The Minimalist "Lifestyle"

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

John Cook takes note of "two contrasting articles on minimalism," one humorous and the other somewhat defensive. The following passage from the first article is too good to pass up.

The zenith ... is a calm geek, sitting in a bare room with a desk upon which sits only a MacBook Air, his backpack of possessions on one side, the broadband internet cable available but unplugged, fingers ready to type into the empty white screen of a minimalist editor.
Minus the geek, it seems like I see this very picture every other time the subject of work environments arises at my favorite productivity blogs, so call me (very, very loosely) a minimalist who, as Cook puts it, am "able to get a chuckle out of it."

I agree generally with Cook's criticisms of the two articles, but not with his contention that "[g]eneric discussions of minimalism are fluff," but that's not my main point here.

More interesting to me is the whole idea of "extreme minimalism." (And by this, I do not mean the literal, mathematical meaning of minimal that Cook brings up, but a common misconception: that one should not apply principles "to extremes.") Although neither Vivek Haldar nor Kirin Dave actually use the term, that's what I think each is arguing about. (To get an idea of what I think most people mean by "extreme minimalism" -- not to mention a good laugh -- see these satirical Unclutterer posts. Or are these examples of Poe's Law?)

Haldar is saying, to use common (but mistaken) parlance, "Extreme minimalism is ridiculous," while Kirin Dave, feeling attacked, retorts that one should be, "aware that every decision [one] make[s] is a value proposition." Both are partly right, and both are partly wrong.

The problem touching off this debate isn't whether one should apply abstract principles to one's life at all, but how to apply such principles to one's life. The geek is funny precisely because some distractions are unavoidable and some distractions have value; and the proper standard of value is one's life -- and not, "Is this a distraction?"

In his zeal to minimize distractions, the geek's mistake isn't that he consistently applies a principle, but that he misapplies it. To take full advantage of working without distractions, one must first understand when a laser-like focus is called for, and when, say, letting one's mind explore things that strike its fancy is called for. (I don't use it myself, but I have even run across a task management system that attempts to put mental wandering to some use.)

And if I come home from, say, a really good play, do I keep the ticket stub as a memento or throw it away? With life as my standard of value, I might defer that decision (even if in the form of tacking it to a bulletin board). But suppose I waste ten minutes agonizing over whether a ticket stub on my bulletin board is clutter. Was that really worth ten irreplaceable minutes of my life? No.

One can't apply principles robotically. Those who do so, in the intellectual chaos of our time, give superficial credibility to the smear against "extremism." And, oftentimes, those who react against the so-called extremists give surface credibility to whim-worship.

To claim that a principle applies universally to all men is not to advocate that we all become robots, and to insist that each man look at how such a principle applies to his particular situation is not to rebel against principles as such. Principles name absolute truths, but applying them to one's life requires keeping one's full context in mind.

-- CAV


kelleyn said...

The misapplied principle that drives me nuts is "negativity." Of course it's wise to accept the Benevolent Universe Premise and focus on what is truly important in life, the good. But, especially among Law of Attraction believers and certain types of pop psychologists, "negative" becomes both a simple minded criticism of someone who admits unpleasant truths, especially about another person, and an excuse (or even a demand) to evade those truths. The process of judging good from bad is seen as being overburdening and disaster prone. Better to just pretend everything is fine.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! I guess I am a "minimal minimalist," if I am a minimalist at all. I had to look up both "negativity" and "Law of Attraction."

(Truthfully, I see a few things here and there that I can use, but that's about where it ends.)

What I often find about such notions is that they often seem to be initial grasps at identifying some truth, but that they are often poorly-developed or mis-conceptualized.

In addition, as you note about how "negativity" causes someone to see moral judgments, such notions often cause people to make philosophical mistakes as they try to apply them to their lives.

Indeed, I suspect that the idea of a "lifestyle" (which I find very odd) is frequently a sort of pop-culture substitute for holding a philosophy. Assuming arguendo that minimalism were actually a coherent and correct set of principles for aiding concentration and organization, they would still cover only one part of the sum total of guidance one might want and need in life.