book review

When Breath Becomes Air

My husband, nature, quiet time -- three of my favorite things.

My husband, nature, quiet time -- three of my favorite things.

"You have to figure out what's most important to you."

I (Cary) just finished reading the extraordinary memoir "When Breath Becomes Air" by the late Dr. Paul Kalanithi.  Kalanithi passed away last April from lung cancer, within a year of the birth of his daughter and his own graduation from neurosurgical residency.  During the brief period between his diagnosis and death Kalanithi wrote this book, with excruciating awareness and sublime honesty, about what it is that makes a life worth living.  

The quote above comes from Kalanithi's oncologist, referred to in the book as "Emma."  Kalanithi asks Emma often about statistics and projections for his illness; he seeks out solid footing in numbers and timelines.  Emma understands that what Kalanithi really wants to know is this: how ought he navigate his new life on this foreshortened timeline?  Her simple, sage advice:

"You have to figure out what's most important to you."  

I was drawn to this book months ago but put it down midway due to a period of loss in my own life.  When I picked it up again, hungry to put words to my own experience, I was drawn in particular to the grace with which Kalanithi grieved the chasm between how he'd imagined his life would be and how it was actually unfolding.  

For me, the bargaining stage of grief was the most illuminating.  In this stage, what it is that one holds most dear becomes crystal clear.  For the first time in my life, I knew with total certainty what I would trade, what I would give up, all of the things that I would, without a thought, toss out the window if it meant that I could have what I lost back.

And at that point, the idea of "stuff' and what we believe we "need" reveals itself in a pure way.  Stuff isn't bad; it brings us comfort and joy, beauty and ease.  But stuff is worth precious little, if anything at all, when we are stripped naked in front of life's big events. 

Minimalism, like grief, is a powerful tool for uncovering what matters most.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is written by a doctor and a philosopher.  Yet more than any book I've ever read about simplification or decluttering or design, Kalanithi's words get at the heart of what Kyle and I aim to do through New Minimalism.  

On the surface, we help people declutter and design their spaces.  What we really do is guide overwhelmed, fatigued folks through a process of peeling back layers (of stuff, commitments, habits, beliefs) until they have clarity around what matters most to them.  

In our sessions, it's typical for our clients to hit roadblocks.  As the morning's coffee fades and they sit, surrounded by so much stuff which they've chosen to bring into their lives, clients often struggle with deciding what should stay and go.  They're adrift in a sea of reasons of why they "should" keep something, why it came into their lives to begin with, and how much they gave up in order to have these items.  

This is where considering the brevity of life is so valuable.  

Trying to sort through million potential futures in order to determine an item should stay ("I might need this some day if I...") is a herculean task.  However, armed with the awareness of the shortness of life, we are instantly called back to our cores, to the very center of what matters.  

Here our clients can step back and say, "Oh, this is what matters to me: how I spend my days; how I feel when I first open my eyes in the morning; how I respond to the cries of my child; how much mental and emotional space I feel in my own life so I can bolster those I love in their lives.  Which of my things help me do that?"    

Which is precisely when the extraneous stuff goes flying out the door.  Spare bathrobes, old shin guards, extra pots and pans, old paperwork, unfinished projects -- what are these objects other than things which are blocking the way or at least fouling up the path as we try to live a full and meaningful life?

The author, Dr. Paul Kalanithi.

The author, Dr. Paul Kalanithi.

There is no reason not to follow your heart.

It would be debilitating to live life with your own mortality in the forefront of your mind each day.  But don't we owe it to ourselves to think about the shortness of life more often?  To, on occasion, strip bare our lives and consider really, truly, deeply, just what matters to us?  And then to do everything in our power to live our lives honoring and investing in what we value?  With however much time we have?

As Steve Jobs said, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

NM Book Review: 'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up' by Marie Kondo

Only a few years ago the terms minimalism, tidying or decluttering were guaranteed conversation killers.  

In particular, this word "minimalism" seemed to jumble around in people's mouths like a pile of unpleasant tasting pebbles.

Now if I'm at a dinner party, merely the mention our business name sets off hour-long discussions.  People I've known for 5 minutes share with me the deepest pain points in their homes, talk about past attempts at decluttering, ask me about the craziest room I've worked in or if I've ever given something away and regretted it.  

And honestly?  It's awesome.  

Kyle and I started doing this work because we love it and believe in it.  So this larger cultural shift in awareness and interest in simplified living is of unending excitement for us.  Much of the attention is due to the higher visibility of some of the amazing innovators in our industry (Leo Babauta, The Minimalists, Bea Johnson). 

The latest rising star on the scene is our Japanese spirit-sister, Marie Kondo, whose book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying" has become a worldwide best-seller.  

This book has been a sensation in the general public, among our clients and for us -- making it the perfect inaugural //NM Book Review.  Below I've cherry-picked my favorite 10 principles from "Life-Changing" and organized them according to a few topics:

  • what we learned from Marie,
  • where we agree with her work, as well as
  • a few things that we do differently at NM.

What Marie clarified for us:

1.  Start with your wardrobe.  While clients call us in to work on a variety of rooms, every time we begin with that person's wardrobe the entire process is clearer, the results more impressive.  This is because our clothes are the foundation of our relationship to the material world: it's our second skin, protects us from the elements and offers a means of self-expression.  And this is why we have an amazing resource for your wardrobe coming out in April!

2.  Knowing what you don't have feels good.   For me, one of the ultimate highlights of the book was Marie's response to the most common fear our clients have: “I might need it some day.”  The truth is that we rarely "need" these things we haven't used in years (often never used at all). The problem with rarely used items is uncertainty: we never know where they are or if we even have them.  We must search our house for extended periods of time, frustration growing with each passing moment.   But when you've done a thoughtful and thorough decluttering of items that don't bring you joy (including, eh-hem, all the fear based "I might need it" items), you'll end up knowing exactly what you have and don't have in your home.  You save so much time by not looking for something that is not in your home and can instead start the process of making something else do or borrowing an item.  

Where we agree:

3. Highly impactful decluttering requires a commitment.  The process that Marie refers to as “putting your whole home in order” is to us synonymous with decluttering your space.  Whether you own a large home or rent a bedroom in a shared apartment, this process will take everyone at least 2 full days to complete -- 1 day for your wardrobe, 1 for the rest of the items in your bedroom, 1 for each room or category beyond.  Anything short of touching every single item in your space simply will not produce deep and long-lasting results.   

4.  The results of decluttering are life-changing and magical.  After we've worked with clients, they tell us how much lighter, happier, more free they feel.  They spend less time on errands, are far more selective about what new items they let in their home, and find that packing, hosting and cleaning is a breeze.  But even beyond those obvious benefits are the mystical and miraculous ones: clients clear out their closets and then get engaged; they sort their kitchen and lose 10 pounds or their skin clears up; they get their bedrooms in order and then quit their jobs to travel the world/start a new business/start a family.  By removing the heavy and stagnant items and their energy from your space, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities.

5.  Complicated storage systems are an excuse hoard.  By doing a thoughtful decluttering of every item in your home, a natural organization will emerge.  All of the bins and baskets and color-coded binders that supposedly create organization are just pretty ways of holding excess stuff, aka: clutter.  See if you have any of our top 7 biggest offenders in your home. 

6.  If you don't need it, your family doesn't either.   During about 50% of our sessions, a pile of unneeded items is created for the client's mom/brother/friend.  By "gifting" these items to other people in your life, you're simply deferring the decision of what to do with said item and passing the guilt onto the receiver.  Our rule: don't pass things on to others unless they have a specifically stated need or desire for the exact item.

7.  Do it once.  Do it right.  Then never do it again.  Like Marie, we have never come back to do the same space twice.  This is because we don't skimp or cut corners on the process.  We clear every single bobby pin from each junk drawer and touch every single item in your space.  It absolutely takes less time initially to buy a storage tray and pack your stuff in (the time you spend searching for things and organizing that drawer don't emerge until later...).  But by investing time into this process upfront you don't just get a clean room once, you finish with an understanding your relationship to your stuff, a clear sense of what is important to you, and with the habit of being far more selective about what you allow in.  If you do it right, once is enough. 

What //NM does differently:

8.  Donate, don't trash.  Among our top values at New Minimalism are: the environment (honoring it, treading lightly where possible) and our community (sharing, being compassionate, adding value to those around us).  While it's true that most people have too much stuff, just dumping everything in the trash is a short-term personal solution to a much larger problem.  Our clients are amazing people -- they have clutter because they don't want to be wasteful by trashing things that still have life and value left.  By donating these same items, not only does your space feel better, but you feel better knowing that the items will be used by people who need them. 

9.  Over the top cleaning. We never want to create a system too complicated or time-intensive for a client to actually use (ie: hanging your dish sponge to dry on an outdoors clothesline after each use, bringing all plates and dishes outside to dry in the sun, completely clearing out and drying off your toiletries after every shower).  Don't let yourself get bogged down by small processes; a thoughtful decluttering of your space is the bigger, more important work.  

10.  Good design makes a huge difference.  In addition to decluttering, we value and execute thoughtful design in every space we work on.  Without good design, a room can feel sparse and impersonal.  With good design, the same items feel calm, intentional and inspiring.  


What do you think?  Have you read "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying" yet?  Did it help you with your own decluttering process?  Please share below in the comments!