I believe that many people live their lives in search of happiness. I also believe that the search for happiness is a misguided path. The way I see it, our souls are actually in search of something else. It isn’t happiness that we seek, but rather, novelty. Happiness just happens to be a by-product of a novel experience.
It is unfortunate that many companies target consumers who think that the search for happiness is what we live for. Companies sell the idea that purchasing new products will bring buyers happiness, as if somehow happiness can be found in an article of clothing, or a brand new car. We are deluged into thinking that, indeed, happiness does lie in new things because the invitation of a new thing into our homes is a novel experience, and so, for a moment, we are happy. We are confusing the two. We must stop to realize or remember that the joy we felt when trying on a new outfit at the store was quite short-lived. And the thrill we felt when driving a new car died with its first scratch. When we pause to think of these truths, it becomes easy to know that our things do not actually keep us happy. But knowing this is not enough. It is arguably more important to understand why.
When we buy something new, it is a novel experience. But once something we wanted suddenly becomes ours, it shifts our perspective. Our minds adjust and the thing that was once new immediately becomes old. For example, we forget about that new tank top we bought at the beginning of summer, and we get too lazy to wash our cars. We start to suddenly covet OTHER things. The mind is a fickle thing.
Understanding that our brains adapt to the current state (and in a rather quick manner) means that we are aware of the ways in which we can control our ability to be happy. Having more makes ourselves used to the stimuli of novelty, which decreases our perception of happiness with each additional thing. Much in the same way, having less actually returns us to a level of excitability with the smallest of stimuli. It lowers the bar that triggers our ability to have joy. In lowering this bar, we can become happy, more.
Fugio Sasaki, author of Goodbye, Things is one of the most celebrated minimalists in Japan. He has decluttered almost all of his things, living with very little. He is a great exemplar of reducing down to the bare necessities. For example, when it comes to towels, he now uses a single hand towel for drying his hands, his body, his dishes, and more. By getting rid of the fluffy towels that many homes house, he has reset his bar to just the one hand towel. His comments how quickly he adjusted to this tiny towel being the norm. Note that the mind does not perceive this towel as subpar. Our ability to adjust for variance is a gift, in that way. But, when Fugio does use a nicer towel to wipe his hands with (say, at a restaurant or at a friend’s house), that experience leads to a spark of joy. A momentary feeling of happiness. A perception of luxury, one that a person who regularly uses such towels will not experience. Therefore, by ridding ourselves of the excesses in life, by becoming minimalist, we are giving ourselves more opportunities to have novelty in our lives.
It is human for things to never feel enough, and that’s okay. In order to make life enough, we need to work at being more aware. And minimalism is the practice that attunes us to that higher awareness. Having less is a practice. It doesn’t come natural … not to me, anyway. It’s an intentionality that gives us the opportunity to live in a certain space. And that space allows for more opportunities to be happy.
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Gina Stovall is a climate scientist and the founder of the ethical clothing line Two Days Off. Her move from New York City to Los Angeles catapulted a series of changes that had her pursuing a slower, more intentional life, one which involves a balanced mesh between her practical implementation of climate solutions and her creative love for sewing. Below, we chat about her career(s), her thoughts on sustainability, a hobby-turned-side-hustle, her love for coffee and plant life, and mindful living, in general.
Sooooo, may we start at the beginning? Could you give our readers a little synopsis about who you are and what you do, in case they are not yet familiar?
Absolutely! I am Gina, and I am the founder and designer behind Two Days Off, an environmentally conscious clothing line. I am originally from NYC but relocated to Los Angeles with my partner a year and a half ago; shortly thereafter I founded my Two Days Off. My professional background is in geology and I build a career conducting climate change solutions and working with cities on implementing climate solutions. My concern for sustainability and their societal implications led to my personal interest in intentional and mindful living, minimalism, and conscious capitalism which I talk a lot about on my personal instagram. All of these interests and values are interwoven into Two Days Off.
Out of curiosity, how has being a climate scientist influenced the way you consume and purchase things?
I never saw consumption as a bad thing. As a scientist you learn that it is all about maintaining a balance within a system. The issue with climate change and environmental degradation is that we humans over-consume the planets resources, and do so at astonishing rates. I use to get anxiety thinking that I can’t consume anything if I want to help get humanity out of this mess, but that is unrealistic in the society we live in. Instead I just look with a critical eye first if I really need something or think it will bring significant value to my life. Then I consider how long it will last. Is it well made and can be used and passed down, or will I have to throw it out at some point. Next I consider the materials it is made out of. Will they biodegrade? Did someone destroy a habitat to make this? And finally I think of the embodied energy it takes to produce it and try to find a second hand option so I am not creating additional demand for a product that may exist already. I know if seems like a lot to consider, because it is! I think most people are “trained” to buy the cheapest, most readily available and well marketed option, but it is going to take a lot of people being a lot more considerate and pushing companies to produce products that are smarter for our species to survive the climate crisis.
I love the way you approach this. It seems to me that you have a very positive outlook on one’s ability to have an impact in preserving our environment. I, too, am a firm believer that our individual, everyday choices can make a difference. Would you mind sharing some of your best life hacks regarding a lifestyle of less waste.
I am very optimistic about our future. Peace activist, author and president of the SGI Daisaku Ikeda has said “Hope is a decision… even in the face of the severe crises confronting humanity today, I cannot side with the advocates of apocalypse. We can best negotiate the challenges we face when guided by hope, not when motivated by fear.” I completely agree. Humankind has immense potential. We already have all the technologies to solve the climate crisis, all that is left is to harness the will to implement them fast enough. My biggest hack on living a lower-waste lifestyle is to engage on the issues politically. It’s our policies and regulations that help drive forward the biggest impact and make it easier for us as consumer to have access to low waste-products. All the work shouldn’t be on the purchaser and the power we hold is to make our lawmakers hold companies accountable. Then I say vote with your dollar. Don’t support companies that are okay with sending you a bunch of plastic waste when there are great sustainable options out there for example. Two Days Off is a tiny business in the early stages and yet to turn a profit, but I have found a way to send eco-friendly packaging and use natural and recycled materials so big companies should too. And finally, reconsider if you really need something and buy only what you decided you do need or really want. Lastly, for the things you don’t want anymore, never throw them out. Repurpose, recycle, donate, et cetera.
While all of this is great, I can see how it can seem a bit overwhelming to someone just looking to start a journey of less waste. I was hoping to probe your mind on the importance of grace when it comes to sustainable living.
I love that you used the term grace, because that is precisely what we need to have with each other and ourselves when trying to live sustainably. If people are policing one another it will discourage more from making the small steps we need to overcome the environmental and social crisis we face. Success will be everyone imperfectly trying to be sustainable, not a handful of people doing it perfectly.
Let’s talk about Two Days Off! From where did the inspiration come? Was it born directly from your line of scientific work, or was it mostly a creative outlet that required exploring? Perhaps a marriage of both?
I have been sewing since I was a teen. I’ve always loved designing and playing with textiles so in that sense Two Days Off is a creative outlet. But my desire to create a business out of my hobby came a few years ago when I started learning about the fashion industry and fast fashion in particular. I had very little insight into the massive contribution to climate change fashion played, nor did I understand that most of the clothes I was purchasing came from the hands of garment workers working in unsafe and at times violent factories. I took making my clothes more seriously in 2016 and started to share it online. Over time and with the urging of friends I realized there may be a space in the slow fashion market for me. The slow fashion community is small and not everyone had the time or interest in making their own clothes so I wanted to contribute to the list of sustainable options out there and help shift the industry in my own way. I make all of my pieces from deadstock, essentially recycled, fabric here in LA. I take a lot of time designing and constructing pieces that are durable and hopefully timeless. I try to minimize waste, and any textile waste I produce gets recycled.
I have seen your clothing line and am absolutely in L.O.V.E. with the minimalist styles and stream-lined cuts. I, myself, own the Olivia top in white and the Suki crop top in Slate Blue. I love the versatility of both! As a person who tries to make getting dressed as simple a process as possible, do tell, what are your ideal criteria when it comes to your own clothing choices, and how does that translate into the pieces that you choose to make?
Thank you so much! I, too, want getting dressed to be simple, fast, and fun. I want to feel polished and even a bit elegant, but know that I will be comfortable all day. If I don’t notice my clothes except when I look in the mirror then I know that I am comfortable. I design clothes made from natural fibers that I know will breathe well, feel good on the skin, and last for years. I spend a lot of time sourcing my deadstock fabrics because it’s all about the handfeel, color and print for me. And lastly, I like to design silhouettes that are beautiful, unfussy, and all about the quiet details like a pocket here or a subtle neck line that hits at the perfect place.
You and I are very similar in that we have science-related professions by day and passion-driven projects by night/weekend/every other free moment possible. As a dentist-turned-baker who happens to write on the side, I often get questioned how my lifestyle could possibly reflect slow-living. And yet, it does. I often say that slow-living isn’t so much what we DO, but rather, HOW we do it. Would you like to share your perspective on how, despite a busy schedule, slow-living is still the lifestyle that you embody?
I think that your perspective is spot on for me too. When I lived in New York City I worked full time but had all my weekends and evenings and despite that I always felt on the go and busy. Since moving to LA and starting my business and working full time, sure I always have a lot to do, but I also have the balance of going to the beach and resting my mind or taking an evening to be inspired. I am not about rapid growth with my business, I want to do things true to my values and that takes time. I am growing slowly and enjoying the process. That’s how I live my life now, slowly and despite doing a lot I still think this is the mentality of slow living.
I see that you share the same affinity for indoor plants and coffee making as I do. What is your favorite plant and coffee drink (to make at home or order to-go on a busy day)?
My favorite coffee drink right now is a flat white! I love the frothy texture of the milk and am still working on getting that same quality of froth at home. Favorite plant is very very hard. I love all of my plant babies so much. But if I have to choose, I would have to say my monstera deliciosa because mine has had a major growth spurt recently after having a really rough winter. I finally found a spot in the house she just loves and I just love letting her take up as much space as she can (something I am learning to do more of!).
Do you have any references (books, articles, or podcasts) that you would recommend for those wishing to learn more about environmental solutions?
Yes! the books Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (I liked the audio book because it was so long!) and Goodbye, Things but Fumio Sasaki totally changed how I perceive my material possessions. And Drawdown by Paul Hawken is excellent to get a feel for what the solutions to climate change are so you can spread the word and advocate for them! I also love Simple Matters by Erin Boyle, she has a blog that inspires me to live more sustainably and her book is packed with solutions and lifestyle hacks.
Simple Matters is one of my favorite books. Erin Boyle is just amazing, and her book is part of what helped me be, not only okay, but absolutely in LOVE with a life of less. Last question: Where to next?
That’s a big question, I am one of those people with a pharmacy receipt-long list of next projects but immediately I have one major and ambitious priority. I want to make Two Days Off circular and share more of the process behind that. I am thinking about creative ways to handle waste and consider every aspect of my products, cradle to grave.
For those interested in Two Days Off clothing, may I be the first to say that her articles of clothing are so very versatile and comfortable. For those curious about how the styles fit a 5’1″ petite 30 year old, see how I styled them on my trip to Seattle, WA. I would highly recommend them and I’ve got my sights on Indya dress next! The first four photos in this post were captured by Summer Blues Collective, and the last four were captured by Two Days Off.
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I love promoting clothing brands that embrace slow fashion, which is to say that they make an effort to create products via ethical ways and/or with sustainable resources. Despite that fact, my closet is actually pretty sparse, according to some people’s standards. That wasn’t always the case. My closet used to be a monstrous mess. So much so, in fact, that there were clothes that I wouldn’t see for months, tucked away under piles of even more clothes, most of which I hardly wore. It took over a year of constant de-cluttering and re-assessing and letting go and organizing before I was able to get to a point of peaceful reconciliation with my never-ending closet. And still, I feel I have too much.
In the early stages of creating a curated closet, what I found most difficult was that for every hour it took me to de-clutter would be a two minute moment where I would feel the urge to buy something new and add it to the collection. At some point, I realized that this habit of shopping “just because I felt like it” was not only counter-productive, but also extremely wasteful and unnecessary. So along with my purging of excess clothing came this challenge for myself to nix the act of shopping all-together.
In all honesty, it began as a frugal challenged fired by the awareness of how much clothing is being deposited at our landfills. I figured that the benefits of abstaining from the addictive act of buying more clothing are multi-fold. Firstly, I save money. I used to work at a retail store in my late teens and early twenties and I distinctly remember walking out with a handful of clothes every week. I’d consider it good if I was able to limit myself to one item per week, a thought that makes me woozy now. Secondly, I am no longer fueling the industry of fast fashion. And lastly, I am ending the ridiculous cycle of buying and de-cluttering. Eventually, I pared down my closet in such a way that de-cluttering does not have to take up my free time every weekend.
This year alone, I have only made two purchases: A pair of sneakers and overalls, both from Eileen Fisher, both made on the same day. Prior to those purchases, I have not allowed myself an article of clothing for 8 months. Just recently (during Fashion Revolution Week 2018, in fact!), I have made the decision to not shop again for an entire year, in an attempt to model the curbing of the excessive demand for more clothing to be produced. Also, it will continue to help us in our efforts to do just as well this year with student debt as last year. The funny thing is, the more I challenge myself to not buy clothes, the easier it becomes to not buy other things too. The habit has spread to other aspects, and it really teaches one to make do without, and to be completely satisfied and proud of that decision. Plus, the results are undeniable. Next month is my birthday and two weeks after will be Mike’s birthday. Sometime in between, we will exit the $500,000s and enter the $400,000s with the student debt! I definitely wouldn’t trade this feeling for a trendy wardrobe.
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Curating closets for special occasions can be a bit of a tricky thing. For one practicing minimalism, it is fairly easy to determine which clothes can be used on repeat, day after day, but anything that categorizes into the minimalist camp can fall into something short of, well, special. What of weddings and other such occasions where a basic tee and denim jeans just won’t cut it? The magic is not in the noteworthiness of daily garments , but in the versatility of special occasion attire, shoes included.
A wedding, in particular, is the one social event that most people partake in. It is probably the best example of a special occasion there is, and the peak of the season is right around the corner, so it is here that we focus our attention. Leading up to the event, everyone from the bride and groom, to the wedding party, to the guests, are concerned about one common thing: what to wear. We are not going to probe into whether our concerns should be focused on other, less vain things, because the truth of the matter is, that’s what people are obsessing about, socially constructed or not. Today, I just want to answer the question: “How would a curated closet hold up to a social occasion?”
When I got married, I wore two pairs of shoes. The first was a pair of very old wedges that I had purchased 5 years prior, where the fake pleather (redundant?) was peeling off of the sole and edges. I decided to wear these for the sole reason that they were 5-inches tall and got me just a tad bit closer to my 6-foot-3-inches soon-to-be-husband. But the practicality of these shoes were close to none, so I also had a plan B, which was to switch into my second pair of shoes once the pictures were over with. My second pair was a pair of Keds sneakers.
The point is that both of these shoes had purposes other than looking pretty on my wedding day. One was very old with a well-used past, and one was new but had potential for a well-used future. On the contrary, my mom has her wedding shoes still kept in a box. I am not sure if she wore it any time else other than on her wedding day. I know for some, the sentimentalities of wedding shoes and dresses are strong, but those simply do not line up with a minimalist or practical lifestyle.
I would implement this same thinking when it comes to dressing up the rest of yourself for these events. I have a handful of dresses that I would be equally as willing to wear on a warm summer day or a cool winter evening. Never mind that the material is a bit nicer than cotton and linen. What’s the point of having clothes if you never wear them? No one cares how pretty it looks drooping from a hanger in a neglected section of a dark closet. These practical reasoning are what will guide you towards building an intentional and minimal collection.
Taking it a step further, same goes for jewelry. There are three necklaces I rotate every day. I would feel comfortable wearing those to any occasion. I used to like these over-the-top gaudy bits and baubles, the type where you’re blinded the minute you step out into the sun. Or these heavy chains back when rock-star-metal-meets-delicate-dresses was “in”. If you missed the fad, you didn’t miss a thing. Nowadays, I would rather go without. I’m more comfortable with myself that way anyway, eliminating the constant worry about whether I chose the appropriate accessory or not. I’ll opt for the simpler life that lends to a more peaceful state of mind.
So to answer my question, a curated closet will hold up quite well to special occasions, ifit is appropriately curated. It isn’t to say, categorize all the fancy schmancy stuff under “useless”. Rather, verify that the fancy schamncy stuff is not so over-the-top that it fails to be somewhat useful. Also, maybe change perspective about whether a party dress can be worn in the fields on a summer day. Let go a bit of the sentimentality of things, and understand that they are just things, which, if not enjoyed, will lose purpose. Be fond of only attire that makes you comfortable on all occasions. And lastly, sometimes, just do without the special. The word itself implies the singularity of an item, the fact that it can only fall under one occasion. Instead, work with what you’ve got. That’s the advice we told our wedding party. Mismatched? Newsflash: No one on the dance floor even notices.
On that note, Nisolo releases a Party Collection today, which in actuality is nothing but a curated gathering of their already-existing everyday footwear. Sounds a bit like my routine! If you have a hankering to outfit the entire wedding party with practical wear, up to 40% off their shoes. Women, this way. Men, over here. But honestly, just enjoy the party!
I grew up in a world where perfection was taught as the ideal. I was surrounded by critical (yet loving) adults during my childhood, and each shortcoming that I had was never missed, and pointedly brought to my attention. While a positive take on this particular upbringing would include a constant desire for continual self-improvement, to which I attribute my acquisition of a wide array of knowledgeable tidbits and how-tos, I would like to argue that perfectionism in excess could be damaging to any human being, and even more so, to a child.
We are all human. Meaning we all make mistakes. Perfection is not attainable by any means. Yet it is societally portrayed as an achievable goal. At an early age, we are taught to reach for perfection. Examples of this include staying within the lines when you first learn to color. Using a ruler when drawing a line. Organizing your desks into rows and columns. Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Aim for 100% on every exam. An A+ is the most covetable grade, would you not agree? This extends into our later school years, when we have to practice our speeches before we present. When we try out for Club sports teams, or for a part in the school play. And so the cycle goes long after we’ve graduated. When we see coworkers getting promotions, friends buying new cars or new homes, advertisements showing off the latest gadgets, Instagram photos of so and so still looking fly at age 30 while you’re trying to hide the dark circles under your eyes. We get graded our whole lives, judged, measured against our peers, our progress monitored with the hope of seeing some improvement. Alas, I am not saying improvement isn’t good. I am only saying perfection is not.
For the entirety of my first decade on earth, and for the majority of the second, I believed that creating a life as close to perfect as possible will yield a very successful life. I remember my personal frustrations when I would fall short of perfect. I would throw tantrums, loathing myself for my humanness. I would watch kids close to my age and aim to beat them in everything I can. My competitive spirit urged me to fight, until I left everyone behind in the dust. If I lost a game, I would be livid. If I didn’t get the highest score on a test, I would not allow myself any joys. Once I did start getting the highest scores on the test, it stopped being enough. I also had to be the first to turn the test in. I had to be the kid with the highest grades in the highest classes with the most volunteer hours while balancing multiple jobs. I was doing well at striving for perfect. I now realize that perfectionism is unsustainable, and if I had continued down that path, I would end up exhausted, burnt out, and defeated, because I would have never, no matter how hard I tried, ever reached the point of perfection. I would have spent more years of my life, afraid of being judged, but being judged anyway.
I got to a point in my early teens where I felt I was never good enough. My ego was deflated to something akin to paper thin. I think if striving for perfection is forced at a very early age on children, it can lead to a number of insecurities that, misguided, could have life-long detrimental effects. I, luckily, am not such a child, but how many teenagers today feel a vast emptiness in their lives? How many people develop eating disorders, depression, or suicidal tendencies? How many adults play “Keeping up with the Joneses”? How many people spend every day trying to be somebody they’re not? I was able to escape the rabbit hole towards perfection before it all together consumed me. It did however, define my early teen years. I was a very shy young girl, who was not confident at all in my abilities, despite achieving more than my peers. I felt like my accomplishments always fell short, although I kept on trying, and because of that, I had a tendency to undersell myself. More importantly, I lived in constant fear that whatever I was accomplishing in life was not good enough by other people’s standards. Because of this, I kept my accomplishments mostly to myself. I was afraid to share ideas, to ask questions, or to take a risk when opportunities arose. I was hesitant to meet new people, to start trends, and to step outside of my comfort zone, avoiding activities such as sports or acting. Public speaking scared the living daylights out of me. I once had to stand up and give a speech in front of a class for Academic Decathlon. I was so afraid, I remember shaking like a leaf. A funny classmate of mine yelled, “Is the wind blowing in here?” I remember starting to cry in front of twenty other students. Not exactly the best impression. The teacher never made me do a class presentation for the rest of the year, and I was forever ear-marked as a sensitive student. Ironically, six months later, I won third place for my speech, in all of Orange County, out of more than five hundred students. It’s not that my speech wasn’t good the first time, or that I improved my delivery dramatically by practicing for the competition. It was because I was presenting in front of twenty peers who I was afraid would not understand my writing style, my topic, or my delivery, VS speaking to two judges who I felt understood multiple writing styles, topics, and deliveries. I would have forever been doomed to this constant, insecure state, if it weren’t for art.
My savior came in the form of an art teacher in 11th grade named Mr. Welke. He was an older fellow who had a gray handlebar mustache, wore a leather jacket, a white tee, and jeans every day, played guitar, and rode a bright blue motorcycle to school. He was my hero. I decided to take art class because, well, I loved to draw, and paint, and make things out of nothing. I didn’t take an art class before that point because it wasn’t considered “productive”. I was only able to take it when I was finishing up a majority of my requirements to graduate and I still needed a fifth period class. Creativity has always been an attractive soul mate, a kindred spirit that stayed the course with me from childhood until now. My problem was that whenever I created something and showed it to a grown up, there was always room for improvement. Additionally, if I ever created anything remotely avant-garde, it would be scoffed at for being a bit too creative, which, little did I know, does not exist. Repeatedly redirected to copying other famous artists’ work, or redoing mine own to be a bit more perfect, I fell into a cycle of non-creativity. I was told I was making art, when really, I was RE-making art. The same art that already exists.
When I started art class, I thought I was going to be great at it. I thought it was going to be an easy course to add to my five AP classes (zero period included), and will allow me time to relax at school. However, for the first few months, I struggled. Not because I had awful hand-eye coordination or lack of attention to detail. Mostly, because my fear of falling short of perfect crippled my ability to produce anything. I fell behind due dates, turning in assignments such as drawing vertical lines without a ruler and making circles with the left hand very late. I remember I struggled most when we were asked to make a self-portrait of ourselves in pencil. I must have stared at myself in the mirror for a hundred hours, scrapping every attempt I made because I felt like none of them resembled a hard-copy photograph of the mirror. I think he recognized my struggles, and one day told me that I was trying way too hard. He gave me a small speech and though the words are now lost to me, the message never left.
You cannot be an artist and perfect at the same time. Aiming for perfection will handicap you in more ways than one. You will not be able to produce, and you will not be able to create. You can only copy what has already been done, and continue to re-do it forever and ever, because there is no end with perfection. True art, or any form of expression of self, cannot coexist with something so definite. If you want to be a genuine creative, you have to let perfect go. The point of art is to produce. At the end of the day, if you made one thing, regardless of what it looks like to others or to you, you have still made one thing. It’s a product that you can sign, or not sign, share, or keep to yourself. You can do whatever you want with it, because it is yours and only yours. A true artist needs to learn to genuinely express what is inside their being, without fear of being judged. An audience should never shape what you are trying to make, or else they will rob you of your true self. You would be a complete waste, if you do not create for the rest of your life.
While it took me many years to start implementing this advice, and I continually tweak it even today, it taught me what it meant to be the real me. At first, I applied it solely to my art. I started to turn in paintings and drawings that were unfinished, but on time. I learned that to finish something, I had to stop spending my time lolling, overthinking, overanalyzing, and scrapping. I stopped running in circles until I was ragged, and started drawing straight lines without caring about their lack of straightness. I stopped being so hard on myself, and I started to love the freedom of making a blob and calling that art. I started to answer questions, then ask them myself. I started to challenge multiple thoughts, and reach out to other people I didn’t know. I conquered the fear of tackling any task that might initially seem too big. I stopped believing in limits. I started living life, one day at a time. My goal is to no longer be perfect. My goal is to be free. Every morning, I wake up with one mission. To be slightly better than I was yesterday. That’s it. I don’t have to reach a milestone. As long as I work towards improving myself in even the slightest bit, then I have already created a better me in a better place. I can put my signature on it, and share it with the world, or keep it to myself. By wanting to become an artist, I learned to reach for something beyond perfect. I started to reach for something completely human.
Today, I lost my wedding ring. With the dramatic plunges in temperature in SoCal lately (My God, it’s 60 degrees?!), my scrawny little fingers naturally got scrawnier as my body tried to conserve heat against this frigid winter. All joking aside, I DID note the day before that my ring was slipping through my fingers too easily for comfort, as of late. So when I was running errands today, in between going to Mother’s Market down the street and picking up the mail, my finger started to get a bit chilly. I looked down and it was no wonder why, because all of a sudden, all my fingers were bare. My first thought was, “Oops!” My second thought was, “Well, it was bound to happen anyway.” I was glad that I didn’t choose to spend my life’s savings on that band of gold, or worse, take out a loan for it, and neither was it new. There weren’t any gut twists with the realization that I had a naked finger all of a sudden. No heart-wrenching pulls at the heart strings. I’m not a robot I swear. It had emotional value, sure, but it’s nothing to get emotional about. I immediately thought of this other flimsy fake gold ring that I owned which I had bought in high school for $5, and figured, well, that’ll do.
Herein lies the power of minimalism.
When I tell people that I try to live a minimalist lifestyle, I usually get the response, “You mean, like living with nothing?”, or some other variation of this sort. I even had a friend joke, “Well good, because you have nice stuff, so you can just give all of that to me.” Sorry friend, but I still want to keep my stuff. The point of minimalism is not to own nothing. Rather, the point is to not let things own you.
The ability to own things control a lot of people’s state of being. How many people covet the newest gadget, so much so, that it is all they think about? They start to experience anxiety, waiting for something new, hoping to beat everyone else to buying it right after its release. How many people spend their money buying frivolous niceties, at the expense of working even more hours and giving up more of their precious time to the hamster wheel that so well represents our day to day life? How many people have an excess of stuff, so much so that they spend a lot of time putting them away, or looking for them in forgotten places? How many people buy MORE stuff in order to organize the stuff they already own? How many people get angry, sad, frustrated, upset, heartbroken, when things break or are lost? It sounds like the simplest idea, to not let things own you, but you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to accomplish, especially when it comes to things with sentimental value.
We all have sentiment. It is part of what makes us human. Unfortunately, at a young age, we have been taught to tie that sentiment with things. I don’t know about you, but both my mom and Mike’s mom are very sentimental about things. I call my mom a hoarder all the time (jokingly off course, otherwise it wouldn’t be as funny). My parents pay a monthly fee for a fairly large storage unit to hold stuff that they never access. Hidden among the “just-in-case” items, are memories tied to random stuff. Embarrassing kid projects from our elementary school years, boxes and boxes of photograph books, even old furniture that my mom so loves, but no longer needs ever since they sized down from a four-bedroom two-story home to a tiny apartment. She has piles of artwork that I made when I was in high school, the not so good kind. They have all our plastic trophies from our AYSO soccer days. You know, the ones for participating? Barbie dolls, happy meal toys, children’s books, legos, you name it, and they will still have it. Recently, I told my dad I wanted to get into soccer again, and he offered to pull out my high school soccer cleats, after 11 years of dust and disuse. I appreciate the gesture, but, was it worth paying a monthly storage fee to be able to offer the shoes to me? I denied it anyways, and asked him to de-clutter it instead. To this day, it’s still there. My mom kept her wedding dress, her wedding china, her wedding favors, her wedding shoes, and more. When I got married, my parents paid for my dress. I found my Vera Wang dress for sale at a 60% discount of $500 at David’s Bridal. Still a ridiculous price to pay for a dress, in my opinion. After I got married, I offered to sell it for my parents, so that they could recoup their money. The style was still considered pretty recent, and I knew with the Vera Wang label, it would sell quickly. Since I got it for so cheap, I figure it would sell pretty close to what I bought it for. My mom was heartbroken and said she couldn’t part with it, this dress that wasn’t even hers. Since they paid for it, I said that off course, they could do what they wished with it. So now it sits in a box, somewhere, in an effort to preserve it like her own dress. She says I will appreciate her saving it one day, and maybe I will. Who knows, maybe I am too young to understand its sentimental value. But then again, maybe not.
The funny thing is that their sentimental value is only equal to the sentiment with which we attach to it. For example, a lot of people extremely value their wedding ring. But some upgraded their preciouses a couple of times over the course of their lifetime. So they must have had a lot of sentiment towards the first ring, but when they decided it was “time to upgrade”, they stopped feeling the same sentimentality towards the first one. And again and again with each upgrade. Similar to a high school kid loving his first car, and then disposing of it once he feels like he has a stable job and has “earned” a brand new ride. If we can change the sentimental value of an object that easily, then why is it so hard for us to lose certain things?
I know plenty of people who would bemoan the loss of their wedding ring. The soaking of their valued photographs. The breaking of their expensive gadgets and toys. Some people enter a state of agony. We think we can’t replace these things, but in actuality, we can. Want to know what we can’t replace?
Our memories are stored in our brains, and metaphorically, in our hearts, not in our things. I will never forget the night we got married, until time takes away my ability to remember anything at all. Likewise, if I lose a wedding ring, it doesn’t mean I love my husband less. These are important things to know. Because until we can remove the sentimentality from our things, our things will still be able to control us, in one way or another. Minimalism is funny in that respect. You surround yourself with only things that you love, yet with an understanding that you will be okay parting with everything you own. If my house burned down today, I would be fine with losing everything in it. I know this may sound super insensitive in the light of recent California brushfires, but honestly, this is true. So many people will make a long list of what they need to grab in case of a fire. Family heirlooms, photographs, certificates, trophies, and whatever else. Usually, people gravitate towards things with sentimental value. But they’re still just things. As long as my husband and family and friends are safe, then I can let go of all the things. I know I have it in me to rebuild my life again from scratch. And I think THAT is a very empowering thing.
When I lost my wedding ring, I informed my husband via text, then proceeded with my errands. After I was finished with my errands, I came home and calmly walked upstairs to check our room. Not to be found there, I walked back to Mother’s Market, and then to the mail area. Still I could not find it. So I went home. I emptied my purse, and there was my ring, at the bottom of my Sseko bucket bag. And I thought to myself, “Good thing I didn’t cry about it.” When my husband got home from work, I told him I found my ring and he said, “Yeah, I was going to text you to say don’t worry about it. You can always get another one.” Life, as it should be.
For the past few weeks, I have fallen into the trap (again) that everyone befalls at multiple points in their lives. The trap of putting living life on hold and falling into the endless cycle of worrying about money. Money is a tricky thing. It enters your mind and takes root, and it requires great force not to allow the roots to delve deeper and deeper into your body and eventually get under your skin. And while money was very easy for me to dismiss in terms of buying things and acquiring social status symbols, it nearly all together consumed me when it became the one thing holding me back from what I thought I wanted: Freedom. After all, I am human. So this blog post is a recap of what ensued the past few weeks, where-in I catapulted from practicing minimalism, to searching for financial independence, and then returning to minimalism and letting the rest go. One step forward, two steps back, and onward with the cycles of everyday life.
I’ve written endlessly about my transition from being a typical compulsive consumer representative of middle class America to being a loosely defined minimalist. A common misconception people have about minimalism is that it requires you to get rid of all your stuff and live with very little. I like to embrace the concept of getting rid of the excess stuff, and keeping the things that hold meaning or things that you love. Our home is far from bare, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job stripping it of its excesses. If it doesn’t pull at our heart strings, it is donated for someone else who could love it more. What you learn from minimalism is that it is a constant reassessment of your life, and as you rid yourself more and more of the excesses, it becomes easier and easier to realize that there are far greater and important things in life than just stuff.
So I entered a stage where I was reassessing other aspects of my life, and I became interested in a community practicing financial independence. As I dug deeper into the specs of the FI community, I was enamored by this idea of financial freedom, and the one thing holding me back from said freedom, is an already previously mentioned and endlessly bemoaned massive student loan debt hovering above our heads. Now we’ve done a great job controlling this student loan debt, decreasing it from our original 25 year plan, to 10 years, and currently, we are on track for 8 years of pay back. Not bad for something double the amount of a mortgage for a five bedroom mansion in other parts of the United States. But I digress. In the past few weeks, this student loan debt had the upper hand and did an equally great job controlling me.
I came upon the realization that we could save a year and a half of freedom by downsizing our current home. When Mike and I first talked about moving in together, we dreamed about living in a loft. When we started to look after I graduated from dental school, we miraculously found a space immediately, located in Orange County approximately equidistant from our two jobs. (“Approximately” because he will adamantly insist that his is a few miles farther than mine. Fair enough.) We fell in love with it immediately, and there was no going back. I don’t even think I thought through the pros and cons. The heart knows what it wants, I guess, and there were no doubts in our minds that we could be happy here. We happened to be the first people to respond to the advertisement and even though there were other applicants, we were given the first opportunity to snag the space. Snag we did.
We’ve been living in this loft for almost a year and a half, and it has been our dream space. 1600 square feet of space and 3 floors for a couple seem excessive, but it’s what we love. We are introverted and usually spend our time on different floors of the house, chasing our own interests and hobbies. We come together on the second floor to watch football or play board games, and we love to host parties and dinners for close friends and family. We often joke that we are so lucky to come home to a vacation home every night. So we’ve been practicing minimalism, a perfect example to show that even though a massive loft is a thing, and it may seem excessive for two, there is forgiveness in the practice because it allows you to keep those that you love. It’s not about getting rid of as much stuff as humanly possible, because it is inhumane and impossible to lead a happy life with deprivation from the actual components that make you happy.
But a life of deprivation is what I started to consider. I found that we could save about $1000/month if we downsized our home, which multiplied by twelve months per year, then extrapolated out to five years, and we are free at age thirty-four instead of thirty-six. I became obsessed about searching for a space that would fit our needs and cut the costs. I would wake up every morning and refresh the Zillow page that was left open on my computer screen from the night before. I was prowling the internet for deals, and killing myself slowly with the stress. I eventually found two contenders that I liked, given the circumstances. One was a vaulted ceiling loft with a deck situated right on a lake. You walk out of a sliding door that spans one wall of the space onto a wooden deck where you can hang your feet into the lake filled with minnows and ducks. All it required was cutting the size of our space by more than half, demoting Mike’s Lotus from a garage to a covered parking spot, and moving farther away from both our jobs to a neighborhood that is old and less ideally situated and more un-kept. But the space itself was nice (so long as you didn’t step outside), and I could live in the smaller square footage. The appliances were all new and the internal was completely renovated and we would be the first people to live in it after the renovations. The second consideration was a beautiful studio apartment, albeit quite small, less than one third the size of our current home (I think it was listed at 478 square feet), and steps away from the beach. In fact, the only thing separating our apartment from the sand was PCH, and a row of homes. Like the other, it was beautiful on the inside, but also stripped the Lotus of a garage and now stripped my Scion of any parking spot at all. It increased my commute to both offices, while keeping Mike’s the same, and we had no laundry unit, nor did we have much closet space. There was also the tiny problem that our furniture did not fit in this studio, and we would have to hang our guitars on the walls to save enough floor space for the couch. I think our bed literally has to sit next to half of our dining table (because the other half of it won’t fit either). Part of me was actually looking forward to sizing down this much, since I have been talking to Mike about tiny homes for a while, and I wanted the challenge of really practicing resourcefulness and mindful living. I don’t know what it is about tiny apartment living that seems so glamorous to me, perhaps because Reading My Tea Leaves makes it looks so easy and fun. We went so far as to look at both places and submitting our applications.
It wasn’t until we got the offer for the first space (the beach apartment), and then the second space (the loft), that I started to get cold feet. Maybe I was already over-stressed to the point that I could not make a decision. The poor real estate agents, we gave them a run around with our “yes, no, yes, no” answers to their offers. I must have seemed like a crazy lady, not making up my mind like that, and poor Mike had to be dragged down with me. Mike was my saving grace throughout this whole process. His only requirement was a garage for his car and motorcycles, and I got him two places without garages and hardly space for both vehicles. But he was on board with trying either space, if it meant making me happy, or otherwise, stopping me from my stressful constant obsessive search for the ideal house. All he wanted for me was inner peace. But when it came to decision time, the stress got worse. He coaxed me into trying to figure out what I liked about each space, and what I did not like. I had a lot of fear that once I moved into the tiny apartment, I would learn that space is more valuable to us than I thought, and it would put a strain on our relationship (introverts unite!). Or that moving into a (possibly) less safe neighborhood could put his other love-of-his-life, Elise (car), in danger. He helped me realize that my fear of regretting the move is an indication that the move is just not right. Compromise was needed if we moved into either home. A hundred percent happiness could be achieved by staying. My mind was continually telling me to move, but something deep down in my chest (my heart perhaps?) was pounding on the walls and screaming no. On the inside, I felt like a two year old toddler throwing a fit, wanting one thing but resisting. Like I said, Mike was my saving grace. He said, “I will move for you, if it means you will have internal peace.” It was then that I realized that Mike did not want to move, and perhaps, neither did I. Maybe it was life’s way of reminding me that sometimes, you just have to let it go. Control freak as I am, I get carried away trying to shape my life course towards one direction, instead of just letting it tread its course the way it was meant to. So, we decided to stay. Giving up happiness was not worth gaining a year and a half of financial freedom. And back I go towards practicing minimalism. And practicing letting go.
The problem with financial independence is that money is at the forefront of the conversation. And as I started to state at the beginning of this post, money is a tricky thing. But minimalism, I can do. Instead of money, it puts happiness at the forefront of the conversation. It focuses on what brings your life meaning and joy. It may not give you financial freedom as early as you would like, but it frees you from being tied to money, even if you are still tied to money. And that type of freedom, money just can’t buy. Call me a failure at being financially independent. Mister Money Mustache will laugh at my face if he ever gets the chance to. Call me fearful of trying tiny living, though I may accept the challenge one day, for it still has a little glamour in my eyes. Call me a faux minimalist, call me whatever label you want, including happy and content to live here another six months more.
So here we are, one step forward and two steps back. Letting go of financial freedom for a few more years, and letting go of trying to control life. Trying to pursue love and happiness. Onwards.
For my generation and the coming generations, I would like to pose an alternative to the “wonderful” idea of early retirement. This alternative is not new, and it was not discovered by me, but it is embraced by many communities, including minimalists, money mustachians, and financial independents. Whenever I ask people my age where they see themselves in twenty, thirty or forty years, many of them respond with a goal of retiring early. That means that between ages 40 through 60, depending on their current financial situation, or their belief in their ability to get out of financial dependence on their job, or their optimism (you pick), they plan to quit their jobs and have a house already purchased, and plan to spend the rest of their days vacationing on a yacht they may have bought or raising their grandkids. This is what our parents did and our grandparents did, and it sounds like a lovely life, albeit too late to make the most of your prime years. But it isn’t for me, and maybe some of you are scratching your heads and wondering if there is another way.
There’s a theory, which I’d call my life mission or goal. Theoretically, this life mission may work out for me, and possibly for you. When I was first asked the question of where I want to see myself in 30-40 years, it was my financial planner asking. Being a financial meeting, my first answer was that I saw myself out of financial debt, and with financial stability. I also said I saw myself working (still) a few days a week, and pursuing all my hobbies and interests on the days I have off. I saw myself physically fit enough to enjoy life, and continuing to travel the world. I would like to have the time to see my family and friends frequently, and never feel dependent on someone else financially or physically. That sounds a lot like retirement, minus the working part, right?
So he clarified and said, “Do you see yourself retiring early?” I had an answer that flew off my tongue before I could even think. “I do not want to retire until I can no longer physically work.” I think that is a very good answer (and not because I was the one who came up with it). Time itself is not the decision-maker, and neither is age. It is our ability to continue pursuing a passion. Now, we all know that dentistry has a short life span for many, because of physical ailments that result from the profession, usually involving back aches and side aches and neck pain and carpel tunnel, and the list goes on. But notice that I did not say I saw myself practicing dentistry, but rather, I said I saw myself working. I believe that working into our 60’s and 70’s will keep us mentally active, physically fit, and spiritually alive, at a time in our lives when we need it most. But if we are financially stable, or hopefully more than stable by that age, then money will never dictate what we do. And once money does not dictate what you do, work can become whatever passion you want to pursue. I mean, ideally work should be your passion now. Who knows if I will still be passionate about dentistry in 30 years?! Quite possibly, I will be doing part-time dentistry for a very long time. I mean, working one day a week as a dentist is not a bad gig. But hey, I could dream big and think, maybe I will be working as a barista at that time. Or making clay pots to sell at a store. Who knows where life will lead me, or you.
But how is working into the wee years of your elderly life sustainable? Burn- out is something a lot of dentists experience. A few years out of dental school, and many of them already hate their jobs. And they’re going to do this for the rest of their career??! It’s sustainable if you never experience burn out (duh!). This can be accomplished in many ways. For example, you could work less hours than the grueling 5-day work week now. Or if you still very much love your job, invest in delving deeper into the practice. The more you pursue a passion, the less it feels like a weight that you are dragging around. Avoid doing something just to go through the motions. Really love your job in its entirety and it won’t bring you down. Most people experience burn out because their job is physically exhausting, without the mental, emotional, or spiritual reward. In other words, they no longer feel passionate towards what they do. When you do experience burn out, switch to doing the next thing you love. Motivation and inspiration are key to fueling your drive to continue working late into your life time.
You may be asking, “Okay, so when do we get to enjoy our lives?” My answer is simple. How about now? What if, instead of early retirement, you do partial retirement, starting now? You get to enjoy life for the entirety of your life, not just for the last little bit when you’re tired and want to sit on a rocking chair on the porch and stare out all day. Think of all the pros of starting to live now. You’re young enough to invest in your future physical fitness by working out now rather than sitting in a desk all day, which will prolong your health for more years down the road. You get to balance work and play. It can’t be all play like in the other model of retirement. Even playing all the time gets boring for me. I have to feel like there is some direction in my life, like I am getting somewhere. It’s the only way I feel alive. I think retirement could possibly turn me into a sack of flour (metaphorically) and bore me to death. So, you gain balance in your life. You get to travel the world, while you can still hike, or at least walk five miles in the city center. You get to spend real quality time with your family, instead of squeezing in time in the morning, before work, and at night, when you’ve exhausted all your energy into your passion. So many parents miss out on their child’s life, because they have to work in order to provide for that child. Maybe we need to start re-thinking of the word provide. Provide food and shelter, sure, but after that what? Time and love. Seriously. Now some of you may give me the money argument. The “you’re-so-lucky-you’re-a-dentist-and-you-make-bank” argument. I started my dental career later than my peers because of the additional schooling with a debt of over half a million dollars, equivalent to a mortgage loan that many of my friends have already spent four years paying off. If anything, right now, I am at the same place as you, or worse, in terms of net worth. But it’s the way you think about money that will really save you. At the end of the day, money is just money, and things are just things, right? Another blog post to come on re-thinking how we view money. Maybe we should start re-thinking everything.
Now I know we are all different, and yes, some may continue to dream about the glorious days of relaxing for years on end. But I tried that already, when I had the gap after dental school waiting for my license. And it drove me nearly insane. Even travelling for three weeks in a gorgeous country with a lot of planned activities every day made me long for something more. I don’t think I can do the early retirement thing. More importantly, I don’t want to miss out on my life. The present moment is the most valuable to me. And hey, I do all the things my working friends do. I am close with my co-workers, and hang out with them outside of work. I practice my skills and learn something new every day at work. I still have set hours that I clock in and clock out for. I work out before or after work. But I also do everything my retired aunts, uncles, and grandparents do. I travel frequently. I dedicate time to pursue additional hobbies. I can schedule coffee mornings and mid-day lunch dates with my family and friends. This weekend, I plan to sit on lake front property and enjoy fall weather on a boat surrounded by family, which is what you dream of too, except I’m not sacrificing my body to get to that point and I am going to do it now, thirty years before you. Then again, perhaps you’ll decide to do it too. Wouldn’t that be nice?
I must admit. There has to be a sense of simplicity to this lifestyle. You can’t go on imagining that you will become a multi-millionaire this way and swim in pools of cash. That kind of lifestyle probably will require you to work tirelessly during your prime years. But give me the simpler one, and I’ll be a happier person. It’s just an alternative, it’s not the way. There is no ideal way to live life. Just an ideal life for you.