deserve the luxury!

Anyway. Doyle's idea of keeping your mental space like a well-kept storage unit is my kind of "minimalism".

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Overcomsumption of information is a huge problem of the current world, no matter the veracity of the sources of the medium of the message.

And yes there is a very masochistic aspect to Minimalism, a renunciation of the simple gifts of existence cloaked in the robes of a Westernised, Silicon Valley filtered Neo-Buddhism.

It’s a very scarce view of the world and the human condition. At the very least it needs to be reframed as reiterating towards refinement rather than mere reduction and renunciation.

The more early retirement focused iteration of minimalism from the blogging era (most notably Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Mustache) seemed to implicitly grasp this distinction.

Thanks for stopping by. Love your Substack. Makes me want to be far less minimalist with my record collection!

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Dec 6, 2020Liked by Thomas J Bevan

Ha! We were mentioning minimalism again just yesterday, as we prepare to move cities, to a much higher rent bracket, to homeschooling, etc.

I've found minimalism fairly easy to practice at times. I only really collect books. I don't really amass much of a wardrobe.

But I do agree that external stuff points to internal needs. I think playing an instrument is a wonderful thing that can satisfy so much of our desire for something deeper.

I've been rather busy and haven't read you in a while. Glad I made the time this morning.

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I appreciate that Caleb. Minimalism in all things is as shortsighted as maximalism in all things. Being somewhat fanatical and obsessive about one category of object is probably the move. For me it’s books and to a lesser extent music. If someone lived a digital life but were a clotheshorse, say, I would kind of get it.

There’s something to be said for accepting the status driven and signalling nature of humanity and trying to manage and mitigate it rather than pretending that you can somehow transcend it. That last sentence explains why hardcore minimalism can so often degenerate into absurdity. Status games and signalling still find a way to come out even in a barren magnolia and gunmetal living room.

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Dec 6, 2020Liked by Thomas J Bevan

I've always been suspicious of those preaching minimalism. Sure, it has some virtues (that you spoke of better than I would), but it always seemed... off to me. If we put aside the vast majority of people that blabbers about it because it's trendy but doesn't really apply it, you are left with two kinds of people : the already rich, and the soon-to-be-poor.

The already rich (self-made or mommy's boys/ daddy's girls) see it as a way to exonarate themselves from the burden of wealth; like those Silicon Valley lords that made their money in a ruthless and often dubious way but now won't shut up about their newfound spirituality, "gratitude", "kindness" and virtue-signaling philantropy. These people aren't really minimalistic; they're just bored, rich, feeling guilty and want to prove something to themselves and their peers.

The soon-to-be-poor are the city dwellers (as you said) that use it in order to cope with their always-shrinking purchasing power. It's not necessarily minimalism to never buy anything, even when you'd really want to; it's not necessarily minimalism to sell your car and take the bus; it's not necessarily minimalism to share a house with 3 strangers at 30+ years old. And it's NOT minimalism to have a wardrobe made of 5 items and patch them up for years until they're unwearable.

Like you said, discarding objects is usually more a symptom than a cause; it's less that you want to make tabula rasa of your possessions, rathen than the desire of a tabula rasa in your head. And after all, is it really wrong ? Addiction specialists tell us that there is virtually 0 chance for someone to truly recover if they keep living in the same envirronment and among the same people. So I can see the logic behind all this. But as we've seen in your "travel" newsletter, you can't get away from yourself just by booking a one-way ticket to Bali, just like you won't resolve your issues by getting rid of your possessions. So maybe the real challenge is less to discard all your possessions and LARP as a modern monk, than learn to distinguish between inspiring/value-added objects and cluttering ones; maybe you should buy this new couch you're thinking of. But maybe you shouldn't buy the overpriced, trendy one your GF saw on some IG's influencer page but an old and timeless Chesterfield, full of history and meaning. Maybe you don't need the latest macBook to write your novel, but a nice fountain pen and a Moleskine notebook (in addition to your old but still efficient laptop) could give you the creative boost you were waiting for. If you develop your taste and learn to appreciate the intrinsic beauty some objects can carry, you'll eventually build - literaly - your own world, where each thing has its place and meaning; and the fact that you'll own 10 objects or a hundred won't make a difference. But in a strange way, you'll have achieved minimalism in your head.

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As with most things I critique (or indeed praise) the feeling comes before the logic, if logic isn’t too strong a word. Minimalism always felt off to me, way before I could articulate why.

There’s a class (or wealth) based aspect to it that largely goes unspoken. You don’t have to own anything if you are time rich and cash liquid. But people who are at a low-ebb and thus are lead to gravitate towards Minimalism are often neither of these things. And so it merely compounds the problem and makes things worse.

If you read the (self serving) minimalism origin stories it is invariably someone who was doing well in a high-paying job who quit to live a simpler life. Fair enough. But there is money, connections, savvy, and skills there. Which is fine, but people miss that aspect and replicate the purging of stuff without that safety net.

And there is the creative aspect- getting rid of all of your stuff means you will finally be able to write that novel- which is simply a fallacy. I’m trying to save the youth from the dire fate this thinking will bring.

Hopefully one or two would-be minimalism victims will pick up on what I’m getting at here.

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"If you develop your taste and learn to appreciate the intrinsic beauty some objects can carry, you'll eventually build - literaly - your own world, where each thing has its place and meaning; and the fact that you'll own 10 objects or a hundred won't make a difference. But in a strange way, you'll have achieved minimalism in your head."

Very well put, great finish to a great paragraph.

I agree with you about minimalism always seeming off, but it has some strange allure that does pull you in. I fell victim to the physical vs digital book scenario for a few years before I realized that I had almost completely stopped reading fiction because of how miserable the experience was looking at yet another screen.

Another one I tried was going for a completely monochrome wardrobe - I lasted about a month before I realized how impossibly boring it was. Far from being as cool and freeing as I had imagined it would be, I just started feeling like Steve Jobs. Not exactly the rebellious archetype I was shooting for.

Minimalism as cope for lack of means is an odd one - on one side I think it's sensible self-delusion if it forces you to focus on the essentials to get into a better situation, on the other, it more or less ingrains a scarcity mentality in you.

Minimalism as a rich person is a waste of wealth in my opinion. Money is energy, it has to keep flowing. There's no point keeping it under your bed and dressing like Zuckerberg. Buy a fleet of old cars, stupid watches, give hundreds to the homeless, get a pet tiger - don't be boring about it.

The exact opposite of these Silicon Calley stealth-wealth types has got to be the Russian Oligarchs - worth reading about if you want to see true ruthlessness - but at least they go and drop billions on yachts and gold bathrooms. If you're going to be the villain you may as well lean into it.

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I would be a lot more forgiving of our Silican Valley overlords if they at least wore heavy jewellery and capes and buckled shoes and everything else that befits their villainous, monarchical roles. But no. Only Thiel has the slightest hint of Bond Villain to his presentation and even then it’s very low key.

You could make the argument that the Tech billionaires lack of swag is intended to be a further piece of demoralisation, a little but of further insult to injury.

Me, if I make any kind of money in this life, I’m going to be commissioning artists to paint portraits of me dresses as Napoleon, getting folk singers to write ballads about my exploits, getting ridiculous custom clothes made, the works. Money energy circulating so fast it’ll make your head spin!

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Agreed, why the hell are you worth a billion dollars and drive a Prius while wearing a hoodie and jeans? C'mon man, get a little more creative.

I'll be going the marble sculpture route personally, coupled with tipping every busker 500 quid and spending every cold, wet Irish Winter on beachfront property somewhere far, far away.

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My man.

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Tom, thank you for this. One of your best yet. I'll be sharing it on Twitter—a platform, I should note, that you have stealthily left because you have skin in the game, which lends these words all the more weight. Well done.

It seems to me that Minimalism and Digitalism and Essentialism—all "isms" for that matter, along with Marie Kondo's keeping only things that "spark joy"—are ways of prescribing external purges for what is truly interior work, a spirit of detachment, which is not so easily earned by reading self-improvement books or blogs.

One thing I always appreciate your insights is the emphasis that you place on freedom. I don't find it to be a kind of Sartrian conception of freedom but one imbued with a notion of responsibility, optimism, even hope.

There are charlatans (I won't name names) who recount the history of Homo Sapiens, for example, in a deterministic way, who refuse to acknowledge what they can verify in their own experience, that which is self-evident: I have the power to organize and arrange an Ordo Amoris in my life, an order of love, for which Twitter and my beloved vinyl LP of The Clash and even that glass of Blanton's bourbon that I tasted last night are, in the end, revealed for what they are—mere things, which only serve a noble purpose if they help me grow closer to my final goal in life, which is to love greatly.

Have a restful and re-energizing December, mate. We have but 9 left until the Soaring Twenties draws to a close, and we will be looking back at how we got started as the key to it all.

In the meantime, we'll miss you in Zoomlandia. Rock on.

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I appreciate that Luke. I haven’t quite left yet, but I am slowly easing a way (and trying to get people used to this idea).

The way to leave social media is with a whimper rather than a bang. Rather than announcing your departure you just take one more unannounced break and then simply never return. But this far I can say that, once this newsletter grows to say x2 it’s current level then the cost to benefit ratio will have definitively shifted towards Substack being valuable and twitter being almost entirely a waste of time.

I gather that I have missed a lot of chaos, despair, confusion and nonsense during my time away.

And yes, you are dead right about the adherence to isms being a merely signalling externalisation of what should be silent and private interior work.

Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing and all of that.

Thanks for stopping by here and thanks for the shakes. It means a lot.

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Thanks for writing this Tom! In part a lot of leaning towards Minimalism came from Silicon Valley, a particular set of individuals who got rich off of some project, and a book perhaps. Underlying all this, I see the power of “mimetic desire” to a large extent. A precedent that was probably set by Steve Jobs, and then stamped upon and endorsed by several others - not to forget the imitative founder of Theranos. We all know how that story panned out.

I tried to adopt this in one aspect - ok digitising my purchases of books and I even got a Kindle. Then I realised one thing, I missing scribbling on books - something I’d started recently - writing insane references that came to mind and building networks of thought. I hated swiping back and forth on the screen and what pained me even more was the ink that was left behind from the previous page. I’ve left it for over the past 3 months, and retreated to good old paper. I feel the balance restored in my world.

That said, I think the pendulum effect of ditching, repenting, buying, repenting, and then ditching again, is going to go on as long as we understand that it is our desire to follow someone else that is causing this behaviour - because if it were something of our own, we wouldn’t be in a ‘dog chasing its own tail’ situation.

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Dec 6, 2020Liked by Thomas J Bevan

Interestingly, I never noticed the analog record player in the iconic Jobs picture.

I have a different perspective on minimalism. For me it's not what I have but how I choose to spend my time that controls my minimalistic filter.

Just about every day I begin it early, alone, on my bike in the dark. Sure, I am riding a $6K Titanium gravel bike but's it's not the "thing" that defines "my" minimalism it's my isolation from other stimuli.

I only have the thoughts in my head, the rhythmic churning of my legs, breathing in and out, and moving in space for 3 hours each day.

I imagine that the freedom I experience is what a minimalist might intend to feel by "getting rid of things" When I am alone, pedaling (and sometimes suffering) problems and concerns fade. They are still there but in the big scheme of things their place is re-aligned. I feel free.

I re-enter my day relaxed, recharged, and re-directed. I still have all the things around me and in my life, but the goal is never to try to accumulate more for the sake of "getting". I prefer the experiences that things offer.

My morning minimalistic ritual helps me keep everything in perspective.

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As soon as I saw the turntable the scales fell from my eyes. Do as I say not as I do. Though in fairness Jobs did seem to be a bit more nuanced in his beliefs regarding the utility of new tech, especially compared to subsequent generations of SV guys.

I like your take on Minimalism (nothing is one size fits all of course). I find that a lot of online discussions are a matter of semantics and differences in definition and that in real life people of supposedly different positions would find that they largely agree after all.

Also, being a contrarian, I feel the need to (over)countersignal a popular position in the hope that the readership will discover the middle ground, which is where the truth- or at least the most helpful- position often lies.

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