As a long time minimalist, I’m always curious how others embrace the lifestyle. Years ago, I stumbled across an article online about a man named Colin Wright. He ran a successful branding business until he realized that it didn’t provide what he wanted out of life. So, in 2009 he got rid of everything that would not fit in his carry-on bags, and hit the road.
Since then, he’s traveled to over 60 countries (a lot of which were determined by the readers of his blog), lectured around the world, published multiple books, launched a podcast, and founded a publishing company with The Minimalists. All he needed to accomplish all this, fit into two carry-on bags. I recently interviewed Colin about his “less is more” approach to life.
In 2009, you sold everything you owned that wouldn’t fit into one bag. During that process, what proved to be the most challenging thing or category to contend with?
Initially, it was a lot of superfluous things that I didn’t yet realize had become superfluous. I carried a full suit and tie and such for the first six months or so, and two computers. Granted, this was a step down from the eight computers and closet full of dressier clothing I had when I was living in LA, but it hadn’t quit hit me that not only was my lifestyle changing, my needs were also changing. My perception of what was valuable and necessary would need to change because my practical reality was changing.
So it wasn’t that there was a genre of possessions that were difficult to let go—getting rid of everything actually came relatively easily, once I decided to leave and knew what I had to look forward to—it was that I was slow to update my norms and my conception of what accoutrement I’d require to optimally enjoy those new norms.
What advice would you give the 24 year-old version of yourself, the one who had just completed getting rid of all their stuff and was ready to set out?
Hmm, I’m not sure I would change anything about the way I experienced that initial series of adventures. It was valuable knowing very little and slamming, one-by-one, into different sets of unforeseen circumstances, before finding my way around them by necessity.
That said, if I were to give advice to someone else who was doing something similar today, I’d suggest they keep an open mind when it comes to absolutely everything, leave people and places better than they found them (or bare minimum, no worse than they found them), and that they try to live their lives in such a way that they can both continuously plant seeds for future opportunities and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Other than the reduction of your material possessions. What has been the hardest thing you’ve successfully simplified? What did that process look like?
My lifestyle. Specifically, how I spend my time and earn my living.
It took several years after leaving the US, but I eventually realized that the way I was earning my living wasn’t conducive to the type of lifestyle I wanted to live, and therefore I might want to consider changing things around.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me that I could identify an ideal way of living and then orient my work around that, rather than the other way around, the way I’d always done before. But I eventually got there, and it made all the difference. For both my work and for my happiness level.
The process was spread out, but it amounted to a long-term questioning of my priorities and why I felt I needed to earn a certain amount of money, do a certain type of work, and earn the respect of certain types of people.
Shedding some of those preconceived notions allowed me to build a new ideal scenario from scratch, and then implement a plan to get there soon after. It wasn’t a straight shot after that, of course, and there were a lot of readjustments along the way (and there will no doubt continue to be, forever). But making that decision to eschew the traditional “smart” model of running a business, becoming a well-marketed influencer, aiming for specific accolades—it was one of the better choices I’ve ever made.
You’re a full-time traveler. In my own experience, travel tends to be rather complicated. Plains, trains, chicken busses, language barriers etc. It intensifies the things we already contend with day to day, and layers on additional challenges we’ve never considered. How do you balance simplicity, in this seemingly complex and transient lifestyle?
You’re absolutely right that it can be way more complicated to travel full-time than to stay put somewhere. But for me, at least, that complexity, that discomfort, is a feature not a bug. It’s the valuable friction that helps me grow and gives me purchase so I can kick off from it toward whatever I want to do next.
Achieving simplicity while living such a lifestyle is both easier and more difficult, in different ways.
It’s easier in that you can reduce your possessions down to what fits in your bag’s internal real estate, and you can reduce your world down to what’s immediately within your vicinity. Don’t want to take calls for the day? It’s easier to block such things when you’re away and have that excuse. Want to keep things local, rather than global? You may have no choice but to be disconnected on some legs of the journey.
It’s more difficult for those same reasons: sometimes you truly need to connect with someone a dozen time-zones away, and having no connectivity adds unwelcome complexity to your day. But there are also troubles that can arise as a result of miscommunication, infrastructural breakdowns, variation in the regional availability of things you took for granted, or simple ignorance on your part. All of these things are a bummer when you face them, but they’re also excellent training if you want to stop stressing about externalities and focus on things about which you can do something, instead.
Some things you can’t control, and there’s no use fixating on them. Some things you can control, and there’s no use fixating on those, either. Removing such stressors from your life, even though they’re caused by complexity, can counterintuitively allow you to simplify your thinking.
What is the difference between simple and minimal?
It probably depends on who you ask: the specifics of those, and many other, related words have a lot of different practical definitions these days.
In my mind, simplicity is about focus, while being minimal is about having less.
Minimalism, the way I define it, at least, is about focusing on what’s vital by trimming away the excess; the inessential; the stuff that gets in the way of you doing the things you want to do, spending time with the most important people in your life, expending your energy on the projects that are most important.
So reduction can lead to simplification, and both can help you live more intentionally, which means living on purpose. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing, and spending more of your time, energy, and resources on the important stuff.
They say happiness is simple, but simple is very hard. What does that mean to you?
There’s a quote, supposedly from a correspondance, that’s been attributed to dozens of people and that goes something like this: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
I feel that way about many things, including writing. I feel like someday, if I become really good at this writing thing, I’ll be able to publish fortune cookies instead of books. But I’m a long ways from being that good.
Simplicity is work, though. And it’s not a destination so much as a journey. So you never really get to the finish line, you just keep chasing a horizon that’s always about the same distance away, even as the scenery around you changes.
That’s part of what’s so great about it, though, because the movement is what’s important, and what feels so good. That’s the part that makes me happy, anyway. If you can embrace that difficulty, you’re in good shape for the simplicity excursion.
What can someone stand to gain by putting in the effort to simplify their life?
More of the good stuff, less of the bad. “Good” and “bad” defined by the person in question; it’ll be different for everyone.
What it means, essentially, is carving away the excess, the dross, the stuff we’re told we’re supposed to have, the things we’re told we’re supposed to do, the relationships we’re told we’re supposed to maintain even though they’re toxic for us—we cut that away and make more room for the things that make us happiest. That fulfill us and challenge us and help us grow.
Simplicity isn’t about having stark white walls or the right computer or clothing. It’s not the Instagrammable, hashtagged version of “minimalism.” It’s about less of better. And once again, “better” according to your standards and no one else’s.
From your perspective, what are the most common things people unnecessarily overcomplicate? What advice would you give them?
Relationships. Treat people well, in general, but don’t over-invest in relationships in which you’re being drained by someone else, just because you’ve been guilted into not doing anything about it.
Work. Don’t accept that there’s only one type of success, or that you need to follow a well-worn path to get there. Take ingredients from other peoples’ cookbooks where it makes sense to do so, but make your own recipes that cater to your tastes.
Lifestyle. Be careful about following trends because they seem sexy or fun from a distance. Something I try to instill in people is that 95% of travel is being uncomfortable in unfamiliar places. Chances are, any lifestyle choice you’re ogling looks very different from behind the scenes than it does on social media or in a book. Again, take pieces that make sense to you from what other people are doing, but cobble them into something you-shaped. The world doesn’t need another Insert-Famous-Person-Here. They need a really refined version of you.
Live that and give us a brand new archetype to get excited about.
The last I heard, you had reduced the amount of your belongings to less than 100 things, total. Everything has a specific purpose. I couldn’t help but notice that among them was a notebook. Can you tell us a little bit about it serves you?
I’m actually finishing up a two-year adventure here in the US, where I rented apartments in Wichita, Kansas and Memphis, Tennessee while learning to cook, play the piano, and a bunch of other things that were tricky to pick up and work on from the road. So I own a bit more than 100 things right now, accounting for cooking equipment and my sparse furniture and such.
But it is still pretty tidy in here. And a notebook is fairly essential to me; though if I’m being completely honest, just paper and a pen of any kind will serve, in a pinch. Notebooks are ideal, but guard your scrap paper if I’m around and don’t have one on me.
I like to work my ideas out visually. This can be anything from figuring out a new lifestyle configuration to a business plan to how I’m setting up my finances. I doodle a lot, and do sketches for my book cover designs. Every once in a while I work with a client, and I’ll layout a website for them, or show them a mapped-out web of their brand elements by sending pictures of a few pages from my notebook.
Whatever the circumstances, my mind processes complex accumulations of data better that way, so I tend to keep a notebook to house such things on hand when I can.
What are you working on these days, and where can people find you?
I’ve been producing a weekly news analysis podcast called Let’s Know Things for nearly two-years, so that’s been a big part of how I spend my time, of late. I write books fairly regularly, as it’s something I love to do and how I make my living. The last one I published was called Becoming Who We Need To Be, and the one I’m working on now is about learning.
I’m currently in the process of finding a used RV to buy—as part of my next adventure, post-Memphis—and I’ve been improving my hand at baking super-simple, super-amazing bread. I’ve also been making the most of having a consistent guitar on hand, which was something I missed while in more rapid transit these past eight years or so.