Full transcript of The Minimalists’ (Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus) TEDx Talk: The Art of Letting Go at TEDxFargo 2016 Conference. This event occurred on July 21, 2016 at Fargo Civic Center Fargo, United States of America.
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Joshua Fields Millburn: My name is Joshua Fields Milburn and this is Ryan Nicodemus. Together we run a website called the minimalists.com and we promised the folks we’d kick things off this afternoon with something inspirational, something to get you all excited. So I’d like to talk about something uplifting. Let’s talk about death.
Now if any of you are uncomfortable talking about death, now might be a good time for you to leave. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing him again in a minute.
Anyway, yeah, we can talk about death. Let’s see, seven years ago, I was 28 years old, and up until that point in my life, I had achieved everything I ever wanted: the six-figure salary, the luxury cars, the closets full of expensive clothes, a big suburban house with more toilets than people, and all of the stuff to fill every corner of my consumer-driven lifestyle. Man, I was living the American dream.
And then my mom died. And my marriage ended — both in the same month. And these two events forced me to look around and start to question what had become my life’s focus. You know what I realized? I realized I was so focused on so-called success and achievement and especially on the accumulation of stuff. Yeah, I was living the American dream. But it wasn’t my dream.
And it took getting everything I thought I wanted to realize that everything I ever wanted wasn’t actually what I wanted at all. You see, just the year earlier, mom — she moved from Ohio, down to Florida to finally retire. That’s what you do when you live in the Midwest.
And well, few months after she moved down there, she found that she had lung cancer. And a few months after that, she was gone. I spent a lot of time with her down in Florida that year. She went through her chemo and radiation. But when she passed, I realized I needed to make one last trip — this time it was to deal with her stuff.
So I flew from Dayton, Ohio down to St. Pete Beach, Florida. And when I arrived I found about three apartments worth of stuff crammed in the mom’s tiny one-bedroom apartment. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not like mom was a hoarder. She wasn’t. I mean, I didn’t find any dead cats in her freezer. But she owned a lot of stuff: 65 years worth of accumulations. Did you all know that the average American household has more than 300,000 items in it? 300,000! But of course, most of us aren’t hoarders, right? Now we just hold onto a lot of stuff. We hold on to a lifetime of collected memories. I know Mom certainly did.
So I did what any good son would do. I think that’s me on a bad hair day. I called U-Haul. I called U-Haul and I asked for the largest truck they had. In fact, I needed one so large I had to wait an extra day until the 26 foot truck was available. And as I waited for that U-Haul to arrive, I invited some of mom’s friends over and help me deal with her stuff. I mean, there’s just too much stuff to go at it alone. Her living room was stuffed with big antique furniture and old paintings and more doilies than I could count. She loved doilies. And her kitchen was stuffed with hundreds of plates and cups and bowls and ill-assorted utensils. And her bathroom was stuffed with enough hygiene products to start a small beauty supply business. And her linen closet – well, it looked like someone was running a hotel out of her linen closet, which was stuffed with mismatch bath towels and beach towels and bed sheets and blankets and quilts.
And don’t even get me started on her bedroom. Why did mom have 14 winter coats stuffed in her bedroom closet? 14! Now come on, she lived in St. Pete Beach, Florida. Suffice it to say, mom owned a lot of stuff. And I had no idea what to do with any of it. So I did what any good son would do. I rented a storage locker. When I called, I asked for the largest storage unit they had. You know what they asked me?, “Do you want one that’s climate-controlled?” A climate-controlled just so mom’s stuff could be comfortable? No, I don’t want one that’s climate controlled. Just give me be a big box with a padlock on it.
You see, I couldn’t commingle mom’s stuff with my stuff. I already had a big house and a full basement full of stuff. But a storage locker? Oh, yeah. A storage locker would let me hold on to everything just in case I needed it someday in some non-existent hypothetical future. You know just in case. Just in case. The three most dangerous words in the English language.
Anyway, so there I was attempting to finish packing mom’s stuff, and all of a sudden I noticed these four boxes. These old printer paper boxes, kind of heavy, sealed with excessive amounts of packing tape. So I pulled them out one by one. I noticed that each box was labeled with just a number written on the side in thick black marker. All I saw was 1-2-3-4. I stood there looking down, wondering what could possibly be in those boxes. Looks like we’re out of time, folks. Hope you enjoy the rest of the conference. No, it was my old elementary school paperwork: grades one through four.
You know, as I opened those boxes, my curiosity ran wild. And I thought to myself, “What is mom holding on to all that stupid paperwork?” But then all these memories came rushing back. And I realized she had been holding onto a piece of me. She was holding on to all those memories in those boxes, right?
Wait a minute. Those boxes have been sealed for more than two decades, which made me realize something important for the first time in my life. Our memories are not inside our things. Our memories are inside us. See, mom didn’t need to hold onto those boxes to hold onto a piece of me. I was never in those boxes.
But then I looked around at her apartment. I looked around at all her stuff and I realized I was getting ready to do the same thing. Except instead of storing her memories in a box in my home, I was getting ready to cram it all into a big box with a padlock on it. So I did what any good son would do. I called U-Haul and I canceled that truck. And then I called and canceled the storage locker. And I spent the next 12 days selling or donating almost everything. And I learned a bunch of really important lessons along the way.
Not only did I learn that our memories are not in our things. They are in us. But I also learned about value — real value. You see, if I’m honest with myself, I was just going to selfishly cling to mom’s stuff. But of course, I wasn’t going to get any value from it as it sat there locked away in perpetuity. But the truth is that by letting go, I could add value to other people’s lives. So I donated much of her stuff to her friends and local charities, giving the stuff a new home. And the things I was able to sell, well I was able to take that money and give it to the charities that helped her through her chemo and radiation.
And when I finally returned to Ohio, I returned with just a handful of sentimental items: an old painting, few photographs, maybe even a doily or two.