The Crucible: Developing Expertise

Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours

I recently read a blog post on The Writer’s Coin which discussed some concepts from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I haven’t read the book (yet) myself, but it sounds fascinating, and the post got me thinking about expertise.

Gladwell claims that to be a world-class expert in any given subject requires 10,000 hours of practice.


That’s a lot of time.

Let’s say you work full time on a skill you want to be a world-class expert on. 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year (with two weeks of vacation) comes out to 2000 hours a year. So you would need to work full-time for five years. And we’re talking undivided attention here — time spent taking a break or working while distracted doesn’t count. 10,000 hours of real dedication, moving forward, challenging yourself, working at your edge and pushing beyond it constantly.

I say again: DAMN!

Even with enough free time, how do you find the motivation to do something like that?

Expertise and Me

Not everyone wants to be a world-class expert, and perhaps those who do usually have the dedication to work single-mindedly on their craft like this. I enjoy being good at things, but I’m less fond of the hard work required to get there. I guess that means I’m unlikely to ever be a world-class expert at anything, unless I discover something that I enjoy so much that it doesn’t feel like work to do it full-time.

I love the feeling of being the expert (a situation I have encountered a couple of times in my professional career), but the idea that true expertise requires that much time and effort is daunting at best. And yet the end result is so alluring that it might be worth it. Then it becomes a question of figuring out what to become an expert on, and that’s where things get really tricky. There are just so many choices!

I’ve been thinking lately about returning to the workforce (though likely in a limited capacity). For the first time in my career, I am thinking hard about what I want from an employer in terms of working conditions, company culture, and values. Expertise is one of the thoughts that keeps crossing my mind as I explore these ideas. “The expert” is my favorite role I’ve ever held in the workplace. Working in software quality assurance, I was often required to become an expert on how the product was supposed to work (and how it actually did work). This put me in a position to serve as a resource for other departments (technical writers, customer service folks, trainers, and even sometimes programmers). Being valued for my knowledge is extremely rewarding to me, whereas being valued for doing real work is almost annoying. I guess I like to be appreciated for my strengths rather than my weaknesses. ūüėČ

I’m keeping this in mind as I think about employment — I will be much happier with a job if it offers me the opportunity to be the expert.

Cultivating Expertise in the Workplace

Now that I’ve worked a few different places, I have some perspective on what factors allow for the development of expertise. This is slanted toward a job in software QA, but I’m sure many of these factors are of general applicability.

  • Small team size. The fewer ways the work is divided, the more each person has to know. Large teams dilute expertise. For large and complex projects, it can be valuable to have each person develop expertise on one or more areas of the project, however.
  • Broad project scope. If an individual’s assignments are in too narrow an area of the product, it can be difficult for them to develop a good understanding of the big picture. Knowledge should be deep enough to qualify as expertise, but also broad enough to be useful often.
  • Quick turn-around. Repetition helps a lot with retaining what you’ve learned. If you learn something once and never need it again, odds are the details will fade. On the other hand, if you use that information again every day of the week, it will soon become second nature.
  • Good availability of information. Having an oracle of your own to turn to is invaluable in developing expertise, whether that oracle be another expert, printed documentation, a well-maintained wiki, or even just the application source code.
  • Customer input. Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that the customer WILL abuse your product in ways that no one ever could have anticipated. The customer is both your best friend and your worst enemy in terms of uncovering information about your product. They will help you discover new things, but you may well wish they hadn’t!
  • Long-term attachment to one product/project. Switching from one project to another means that you’re no longer using and reinforcing the knowledge that’s unique to the first one, and you’re starting from scratch learning something new. That’s not an efficient way to leverage (or even maintain) your expertise. Working on one project for a long period of time allows you to maintain, develop, and deepen your expertise and put it to good use on a regular basis.

These elements will help you get closer to that ideal of 10,000 hours.

The blog post I mentioned above included this quote about the Beatles from Outliers:

All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

Do your best to find or create a crucible for yourself, and expertise will follow.

The Snowball Effect

The debt snowball is a frequently-recommended method for successfully paying off debts in a relatively short period of time. It is related to the concept of compound interest, and it works by starting with small payments and building upon small, early successes to create larger, quicker successes later. But if you don’t pay off your debts, they can quickly snowball and bury you just as easily — the snowball effect works both ways. Successes tend to build upon and magnify each other, and failures do the same. And this effect isn’t limited to wealth — there are examples of it in health and relationships as well.

Let’s examine the snowball effect first in the context of money. Let’s say you have several outstanding debts (loans, credit cards, etc.) and you pay the minimum on each every month. At this rate, you will be in debt for roughly the rest of your life. To get out of debt, you can use a debt snowball: figure out how much more you can spare, and pay it all into one debt — typically either the one with the highest interest rate or the one with the lowest balance (there are good reasons for both; which one is best depends on your personality). When that one is paid off, take all the money you were paying into it every month and add it to what you’re already paying on the second one. You’ll be paying it off at a faster rate than you did the first one. When that’s done, roll the whole payment that used to go into the first and second debts into the third one. That will go even faster, and you’re well on the way to being debt-free. It can take a while, but if you don’t rack up more debts along the way, it will go faster and faster the longer you do it. It builds momentum.

Saving money works the same way. Compound interest builds savings in a manner similar to the debt snowball. The more money you have, the more you make, so there’s more there next time, so you make even more, and so on.

Of course, if you have debts and you don’t pay them down, the snowball effect will work against you — every month your debt will grow more than the previous month as interest and penalties accumulate and become the basis for the following month’s interest and penalties. The balance owed gets bigger and bigger faster and faster until you can’t possibly keep up with it! It’s important to keep the snowball effect working for you and not against you. Compound interest is a powerful double-edged sword.

The snowball effect isn’t limited to personal finance, though. It can also appear in other areas of your life. For instance, depression is a negative snowball effect that affects your mood. It’s a vicious circle. Depression can deter you from fixing your problems, allowing them to get worse, which can be even more depressing. This was my situation five years ago — I was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and $14,000 in debt besides. And the way I recovered from depression was very similar to the way I paid off my debts, though I had to take out a “loan” to recover from the depression, in the form of psychiatric treatment. Medication gave me the traction I needed to start making small positive changes in my life, those positive changes helped me feel better enough to make slightly more significant positive changes, and so on, until I no longer needed the medication and no longer felt depressed. The snowball effect in action.

I’m experiencing a negative snowball effect right now in my physical health, and working on finding the willpower to reverse it. An unhealthy diet and not enough exercise contributed to my being overweight, which makes it harder to exercise, which exerts pressure toward getting fatter and more unhealthy. One of my major focuses in the next month or two will be discovering ways to turn my health snowball around and make it work for me instead of against me. All I need to do is identify and implement the health equivalents of the things I did to improve my finances and mental health.

Snowballs can be used in relationships too, building your confidence on social settings and trust and intimacy with the people in your life by starting out with small steps and building on them. The more I learn about how to improve various areas of my life, the more I’m struck by the parallels between them. It seems like the same ideas come up in exercise as in dating as in personal finance as in mental health as in entrepreneurship as in healthy eating as in everything! It almost seems like it should be possible to create a generic template for “how to improve your X” which applies for nearly all values of X. One element of that template would be the snowball effect.

What other ideas do you have for applying the snowball effect?

Is Conventional Wisdom Robbing You of Your Savings?

Financial books and blogs frequently tout the importance of paying yourself first. ¬†And in many cases, this may well be the best course of action. ¬†Certainly when you’re new to personal finance and trying to get your affairs in order, if you don’t follow this wise advice you may never get around to saving. ¬†But the practices that serve us well when we are first starting out can hold us back later on when we are wiser and better off financially.

The cost of paying yourself first only begins appearing when your income begins to exceed your expenses by a noticeable amount. ¬†Let’s play with some numbers to see how this breaks down.

Pay yourself first:

Let’s say your net monthly income (that is, after taxes) is $1400 a month. ¬†Rent and other bills cost you $1000, leaving you with $400 for living expenses (such as groceries) and entertainment (dinners out, movies, bars, video games, whatever) for the month. ¬†That’s $100/week, and when a dinner out with your partner can easily run you $40, that money runs out quickly. ¬†It’s easy to see how it might be difficult to carve out a percentage of your budget for savings in this scenario. ¬†Paying yourself first makes sense here, because if you don’t, you may have nothing left to save later. ¬†Decide how much you can spare and set it aside FIRST, before you spend it.

Don’t pay yourself first:

If, however, your gross income is $3000 a month (net $2000), things are a little different. ¬†Let’s say you’ve developed a good habit of paying yourself first, so you squirrel away $200 (10% of your net) before paying anything else. ¬†Your bills still total $1000, so you now have $800 left over for living expenses and entertainment! ¬†Here’s where things go off-course: you’d probably be perfectly comfortable with only $600, but if $800 is just sitting there tempting you, you’re much more likely to spend it all — impulse buys, little splurges, things you don’t want or need. ¬†You’ll spend it, but you won’t really get much benefit from having done so — especially compared to the value of the compound interest you could have been earning on it.

In this latter case, paying yourself first is precisely backwards. ¬†There’s a much better way to budget your $2000: pay yourself LAST! ¬†You know that you have $1000 of bills which have to be paid one way or another. ¬†And through experience you’ve learned that $600/month in living money is a comfortable lifestyle. ¬†So you budget those two figures and route the money to two separate checking accounts — ¬†$1000 goes to an account for bills which is accessible only by checks (which you leave at home when you go out) or electronic bill pay, and $600 goes into an account which is also accessible via your ATM/debit card. ¬†Now, after setting aside in advance the money you need to keep your bills paid and live a comfortable life, whatever’s left over goes to savings — $400, DOUBLE what you would have saved if you’d paid yourself first.

This strategy becomes even more valuable if your income fluctuates a bit — let’s say the following month you work some overtime and wind up with an extra $200 net — if you paid yourself first, this money is likely to get frittered away, but by paying yourself last, you get to keep it instead of giving it to people for things you don’t really need or, let’s face it, want. ¬†This month you save $600 instead of $400 — excellent!

Some people call “pay yourself first” the golden rule of personal finance — but it is by no means the only way, or even the best way, to save successfully. ¬†I’ve been paying myself last for several years, keeping just the leftovers after allocating fixed amounts each paycheck to bills and to discretionary spending. ¬†By doing so, I’ve seen my net worth consistently grow over that time, putting my leftovers into paying down credit cards as quickly as possible (until I learned how to profit from keeping card debt), saving in high-interest savings accounts, and buying CDs to maximize my returns on my investment. ¬†Paying myself last has improved my net worth a great deal, much more than if I’d been paying myself first. ¬†The key is not to follow anyone’s financial advice (even if it’s EVERYONE’S financial advice) without question, but to think about what will work best for you, try things, and keep the practices that make you successful.

Minimalism: My Bottom-Up List

Here’s my bottom-up list. ¬†There are a lot of things on this list that aren’t strictly necessary, but are conducive to my goals and contribute more to my life than they detract from it. ¬†This list assumes living alone in a one-bedroom apartment (which I currently don’t) and that the kitchen, dining room, and bathroom have overhead lights. ¬†It also excludes decorative items, which I don’t use much anyway. ¬†Many items on this list are things I don’t have yet — there are plenty of things I could still acquire to improve my life, but many items I’d want to get rid of first.


  • Bed (with bedding: 2 pillows, fitted sheet, plain sheet, blanket)
  • Nightstand
  • Light
  • Glasses case
  • Phone charger
  • Small box of personal items.

Bedroom Closet

  • 10 business shirts (5x long-sleeve for winter, 5x short-sleeve for summer)
  • 10 pairs pants (5x Black [for winter], 5x Khaki [for summer])
  • 7 pairs short pants
  • 7 casual t-Shirts
  • 8 pairs underwear (one extra in case I’m a day late doing laundry)
  • 8 pairs socks (ditto)
  • 1 suit (dress shirt, jacket, pants)
  • 5 pairs shoes (sneakers, sandals, black dress shoes, 2x hiking boots [one regular, one super-warm])
  • Dressing gown
  • Laundry Basket
  • 1 set spare bedding
  • 3 file storage boxes of personal items, including items of sentimental value such as mementos of my childhood
  • 3 backpacks (1 for computer, 1 for gaming, 1 for other needs when the first two are unsuitable)


  • 3 skillets/frying pans (different sizes)
  • 3 pots/saucepans (different sizes)
  • Roasting pan
  • Oven-safe Pyrex dish
  • Vegetable steamer
  • 1 set wooden or plastic spatula/spoon/fork/pasta fork
  • Knife block
  • Carving set
  • Cutting board
  • 1 set assorted measuring cups and spoons
  • 1 set assorted containers for leftovers (including plastic bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil)
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Can opener
  • Corkscrew
  • Up to 6 cookbooks
  • 2 wine glasses
  • 2 ice cube trays
  • 2 sets silverware (May replace with service for four later.)
  • Plastic flatware (ditto)
  • Paper plates (ditto)
  • Paper bowls (ditto)
  • Plastic cups (ditto)
  • Dishes brush
  • Dish towels
  • Drying rack
  • 1 package sponges
  • Dishwashing detergent
  • Rubber gloves
  • 1 roll paper towels
  • Coffee maker
  • Coffee filters
  • Trash can
  • Assorted food

Dining Room

  • Table
  • 4 chairs

Living Room

  • Computer table
  • 3 computers (1 Windows XP desktop, 1 Fedora Core desktop, 1 Windows XP laptop) w/ accessories
  • 1 printer/scanner/copier
  • 1 package extra printer paper
  • 2 extra ink cartridges (1 color, 1 b/w)
  • 1 large binder CD-ROMs
  • 1 medium binder audio CDs
  • ~20 DVDs
  • 1 spindle blank CD-Rs
  • 1 spindle blank DVD+RWs
  • ~1 dozen computer books
  • 1 file storage box spare computer parts/cables/occasional-use accessories
  • 1 file storage box user manuals and other documentation
  • Trash can
  • Paper shredder
  • Lamp
  • Drawing table
  • Drawing supplies (paper, pencils, kneaded eraser, pens, ruler, etc.)
  • 1 file cabinet (contains important documents and financial records going back seven years)
  • 1 drawer office supplies (envelopes, stamps, stapler, staple remover, scissors, etc.)
  • Small bookshelf
  • ~1 file storage box worth of “keeper” books
  • Spare batteries
  • Change jar


  • Plunger
  • Toilet brush
  • 1 bottle toilet cleaner
  • 1 bottle Liquid Plumr or the like
  • Candle
  • Lighter
  • Cup
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • 1 box floss
  • Mouthwash
  • Hand soap
  • Body soap/bodywash
  • Shampoo
  • Hairbrush
  • 1 box Q-Tips
  • 1 stick deodorant
  • Buzz cutter
  • Electric shaver w/ charging stand
  • 1 bottle electric shaver cleaning fluid
  • Bathrobe
  • Medical supplies (as necessary, including cold medicine)
  • 1 set towels
  • Trash can
  • Utility Closet
  • Swiffer
  • Swiffer pads
  • Broom
  • Dustpan
  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Glass cleaner
  • 1 set bathroom towels

On Me:

  • Glasses
  • Keys
  • 2 Wallets
  • Cell Phone
  • Moleskine
  • Pen
  • Glasses cloth
  • MP3 Player
  • Ear buds
  • Small bottle of Tylenol and antacids

Whew! ¬†That list is actually longer than I expected it to be. ¬†But now I can refer to it and any time I have things that aren’t on it, I know I need to get rid of them if there isn’t a really good reason it should be on the list!

What about your list? ¬†Did I miss anything? ¬†If I think of anything, I’ll come back to the list and add it! ¬†Could I cut anything off of this list without missing it? ¬†Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Minimalism: My Story

(Note: This is the fifth and final post in a short series on minimalism.  Please check the archives for the previous four posts.)

In May of 2005, I moved from Silicon Valley, California, to Portland, Oregon. ¬†All I took with me was what fit in a friend’s Ford Expedition — a large collection of file storage boxes, mostly. ¬†More stuff stayed at the same friend’s house until several months later when he came for a visit and brought it with him. ¬†At first I lived in one bedroom of a shared house, moderately crowded by my collection of stuff, but I never gave much thought to getting rid of things, and indeed thought often of the things I’d left behind in California and how to retrieve them or replace them.

After a year or so, I moved out on my own. ¬†I got myself a 700 sq. ft. one bedroom apartment close to my work. ¬†It was built in the 1920s, and it was clearly designed for people from a different era. ¬†There was no good place for a couch or a TV (which made it fortunate that I did not have these things), the living room was long and narrow like a bowling lane, and the bedroom was a postage stamp — there was barely room for my hand-me-down queen-size bed and a narrow space to walk around it. ¬†The kitchen was similarly tiny, but the living room and dining room were spacious (though, as mentioned, the former was oddly long and narrow).

I had little furniture, but living there I discovered that I really didn’t need much. ¬†A tiny computer desk, a bed, a table for the dining room, and a gaggle of chairs were plenty for my lifestyle there (though had I been the sort to have people over, I’m sure a couch and perhaps an entertainment center would have served me well). ¬†I still had stacks of file storage boxes containing the belongings I’d brought with me from California, but the longer I lived in Portland, the more I realized I could do without them. ¬†Nevertheless, there they were, stacked up around my dining room, living room, and bedroom, always in the way.

After several months of this, I decided to give minimalism a try in my postage stamp bedroom and see if it would make the room more comfortable and presentable.  I stashed all the boxes in another room, save two empties which I stacked and covered with a colored sheet, turning them into a nightstand.  Atop the nightstand, I put only a clock radio, a case to put my glasses in while I slept, my cell phone charger, and a small wooden box containing some personal effects.  I removed everything from the windowsills, cleaned them, and placed a decorative candle or two on each one.  And for the remainder of my time there, that was all that I kept in the bedroom: my bed, my makeshift nightstand, and a few candles.

This worked fantastically.  The room was so easy to clean, so perfectly appointed to perform the one and only function it was intended for, so open and clear (considering that the bed occupied 80% of the available floor space).  This was truly where I learned to love minimalism.

I never did finish giving the rest of my apartment the minimalist treatment before returning to Silicon Valley in August of 2007. ¬†When I came back, my apartment’s worth of stuff was mostly stuffed into a single bedroom. ¬†Ever since then I’ve had my heart set on once again living the dream of minimalism. ¬†Now that I have some free time for a change, I’m working on sifting through and figuring out what I can get rid of (lots of things), what needs to be dealt with before getting rid of it (about three boxes of books that I want to read before selling or donating them, for instance), what to keep, and what to add to simplify my life (such as the computer desk I mentioned in the previous post in this series). ¬†I still have far more stuff than I need, but I’m moving in the right direction, and I have visions of a room devoid of clutter, a spacious, clean, well-lit space where I can sleep, work, think, or play games unhindered by things, always in my way, always too close at hand, always underfoot.

I am still working on my bottom-up minimalism list, and I will share it when it’s done. ¬†In the mean time, I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on minimalism, and as always, your comments and questions are welcome. ¬†Till next time…

Minimalism from the Bottom Up

(Note: This is the fourth post in a short series on minimalism.  The first, second, and third posts are available in the archive.)

So far, I’ve been working on implementing minimalism from the top down in my own life. ¬†But while I was working on this series, I had a thought — what if I approached minimalism from the opposite direction? ¬†Instead of getting rid of things I have and whittling down my stuff collection to a manageable size, what if I approached it from the opposite direction? ¬†I could start from scratch, make a list of everything I need, and then get rid of everything that’s not on the list. ¬†This would reduce ambiguity over whether or not to keep things, allow more insight into the value and purpose of everything on the list, and could result in an even lighter load of “stuff”. ¬†I haven’t tried this yet, but am beginning the process now, starting with this post.

Foundations of the Bottom-Up Method

To make the list, we start out with a blank sheet of paper (or electronic document). ¬†The default in top-down minimalism is to keep everything you don’t consciously decide to get rid of, whereas the bottom-up method defaults to getting rid of everything not on the list. ¬†This method is more extreme, but pays greater dividends in terms of minimizing the burden of ownership. ¬†Imagine you were moving abruptly to a new country and could take almost nothing with you to start with, and had limited funds with which to re-establish yourself — what would your priorities be? ¬†Mine would be something like this:

  • Survival necessities:
    • Clothing
    • Food
    • Toiletries
    • Medical supplies
    • Glasses
    • Bed
  • Important Documents:
    • ID (card, passport, birth certificate)
    • Access to whatever money I have (cash, debit/credit cards, checks, etc.)
  • Computer with Internet access and programming environment (gotta make a living somehow)
  • Transportation (bus pass)

That’s actually a pretty good start — I could survive for a pretty long time with just those things, particularly if I had access to use things I didn’t own. ¬†I’m sure your list of your top priorities will be different from mine, so take some time to sit down and think about what you truly need to get by — what would be first on your list if you suddenly found you had to replace all your stuff?

Even if bottom-up minimalism is too drastic for you, it may be enlightening to sit down and write out a list like this — it can provide perspective on what’s really important and what isn’t.

Fleshing It Out

Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to break it down a little and cast a wider net. ¬†Now that you know what’s absolutely necessary, take a look at things that would make life easier, though they’re not strictly necessary. ¬†Add things to your list, keeping in mind the costs (both concrete and abstract) of each item before deciding on it. ¬†Here are some other things that may help make your list more useful:

Be specific. ¬†You should know what you need, but you should also know how much. ¬†Try breaking down what ¬†you’ve already written into more detailed lists. ¬†For instance, looking at my list above, I’d break clothing down into categories: I need shirts, pants, underwear, socks, shoes, etc. ¬†But even that level of detail still leaves wiggle-room for overindulgence. ¬†I think almost everyone would agree that shoes should be on the list, but most of us would agree that Imelda Marcos is overdoing it. ¬†Much better to say something like “one pair sneakers, one pair sandals, one pair hiking boots, one pair dress shoes”. ¬†The more specific you can be, the more honest you can be with yourself about what you really need.

Be honest. ¬†While you’re expanding your list, I’m sure you’ll think of things that aren’t particularly useful, but have sentimental value. ¬†There’s no reason not to use this as a reason to put something on the list — so long as you’re not trying to claim that all your stuff and clutter has sentimental value. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†Think seriously about how important any given object is to you before putting it on the list for emotional reasons. ¬†You’re not doing yourself any favors by getting rid of something that holds deep meaning for you, but neither do you benefit from fooling yourself into thinking that’s the case if it really isn’t.

Go room by room. ¬†I find that it’s helpful to think about what I’d like to have in each room of my house. ¬†What do I want in the bedroom? ¬†What do I want in the kitchen? ¬†What do I want in the bathroom? ¬†This helps me think of things that I might otherwise miss. ¬†Be sure to include everything — furniture, lighting, the works. ¬†It’s a little like playing The Sims, but with your real life. ¬†ūüėČ

Don’t be afraid to add things if there’s a good reason. ¬†You may realize that there are things that you should have that you don’t, or even that you could simplify by adding or upgrading something. ¬†For instance, I currently have a small computer table, a chair that my printer sits on, and my computer books are in a box nearby. ¬†By buying a proper corner computer desk, I can eliminate the table, chair, and box, and even have extra desk space for the few DVDs and CDs and such that I’ve decided are worth keeping. ¬†That computer desk is on my list instead of the things I have now.

Have fun! ¬†Although starting from scratch may seem daunting, this method can actually be more fun than top-down, because you get a chance to design your holdings from the ground up. ¬†Instead of thinking about giving things up or what’s too much trouble to keep, you can approach it from a perspective of thinking about what’s worth having, what you want in your life, what is more beneficial to you than it is costly. ¬†It’s more of a positive approach.

Putting It Into Practice

There’s not too much to be said here that I haven’t already said in Minimalism from the Top Down. ¬†The practical implementation of bottom-up minimalism is mostly the same as with top-down minimalism — get rid of stuff! — it’s just that bottom-up minimalism gives you something to shoot for. ¬†If you approach things top-down, how do you know when you’re done? ¬†With bottom-up, you know that when your list of things you should own and the actual things that you do own match each other, you’re finished and it’s time to celebrate — and keep an eye out for stuff creep, of course!

There’ll be one more installment in this series, in which I will share my story of how I came to appreciate minimalism and where I am in my quest to apply it to my own life. ¬†I may even share my own bottom-up list. ¬†In the mean time, I’m interested to see your list, and hear any experiences you may have had while making it and while applying and practicing minimalism — if you have a story to tell, leave it in the comments below. ¬†ūüôā

Minimalism from the Top Down

(Note: This is the third post in a short series on minimalism.  Please visit the first and second posts first!)

So how do you get started on the path to minimalism? ¬†One possibility is a top-down method: start identifying things that you don’t need and getting rid of them. ¬†It doesn’t really matter where you begin so long as you’re making progress. Choose something that you can get rid of, and do it! ¬†Then do another, and another, and another. ¬†The first thing you get rid of probably won’t help much, but the effects are cumulative, and soon you’ll be enjoying the freedom you’re creating. ¬†Where you start is up to you, but here are a few ideas:

  • If you find the prospect of paring down daunting, start small — get rid of whatever would be quick and easy. ¬†Things you won’t miss, things that have no value and can simply be thrown away, or things that you can give away immediately. ¬†Get going promptly with some small victories so you feel the progress sooner.
  • If you already have the motivation to stick with it and don’t feel like you’ll need the boost of early, small victories, start with whatever will make the biggest difference to get done. ¬†If you have a few CDs lying around that you don’t need, but a library of hundreds of books you know you’ll never read again, start selling, trading, or donating the books right away — a big project means a big victory and big benefits from having it done. ¬†You can tie up loose ends (like the CDs) later.
  • If you have lots of boxes of things (like I do), you may be able to squeeze out a little bit of extra benefit by consolidating boxes after getting rid of some things.

But what about those things that you still use?

Simple Substitution: Improve Your Life By Giving Up One Thing For Another

One powerful strategy is substitution.  Many possessions provide benefits we can duplicate in other ways.  By simply substituting one thing for another, we can abandon the burden of ownership while still enjoying most of its benefits.

Here are some examples.  You can substitute:

  • Netflix for DVDs. ¬†When Netflix can put a movie in your hands in a day or two, there’s no need to maintain your own DVD library. ¬†I kept a few of my favorites, but sold off the bulk of my collection.
  • Library books for your book collection. ¬†Make liberal use of the library and you can get rid of your books. ¬†If you return your books on time, you can’t beat the price! ¬†If you’re not good at returning book in a timely manner, try using the used book store instead. ¬†Sell off all the books you don’t read anymore at the used book store, then use the money (or store credit — some book stores give you a better deal this way!) to buy new-to-you books that you will read. ¬†This is “substitution light” — you still own the books, but your collection shrinks over time, as you receive less for your books than you pay for them. ¬†Keep trading in books for new ones until you only own the books that are really important to you.
  • DRM-free MP3s for CDs (or cassettes, or record albums…). ¬†Many CD players now support discs burned with MP3s, and you can fit a lot more MP3s on a disc than plain CD audio — so if you truly need physical media, you can have more music with fewer discs. ¬†MP3s are also more portable than CDs, and don’t skip when you’re listening while you exercise.
  • Legally downloaded software for shrink-wrapped software. ¬†Similar to the MP3s, there’s no reason to have physical media for things that are electronic in nature.

By borrowing, renting, and going digital as much as possible, you can benefit from using things without having to bear the burden of owning and maintaining them.  Win-win!

Some other ideas: Give up the newspaper for news websites and blogs, TV for Hulu and DVDs on your computer, and big heavy reference books (dictionaries, atlases, phone books, encyclopedias, etc.) for online equivalents.


Another tactic is to simply cut back. ¬†If there are things you truly don’t need, then even a substitution may cost more than its value to you. ¬†Maybe you have clothes that no longer fit, tools of a trade you no longer practice, collections of music or books or movies that you’re no longer interested in, old cars that no longer run, knick knacks that you don’t have room for, items you’ve kept only because they’re expensive and not because you use or enjoy them, keepsakes that have lost their sentimental value, and so forth.

Have a garage sale. ¬†Give things away to friends and family. ¬†Donate to a thrift store or a cause that’s taking a collection. ¬†Find a way to get those items out of your way and into the hands of someone who will appreciate them.

If you’re having trouble determining what you should get rid of, one tactic I’ve used is to ask myself “do I really need this?” and make three piles: yes, no, and maybe. ¬†Then sort the maybes — anything that’s easily replaceable is really a no, and can be gotten rid of. ¬†Only the maybes that would be difficult to replace or do without are keepers. ¬†I often find that if I repeat this a few months later, I find that some of the maybes that I kept have become nos in the mean time.

Stem the Flow of Acquisition

No matter what strategy you use to get rid of things, it will do you no good if you’re just going out and getting more things. ¬†Just as spending less is an integral part of repairing out-of-control finances, you must stop getting things you don’t need if you want to enjoy the benefits of minimalism. ¬†Fortunately, these things go hand-in-hand, so if you’re looking to get rid of stuff AND improve your finances, you’re in luck! ¬†ūüėÄ ¬†Cut your spending, slow down, and stop getting things you don’t need,¬†


Top-down minimalism is probably the best choice if you’ve got WAY too much stuff or if the project is otherwise daunting. ¬†It can be implemented a little at a time by making small changes in your lifestyle. ¬†In my next post, I’ll take a look at minimalism from the opposite direction with a much more dramatic way to make the change: bottom-up minimalism.

The Benefits of Minimalism

– or –

How To Do More and More With Less and Less, Until Finally You Can Do Everything With Nothing at All

(Note: This is the second post in a short series on minimalism.  You can view the first post here.)

Well, okay, I won’t claim that you can really do everything with nothing, but you can do an awful lot with surprisingly little — and you might be surprised at how much easier it is! ¬†The solution to the burden of ownership is to embrace minimalism and unburden yourself of the unnecessary.

What is minimalism?

Minimalism is the conscious rejection of unnecessary complexity. ¬†Best known in the art world, these days minimalism is making strides as a lifestyle principle. ¬†There are different ways of applying this principle to your life, but the one that applies here is minimalism of possessions. ¬†You can enjoy its benefits by owning only what you need and use regularly, the things that have the most value to you. ¬†I’m reclaiming my space, time, money, attention, efficiency, and happiness by implementing minimalism in my own life.

There will always be things whose benefits outweigh their costs, and those things are truly owning. ¬†For instance, the tools of your trade (in my case, my laptop and several reference books for programming and writing), basic necessities (a bed, a modest wardrobe, a reasonable amount of cookware, etc.), and the like probably offer a great deal of return on the resources you invest in them. ¬†But when owning turns to hoarding (do I really need 50 t-shirts, or could I get by with a fraction of that number?), it’s time to turn to minimalism to help us maintain a nimble and efficient lifestyle.

Here’s a review of the six costs of ownership I identified in the first post in this series, and how minimalism addresses each:

  • Space. ¬†Minimalism frees up space so that we need not feel crowded, surfaces are clean and clear and ready for us to use, and the things we need are readily at hand and not buried under lots of other things that aren’t as necessary.
  • Time. ¬†Minimalism reduces the amount of housework that needs to be done. ¬†Tidying up, washing, dusting, sweeping, and so forth go so much faster when we only have what we need.
  • Money. ¬†Every time you decide not to buy something you don’t need, that’s another dollar that you get to keep and use for something important. ¬†You’ll save on upkeep and storage costs as well.
  • Attention. ¬†With less clutter consuming up your valuable attention, having fewer possessions can pay dividends in the form of greater focus.
  • Efficiency. ¬†When we’re not spending our valuable space, time, money, and attention on storing ¬†and maintaining possessions, we have more resources to dedicate to the things that are really important.
  • Happiness. ¬†All these benefits add up to the conclusion that it is possible to be happier with less. ¬†With a greater ability to focus on your most important work, your family and friends, and your personal life, you can find greater happiness with fewer possessions.

Now that I’ve established the costs of ownership and the benefits of minimalism, in my next couple of posts I will consider two approaches to simplifying your life by getting rid of the things you don’t need.

The Burden of Ownership

(Note: This post is the first in a short series on minimalism.)

Ownership is a burden. ¬†The more you own, the less freedom you have. ¬†Our possessions act like an anchor, holding us down in one spot, keeping us from moving freely and nimbly. ¬†They consume our space and time, cost us money and attention, and weigh us down with maintenance tasks. ¬†They create drag in our lives, leeching our energy as we pursue our goals. ¬†Anything that doesn’t actively help us in that pursuit is just holding us back.

As you can see, I passionately believe ownership has its drawbacks. ¬†And while I don’t advocate a vow of poverty, we gain a lot when we divest ourselves of things we don’t need. ¬†Technology reduces the importance of ownership day by day, as new services let us benefit from the use of the things we need and want without owning them. ¬†But before exploring the solution, let’s get a clear understanding of the problem.

The Trouble With Owning Things

I’ve accumulated quite a lot of stuff in my lifetime. ¬†A great many books, games, DVDs, CDs, computer parts, papers, office supplies, and just plain old junk. ¬†I used to think it wise — important, even — to save anything that might come in handy in the future. ¬†But keeping the item, storing it, and keeping track of it is a hidden cost of having it when I need it, and sometimes it’s cheaper to get rid of something and replace it later. ¬†Here are some of the costs of stuff ownership:

  • Space. Things take up room. ¬†The more stuff you have, the more room it takes up, and the less space you have to move around, work on projects, and generally use your home and office. ¬†It’s hard to use a table or desk when it’s covered with stuff. ¬†It’s counter-productive to feel crowded when you’re working, eating, writing, drawing, etc. ¬†Some people have so much stuff they have to buy more space (e.g. a storage unit) just to hold it all!
  • Time. ¬†Stuff costs time, too — especially when you’re doing housework! ¬†Everything that needs to be tidied away, washed, dusted, or moved out of the way when you clean just makes the chore take longer. ¬†Books, papers, knick-knacks, dust-catchers, and so on just get in the way and slow you down when you’re trying to maintain a clean home. Acquiring things takes time as well, though this is probably already a sunk cost — most of us already HAVE lots of stuff!
  • Money. ¬†This is a simple one — things cost money! ¬†Also, some things (such as cars) cost money just to maintain, continuing to take money out of your pocket even after you own them free and clear. ¬†And again, some people pay for storage units and the like just to keep their stuff in. ¬†It also costs money to protect your possessions, through insurance, security systems, and so forth.
  • Attention. ¬†As I noted many years ago, everything around you consumes a little bit of your attention. ¬†Right now, I’m focused on my computer, but everything in my peripheral vision is poking at my consciousness, threatening to distract me at any moment. ¬†My things are costing me attention, putting my concentration at risk.
  • Efficiency. ¬†These costs of space, time, money, and attention combine to create inefficiency, or drag. ¬†It’s harder, takes longer, and costs more to accomplish our goals if we’re surrounded by piles and boxes and shelves and drawers of unnecessary things. ¬†The busier you are, the more this inefficiency problem will affect you. ¬†It may be a tiny drag at any given moment, but the cumulative effects are staggering.
  • Happiness. ¬†And, on top of all this, consider the worries of loss if you find yourself the target of a burglary or robbery. ¬†The more invested you are in your possessions, the more it hurts to have them taken away. ¬†All these costs combined make possessions a heavy burden. ¬†They are riddled with hidden costs that hold us back and drag us down. ¬†Owning too many possessions makes us less happy, not more.


By choosing to own something, we also choose to accept the costs implicit in its ownership. ¬†When we’re surrounded by material things that we are responsible for, we sacrifice some of our freedom, some of our bandwidth for more important aspects of life. ¬†Some items provide more benefit than the sum of their discrete and abstract costs, and these items are worth keeping. ¬†But many things simply cost more than they’re worth, and in sufficient quantities, these things can have a strong negative influence on our lives. ¬†If you value your space, time, money, attention, efficiency, and/or happiness, it is worthwhile to look into alternatives. ¬†In my next few Uplift! posts, I will explore one of these alternatives, minimalism.