I used to have two places. An apartment in the city and a house closer to my kids about 60 miles upstate.
Both leases were ending. (This was 2016. But it relates to today. Because I’m going to show you how your actions from yesterday don’t have to be your actions today. And there’s freedom in that.) Instead of renewing the apartment or house, I did nothing.
And I was willing to handle the consequences.
I sent my friend Lisa to the two places. I told her to do one of three things:
- Throw everything away
- Give it away
- Or sell it and keep the money for yourself.
When I came back from my business trip, I would have nowhere to live. I came home with my carry on, two outfits, my laptop, kindle and a phone. And a toothbrush.
I had accumulated so many things in my 50 years. And in one week it was all gone.
I had nothing.
The framed picture of my daughter and I right after she was born was gone.
The novel I had written in 1991, gone.
“You got rid of your own novel?” Cal said.
“Yeah. Four of them actually.”
He laughed in shock. How could anyone want to throw every memory they’ve ever made away?
“I live in a house of clutter,” he said.
I turned around and asked his son, “Is this true?”
His son, Dillon shouted, “Yes.”
I was talking to interviewing all-star, Cal Fussman. He used to be the Editor at Large at “Esquire Magazine” for years. And he’s interviewed tons of big names from Muhammad Ali to Jeff Bezos.
And now he wanted to talk to me about “things…”
Real, physical objects. And my relationship to them.
Because Cal has a special relationship with things. “I look at little things as memories,” Cal said. “I have a pair of converse sneakers someone gave me from a trip I took to Africa. Those shoes became memories.”
Cal’s the kind of person that will probably never be able to do what I did.
I threw everything away. All my books, clothes, awards, photo albums. Even my college diploma.
And ”The New York Times” wrote an article about me, “Why Self Help Guru James Altucher Only Owns 15 Things”. I asked them not to call me a “self-help guru.” And the day before the article ran they emailed me, “Sorry, we had to.”
Everything I didn’t want was in that headline.
Going from hundreds of things to 15 things had nothing to do with self-improvement or experimentation. I did it because I was lazy.
“I’d like to go to the start. And see the arc of your life as it relates to things (real, tangible things). So I can understand why you did what you did,” Cal said.
He wanted to know the real story behind it all. The how and the why. So I gave him the snapshot.
“Have you ever regretted sending one of those items off?” he asked.
“Yes. And that’s the thing. People would always ask me, ‘Oh this must have felt so freeing. Like a cleansing’.”
It did a little. But not every decision is supposed to be perfect. It’s okay to miss things.
Nostalgia and melancholy are actually pleasant emotions. I’m nostalgic for that photo of me with my daughter right after she’s born. I wish I could see it again.
But I’m not sad or depressed. I just feel melancholy over it. And this doesn’t always have to be connected to sadness. I feel like I’d found the positivity in melancholy and nostalgia.
It was like I had discovered a new emotion.
And it gave me a real connection to wanting and needing. I used to pass bookstores. And I’d see a book in the window. Usually I’d say ‘I want that book. I’m going to buy it’. There used to be no separation between wanting and having. If I wanted something I’d have it.
But suddenly there was a distinction. I couldn’t just have everything I wanted. I’d have to replace something in my bag. I’d built a new muscle of not needing everything I want.
“So what would you recommend I do?” Cal asked.
I kept it simple. And said, “If you haven’t worn or used something in a year, throw it out.”
Because I’ve changed. It’s not 2016 anymore. I did that then. Now, I’m in a new relationship. I rented an apartment. I have furniture. And dishes. Big and small.
I’m starting to accumulate things again. We are. Together.
I cooked on Valentine’s Day for the first time in 20 years. And almost burnt down the apartment.
I agree… I was somewhat of a minimalist. It changed me. And still the changes aren’t in place. And I know I probably went overboard. I usually go overboard on most of the things I do.
So I don’t regret what I did. It felt like my past was artificially erased for a moment.
I could focus on who am I. I could focus on my craft. Without clutter and leases and possessions holding me back.
Links and Resources
Why Self-Help Guru James Altucher Only Owns 15 Things by Alex Williams
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
Amblin Partners – Steven Spielberg’s Production Company
Melanie Whelan – CEO of SoulCycle