Living with 40 Things

(some content is reproduced from the book The Anatomy of Escape)

You’ve probably at some point suffered an ear-bashing by a newly enlightened minimalist about the benefits of this approach to life. But one benefit, perhaps the biggest and most surprising, is the impact that minimalism has on your self-reliance.

An Accidental Minimalist

Before I get to that though, let me introduce the context in which my own experience of minimalism surfaced and then catch up those, who somehow have been spared a sermon, to the topic. It all started while I was living in a bus in Indonesia. For three years I called a converted food van my principal place of residence. It was a simple, inexpensive and wildly adventurous life. As the months and then the years passed, and with so much life happening around me, I found I needed less stuff, fewer things of my own. Unintentionally, in a Pavlovian dog reward-based scenario I would reduce my belongings at any available opportunity. I’ll get to those rewards in a moment. I began to notice a relationship between the quality of my life and the amount of stuff I had – an inverse relationship.

The Anatomy of Escape

At some point during those wild years, and based on some books I’d read, I discovered that I was, in fact, practising minimalism, the central tenet of which, is owning only those things which bring you joy or utility. It is a philosophy that encourages the removal of the non-essential things from our lives, dampening the obsession with material things and as a result, allowing us to work less so we can focus on the things that bring utility and joy to our lives. I delve into my experience of, and the philosophy behind minimalism in much greater detail in my book, The Anatomy of Escape, which is based on that lifestyle experiment.

Living with Forty Things

Towards the end of those years of living in my car, I found I consistently owned around about forty things. After reading and learning more about minimalism, a bit like doing a degree after I’d already completed my thesis, I decided that I’d limit myself to only owning forty things from that time on. My idea was that this would ensure I would continue to enjoy the benefits of a fairly extreme version of minimalism. It seems it is still paying off. As at today, somewhere adrift in Colombia, I still own just forty things.

What are those forty things? I will show rather than tell.

Living with Forty ThingsLiving with Forty Things

This is all I own in the world. But it is not all I can use and enjoy in the world. I can use and enjoy the entire world. Each thing I own is useful, often multi-functional and usually gets used every day. As I write, I am facing a decision about three of my items, my remaining boxer shorts. They are in such dire condition, that they barely serve their intended purpose. I am deciding when to jettison them, to create the three spaces I need to purchase something I’ve been investigating for some time – some bamboo construction tools. On my current adventure in Colombia, working with bamboo has become a bit of a thing, and with a bamboo knife, hatchet and handsaw replacing my 3 boxer shorts, I will have more utility and more joy in my life. And I’ll probably get more invites to stay with people, being able to contribute my bamboo know-how and labor. This trade will not only put a roof over my head but food on the table. I mean that quite literally, as one day, perhaps soon, I will build my own bamboo cabin using these tools, and for food, well, you can eat bamboo shoots can you not?

The Well-Known Benefits of Minimalism

To catch up those not aware of the benefits of minimalism, I will now deliver the abridged and aforementioned sermon that I warned you about earlier. Here is a brief list of the benefits that can be enjoyed with minimalism.

  1. Self-worth. In not having much stuff, a house, a car or even my job position, one is not defined by it. Instead, one is defined by their character and who they are.
  2. No more buying. One no longer needs to buy stuff, upgrade stuff and keep up with others. Escaping this cycle is liberating as it frees up time, effort and money otherwise used to seek, buy, store, maintain and dispose of things.
  3. Less worry. Less stuff means less worry – less to lose, find again and maintain – less to take up your time. When I am on the move, when I pack, I don’t need to look around for my stuff, worry what to take, or worry that I have it all. I simply open my bag and keep putting stuff in it until I have counted to forty.
  4. Less need for Money. I need less money. The whole concept of money becomes less important. Other than food and shelter, I use money for very little.
  5. Less work. As I need less money, I need to work less. Somehow, many moons ago, I used to spend almost all I earned on a six-figure income. Now I tend to live on no more than $20 per day including my food, transportation and shelter.
  6. More time. With no work, and no time spent doing all the things that stuff would require of me, time becomes more abundant. My days are my own now.
  7. More freedom. With more time, I have more freedom. More freedom to be happy, healthy, creative and spend my time on the things that matter to me.
  8. Less Destruction. Finally, there is an environmental benefit, because with each thing, there is the environmental costs of extraction, production, transportation and disposal.

The result, in a nutshell, is that the focus shifts from ownership to utility and from stuff to experiences.

The Less-known Benefit of Minimalism

This leads me to the most important long-term benefit of being a minimalist. The greater the extent to which you practice minimalism, the greater will be the improvement in your self-reliance.

With more stuff, we lose skills

With more and more stuff, be it technology or otherwise doing the things we once used to do ourselves, we lose many of the skills we used to have. From ‘The Anatomy of Escape’:

“We have watches and clocks to tell the time but cannot judge it by the sun. We have a compass and Google Maps but cannot navigate by the stars or other environmental features. We have the internet for all our answers, so we don’t need to think and figure as much. We have appliances and machines that magically do as commanded without us having a clue how they work, and those same devices are slowly replacing the dexterity and the strength of muscle we once used to do the same task”

With less stuff, we gain skills

With less stuff, one is left to figure things out a bit more, use your own hands, your muscles, your brain. We learn to improvise more. Even something as simple as long division. It would require your brain muscles to be working, now we just use a calculator. Sure, these things all make our lives easier, but do we want lives that are so easy that we don’t need to do anything. I like using my brains and my muscles. I like figuring stuff out.

Less stuff and more self-reliance = less dependency and less risk

I also like not being dependant on things and knowing I can get by anywhere, without a whole bunch of stuff or a whole bunch of help from things, persons or entities outside of myself. This might turn out to be a handy thing with the future that is on our doorstep. Consider this. We have handed over the control of so many aspects of our life to external elements:

  1. Much of the administration and management of our lives we have handed over to computers.
  2. We have handed over many of our regular daily tasks to machines and appliances about which we have no idea how they work.
  3. We have become dependent on infrastructure that surrounds us that is not in any way under our control.
  4. We leverage specialists in an ever-growing number of fields from medicine to hygiene and from food to housing.

But how smart is this? How smart is it to be so plugged in and bound to our stuff and our infrastructure? Doesn’t this make us more exposed and more at risk should things go wrong? There are certain processes afoot, in these times of ours, that have not been a concern in the past. These things could sprout all sorts of side effects where self-reliance might be a handy thing.

  1. Climate change is likely to affect food and water availability and security, which may well precede changing behaviour by people, countries and governments that we can’t well anticipate. It might be handy to be mobile.
  2. With increased technological capabilities and dependency, comes the increase in risk from many types of cyber-crime. With the advent of A.I., we barely understand what might come along with it. It might be a good thing to not be so dependent on systems at risk.
  3. With a seemingly growing gap between the global haves and have-nots, at some point, the have-nots are going to get smart, get angry and maybe look to get even. I’d rather have less – less to lose.
  4. Finally, with what seems to be a global scare campaign, perhaps based on some reality, we see a reduction in our right to privacy, freedoms of speech and ability to move around by our own governments. It could pay to not be so readily traceable – stuff makes us traceable.


Perhaps I’m being paranoid. But for me, the writing is on the wall. Stuff makes me dependent and vulnerable in so many ways. I aim to be adaptable, mobile and independent. Without much stuff, not only do I benefit from the well-known advantages of practising minimalism, but I become more self-reliant, more independent and more resilient to an unpredictable future.