Film Review: The Minimalists Documentary

The morning carpool is always a good time. It's a time to share jokes, movie plots, new music. Tuesday was no different.

"So I watched this great documentary last night," my friend Jeff said.

"Me too! What was it about?"

"Well, it sounds weird but it was about minimalism, like throwing out all of your stuff, and--"

"No way!! I WATCHED THE SAME ONE!"

Great carpool minds think alike.


In my quest for improved efficiency, I stumbled upon The Minimalists blog a few years ago and was looking forward to the documentary released earlier this month. I am excited to offer a quick film review.

According to their website, "Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, known as 'The Minimalists' to their 4 million readers, help people live more meaningful lives with less through their website, books, podcast, and documentary."

Interspersed with monologues from other minimalists, the documentary follows Josh and Ryan on their book tour where stop after stop they deliver a stump speech for minimalism: fed up with climbing the corporate ladder and feeling increasingly disconnected from family the more money they made, they give away most of their belongings and feel lighter, happier, and more free. A blog, podcast, several books, and documentary later, they are still on that path.

And they appear to be the authoritative source for the movement. A quick Google search for "What is minimalism?" ranks their blog in the number one slot, beating out other popular blogs and the Wikipedia entry on the topic.

The idea behind minimalism is to live a happier, more "free" life by consciously making decisions about which objects, behaviors, and thoughts (and, some would argue, the people) truly add value to our lives. It doesn't mean living only with a certain number of possessions, but it often means getting rid of any-"thing" that makes you less free.

Minimalists find different ways of living this path. The documentary has some great scenes of tiny houses, apartments with beds/couches/storage built into the walls, and world travelers who eschew most belongings (minus designer clothes and haircuts) to travel the world. It is more a perspective on what holds value than a prescription or "do this" list.

I'm not Josh or Ryan, so I'll stop there and recommend their article on the topic if you want a more detailed description.


Parts of the film really resonated with me, so I'll start there.

I've worked in sales and marketing in one form or another for over ten years. Selling shitty products to people who don't need them sucks, no matter how much the job pays. I avoid this largely by working for science and technology non-profits, but the feeling still creeps in every now and then. With the ever increasing ability to "micro-target" with digital advertising, no matter how much you believe in your product, it can still feel icky.

The burnout that Josh and Ryan felt from climbing the ladder is commonly felt among us ambitious types. The office politics, the late nights, the overthinking every conversation -- the toll you pay weighs on the mind and soul.

I also understand how easy it is to equivocate success with money or earning potential. It's a false equivalency but is lent so much credence by the media that even thoughtful people tend to forget. (I do). Success is truly about the amount of time you have to do what you love, not about how much money you make. In other words, minimizing the time necessary to pay for expenses is much more important than living to work.

This underlying philosophy is the same reason why I experiment with ways to become more efficient. I constantly ask myself, "How could I do this task faster and better next time?"-- no matter what the task might be. At my job, this method allows me to accomplish an ungodly amount work in the shortest possible time, freeing me to tackle side projects: reading, writing, running side companies, experimenting with fitness plans, traveling, and so on.

Throughout the film, I felt a deeper theme of grief, trade-offs, and the quest to regain control during difficult times. The monologists all gave up something, be it a job, a more comfortable life, a tradition home life, or just physical objects, in order to have a different life. Ryan and Josh experienced significant personal losses and, in my interpretation, embarked on a quest of minimalism almost as a coping mechanism. It reminded me of when my sister embraced a strict macro-vegan diet after the death of her first husband. These lifestyles provide a regained sense of control over your life, but all require sacrifice, whether that be meat or clutter.

My husband does have one criticism: all the featured men look like models. Apparently, following a minimalist path can still lead to toned physiques, stylish outfits, and designer coifs. This sheen did make them seem a bit too good to be true. They have to make the lifestyle seem appealing or else nobody would buy the book or the documentary, right?


I've toyed with minimalism for a while now and am considering giving it a more thorough go in the new year. I'm especially interested in reducing my consumption for environmental reasons, but if I can put more dollars in the travel fund at the same time, why not? Most importantly for me, fewer "things" means fewer distractions and few decisions, leading (hopefully) to efficiency gains personally and professionally.

One thing is for sure: these guys make minimalism look good.


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