Millburn (left) and Nicodemus speaking in 2014
|Origin||Dayton, Ohio, U.S.|
|Occupation(s)||Authors, podcasters, filmmakers, public speakers|
The Minimalists are American authors, podcasters, filmmakers, and public speakers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who promote a minimalist lifestyle. They are known for their Netflix documentary, Minimalism (2016); their memoir, Everything That Remains (2014); their podcast; and their minimalism blog, which has as many as five million readers according to the Washington Post. GQ estimated The Minimalists have a following of around 20 million people.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the duo "dogma-free exemplars of a less-is-more lifestyle that actually sounds sane as they explain it." Owing to the "charm of their buddy-act, The Minimalists have become the [minimalist] movement's American ringleaders," according to New York Magazine.
Together, Millburn and Nicodemus have co-authored four books: a self-help book, Minimalism (2011); a memoir, Everything That Remains (2014); an essay collection, Essential (2015); and their forthcoming relationship book, Love People Use Things, which is scheduled to be published in 2021 by Celadon (Macmillan Publishers Ltd) in the United States and Canada, and Hachette in the United Kingdom and Australia. Millburn also published a semi-autobiographical novel about a struggling singer-songwriter, As a Decade Fades, in 2012 (republished by Asymmetrical Press in 2013).
Early life and corporate careers
Millburn was born June 29, 1981, in Dayton, Ohio. Nicodemus was born October 23, 1981, in Knoxville, Tennessee; his family moved around when he was a child, eventually settling in Ohio when he was eight years old.
The pair grew up in and around Dayton, Ohio, in challenging circumstances: Millburn's family was poor, often living on food stamps, and their electricity would sometimes go out for days at a time; Nicodemus was raised as a zealous Jehovah's Witness, and his parents separated when he was seven. Both experienced alcohol and drug abuse in their childhood homes. They became close friends as students and cheered each other on toward that emblem of the American dream: well-paid corporate jobs.
Eventually, Millburn and Nicodemus both reached high positions managing hundreds of employees at a regional telecommunications company. Millburn was the director of operations in charge of 150 retail stores; Nicodemus handled business sales and marketing for many of those stores. They regularly put in 60-, 70-, even 80-hour weeks. Much of the six-figure salaries they earned went toward shopping, and their homes were brimming with clothes, housewares, and gadgets. "I was spending so much time working to buy shit I didn't need," Millburn told the Huffington Post. A reporter for the Birmingham News called them "the embodiment of upwardly mobile, busy, fashionable, unhealthy, wasteful young professionals."
By the time they were 28, they had everything they thought they wanted: "the six-figure salary, the luxury cars, the designer clothes, the big suburban house with more toilets than people," they told one reporter. But they grew disillusioned, scrambling to keep up with 80-hour workweeks, in over their heads with drug and alcohol abuse (Nicodemus) and half a million dollars in debt (Millburn).
Their road to minimalism began in October 2009 when Millburn's mother unexpectedly died of lung cancer the same month that his marriage ended. As a 28-year-old, he couldn't ask for much more financially. But a month of tectonic life changes shifted his thinking about what mattered. "I had everything I ever wanted," Millburn told Time magazine. "But it took getting everything I ever wanted to realize I wasn't happy."
When Millburn's mother passed away, he struggled with what to do with her possessions. Initially, he decided to rent a storage unit and found comfort in the idea that his mother's belongings would be there just in case he ever needed them. But then he discovered he could honor her better, and remember her just as vividly without hanging onto things that were no more than just objects she had accumulated, so he donated all of her belongings to people and organizations that could benefit most from them.
It was at this time that Millburn began asking, What's important to me? "I got to a point in my life where I didn't even know what was important," he told the Miami New Times. He then discovered Colin Wright, a self-proclaimed minimalist who was traveling around the world with only 51 things. Soon, Millburn began connecting with others who described themselves as "minimalists"—Leo Babauta, Courtney Carver, and Joshua Becker, among others—and he eventually decided to give it a shot. Starting small, he got rid of one item a day for a month. He chucked his Brooks Brothers shirts. He got rid of his DVDs. He ditched his TV. He sold most of his shoes. Later, he sloughed off kitchenware, tools, electronics, artwork. For eight months, he combed through his things, getting rid of one possession, then another, asking himself the same question over and over: Does this add value to my life? Eventually, he moved into a smaller home and soon persuaded Nicodemus, his best friend since fifth grade, to do the same.
Before adopting minimalism, Nicodemus was successful in terms of how others viewed him. Though he had everything he wanted, he was miserable. "There was this gaping void in my life," he was quoted saying in one article. "So, I tried to fill that void the same way many people do: with stuff, lots of stuff."
Soon Nicodemus, recognizing the benefits Millburn was reaping, adopted a similar philosophy, in more extreme form. Rather than slowly paring down, as Millburn did, he organized a "packing party" and sold, donated, or threw out nearly everything he owned in a matter of days. When Nicodemus packed up his 2,000-square-foot condo—including every piece of furniture, kitchen gadget, and bathroom toiletries—he realized it was an odd thing to do since he wasn't moving. "I just [unpacked] the things that I needed to use," Nicodemus told the San Jose Mercury News. "After twenty-one days, eighty percent of my stuff was still packed." This realization prompted him to officially join Millburn in living a minimalist lifestyle, which the pair equate to less stuff in exchange for a more meaningful life.
Today, the duo defines minimalism as "the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life's most important things—which aren't things at all." They told Inc. magazine, "[Minimalists] don't focus on having less, less, less; we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment. Clearing the clutter from life's path helps us make that room."
Career as The Minimalists
After simplifying their lives, but while still in the corporate world, Millburn and Nicodemus launched their website in 2010. In its first month, the blog attracted only 52 visitors; it now has millions after building an audience through national tours of cafes and bookstores. They have since published books, launched a podcast, and shot a feature-length documentary about minimalists around the world, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, which was acquired by Netflix in 2016. Represented by the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, they have spoken at Harvard, Apple, and Google, and they have given two popular TEDx Talks, each with millions of views: "A Rich Life with Less" and "The Art of Letting Go."
Although they write and speak about weighty topics, Millburn and Nicodemus do not take themselves too seriously: "We're not trying to proselytize, we're not trying to convert anybody to minimalism," Millburn said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "It's not about deprivation," Nicodemus told the Spokesman-Review. "If you went into my apartment, you wouldn't say, 'This guy is a minimalist.' You'd say, 'Wow, this guy is pretty tidy.'"
The Minimalists' simple-living message is not prescriptive or austere: "We're not out telling people to dress in white robes and shave their heads and live like monks," Nicodemus told Las Vegas Weekly. "What our message is really about is living deliberately and making choices in your life that add value."
The duo is quick to note that they did not coin the term "minimalism," and that they have adopted most of their ideas from a long history of lifestyle philosophers, from Epictetus and Thoreau to Oprah Winfrey. Jokingly, they say the only reason they were able to call themselves "The Minimalists" is simple: "the domain name was available for seven dollars," Millburn told the Boston Globe.
Although they still worked in corporate America after first embracing minimalist lifestyles, their six-figure salaries and long work weeks were not delivering on the promise of happiness. Material wealth, they discovered, did not translate into psychological health. So they decided to give up their high-paying, high-pressure jobs to live simpler, and for them, happier lives.
In 2011, shortly after the previous year's holiday-shopping season, Millburn was asked to craft a plan to close eight retail stores and terminate 41 workers. But when he handed the report to his boss, it included 42 names. At the top of the list he had written his own. A few months later Nicodemus was laid off. Later that year, they self-published their first book, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, and set about on a 33-city book tour. (An updated edition of Minimalism was republished by Asymmetrical Press in 2015.)
In 2012, Millburn and Nicodemus left Dayton, Ohio, and moved to a mountainside cabin near Philipsburg, Montana, where they wrote the first draft of their simple-living memoir, Everything That Remains. The Boston Globe referred to this experiment as living "like Henry David Thoreau, but with Wi-Fi." Late that year, they traveled the United States and Canada during their ten-city "Holiday Happiness Tour."
In 2013, they moved to Missoula, Montana, and teamed up with Colin Wright to found a publishing company, Asymmetrical Press. That same year the trio launched into two small speaking tours: March's "Spring into Minimalism Tour" in five cities in the United States' Mountain and Central time zones, and June's "Alberta Mini-Tour" in Calgary and Edmonton.
In 2014, The Minimalists published their memoir, Everything That Remains (Asymmetrical). After reading it, NPR host Doug Fabrizio said, "If you stripped your life of 'stuff'—the toys, the electronics, the furniture, even the house—what would be left? That's the question at the heart of Everything That Remains, a memoir by The Minimalists. At an existential crossroads, they left behind their careers and compulsive consumption to figure out what really adds value to their lives." To support the book, they embarked on a ten-month, 119-event bookstore tour that spanned 100 cities in eight countries.
In 2015, they published Essential (Asymmetrical), an essay collection promoted as "the best of The Minimalists." The book included many of their most popular online writings plus some new essays. That spring they were joined by several authors from Asymmetrical Press, as well as the musician Skye Steele, for their "Wordtasting Tour," visiting 42 cities across the western United States and Canada. At the end of the year, they started The Minimalists Podcast, an audio and video show in which they discuss minimalism, decluttering, and simple living.
In 2016, The Minimalists released their first feature-length film, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, directed by Matt D'Avella. The film features interviews with ABC journalist and bestselling author Dan Harris, sociology professor Juliet Schor, and renowned neuroscientist Sam Harris, among others, and follows Millburn and Nicodemus during their 2014 tour. Before its theatrical release, The Minimalists visited fourteen U.S. and Canadian cities on their "Documentary Tour" to premiere the film in front of live audiences; they also presented a talk at each sold-out event. Originally released by Gathr Films on May 24 in roughly 400 theaters in the United States, Canada, and Australia, Minimalism experienced the highest grossing box-office opening weekend of any independent documentary of 2016. After its theatrical run, the documentary was released by Netflix in 190 countries.
In 2017, The Minimalists set out on their 50-city "Less Is Now Tour," presented by Live Nation, which sold out theaters across America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Toward the end of the year, they moved to Los Angeles, California.
In 2018, they built their own studio in Hollywood. That summer, they also traveled to the U.S. South with financial expert Dave Ramsey's team of speakers from Ramsey Solutions for their "Simply Southern Tour," the theme of which was "money and minimalism."
In 2020, The Minimalists finished writing their fourth book, Love People Use Things: Because the Opposite Never Works. It is scheduled to be published on July 13, 2021, by Celadon (Macmillan Publishers Ltd) in the United States and Canada, and Hachette in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Millburn and Nicodemus released the first episode of The Minimalists Podcast in December 2015. Originally recorded in a conference room at the University of Montana, it has been recorded at The Minimalists' studio in Hollywood, California, since 2018. The podcast is recorded, edited, and produced by The Minimalists' factotum Podcast Shawn and filmmaker Jordan Know Moore. The audio program is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and other podcast platforms. A video version is available on YouTube.
Each week, Millburn and Nicodemus bring a guest into their studio to answer audience questions and to discuss "what it means to live a meaningful life with less." Previous guests include 2020 United States presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, iCarly star Jennette McCurdy, former megachurch pastor Rob Bell, Momastery founder Glennon Doyle, sex-advice columist Dan Savage, and MIT scientist Andrew McAfee, among others.
With more than 50 million total downloads and up to three million downloads per month, The Minimalists Podcast is one of Apple Podcasts top-100 shows in eight countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
The Minimalists refuse to sell advertising on their website or podcast, believing it would be hypocritical to write about living better with less while allowing others to try to sell their readers more stuff. As a result, their podcast is 100% listener-supported.
They sometimes begin episodes of their podcast with the phrase, "This episode of The Minimalists is brought to you by nobody because advertisements suck." Millburn expanded on this stance in an essay entitled "Can We Have an Honest Conversation About Advertisements?"
Millburn and Nicodemus teamed up with Colin Wright in 2013 to found Asymmetrical Press, "a publishing house for the indie at heart." The company has published more than 30 fiction and nonfiction titles for nine authors.
Minimalist Meetup Groups
During their 2014 tour, Millburn and Nicodemus established Minimalist.org, a website with 100 free local meetup groups in eight countries. Groups meet monthly to discuss minimalism, decluttering, careers, finances, relationships, and more.
Bandit Coffee Co.
Alongside Sarah and Joshua Weaver, a married couple from the Tampa Bay area, Millburn and Nicodemus opened Bandit Coffee Co., a coffeehouse and cafe in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2016. The minimalist shop roasts its own coffee, serves gourmet casual food, and employs more than a dozen people.
Millburn and Nicodemus partnered with Minimalissimo magazine and online publication 5 Style in 2016 to create Minimalism Life, a project that curates minimalist design, travel, and well-being in one place. The project's tagline is "live more with less." Its website houses community journal articles, minimalist wallpapers, and a series of letters called Inside Minimalism.
They both live in Los Angeles, California: Millburn with his wife, Rebecca, and their daughter, Ella; Nicodemus with his wife, Mariah.
- Minimalism (Asymmetrical), self-help, 2011
- Everything That Remains (Asymmetrical), memoir, 2014
- Essential (Asymmetrical), essays, 2015
- Love People Use Things (Celadon/Macmillan), relationships, 2021
- As a Decade Fades (Asymmetrical), novel, 2012
- Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (Netflix), 2016
- The Minimalists: Less Is Now (Netflix), 2021
The Minimalists have been covered broadly by the media. They have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes, Time, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and they have been featured on the Today show, CBS This Morning, Nightline, and many other outlets.
Both Millburn and Nicodemus can be seen greeting fans with open arms in their documentary and at live events, so much so that their hugs have been turned into a meme, and the label "hugger" has been tagged to the duo by much of the media. "The Minimalists are profligate with the hugs," San Antonio Express-News said. And the Dayton Daily News wrote, "The first time you meet Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, they just might give you a hug."
"Does your life feel a little cluttered? These guys can help." The Baltimore Sun wrote about Millburn and Nicodemus. LA Weekly agreed: "The Minimalists are helping us end our obsession with stuff."
The Chicago Tribune said, "They call themselves 'the minimalists,' but a more apt title might be 'the meaningfulists.'" Slate referred to The Minimalists as "the country's leading evangelists on the virtues of living with less." And the Orlando Sentinel claimed that "Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus—The Minimalists—made minimalism cool."
The Wall Street Journal recommended The Minimalists Podcast to its readers, stating its hosts "offer up deeper look into why you don't need all that stuff." And the Charleston City Paper called The Minimalists, "Internet sensations [who] preach the gospel of simple living."
The Atlantic acknowledged "Americans tend to have a lot of stuff—closets full of shoes, garages cluttered with gear, basements stacked with boxes of who knows what. But for about as long as Americans have been stocking up on the latest gadgets and styles, there's also been a vocal band of dissenters, arguing for the merits of a simpler, less materialist life, [including] two members of that band, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who are advocates for what they call 'minimalism'—an approach to life that focuses on owning fewer things and prioritizing spiritual and personal growth."
Criticism and controversy
Over the years The Minimalists and their movement have been the subject of occasional criticism and controversy, often by progressive organs based in New York City who sometimes point toward Millburn and Nicodemus's apolitical stance.
After attending one of The Minimalists live talks in Cincinnati in 2017, Kyle Chayka, a writer for New York Magazine said the event was "halfway between a TED Talk and a hipster-megachurch sermon—the crowd [was there] for easy answers delivered in familiar patterns...the lecture [was] based on experiences and feelings, instead of data or doctrine. The guys are less authority figures than sympathetic fellow journeyers sharing what they've learned, a 'recipe,' as they call it, for late-capitalist living." Chayka continued, "[T]hough, on the surface, their message is more or less positive, there's a tacit pessimism to Millburn and Nicodemus's movement. Rather than trying to change this mindset of austerity (whether through therapy, politics, or protest), they advocate making do with the lack." Chayka also accused them of "relentless self-promotion" in the same article.
A year earlier, in "The Oppressive Gospel of 'Minimalism,'" a scathing critique found in the New York Times Magazine, Chayka wrote, "To wealthy practitioners, minimalism is now little more than a slightly intriguing perversion, like drinking at breakfast." He continued, "Today's minimalism...is visually oppressive; it comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad—the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism. It is anxiety-inducing in a manner indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism, not revolutionary at all. Do I own the right things? Have I jettisoned enough of the wrong ones?" Elsewhere in the article, Chayka claims that "Minimalism is now conflated with self-optimization, the trend that also resulted in fitness trackers and Soylent (truly a minimalist food—it looks like nothing, but inspires thoughts of everything else). Often driven by technology, this optimization is expensive and exclusively branded by and for the elite."
Critiquing The Minimalists and their movement in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, "Less is more attractive when you've got a lot of money, and minimalism is easily transformed from a philosophy of intentional restraint into an aesthetic language through which to assert a form of walled-off luxury—a self-centered and competitive impulse that is not so different from the acquisitive attitude that minimalism purports to reject." She continued, "It is rarely acknowledged, by either the life-hack-minded authors or the proponents of minimalist design, that many people have minimalism forced upon them by circumstances that render impossible a serene, jewel-box lifestyle. Nor do they mention that poverty and trauma can make frivolous possessions seem like a lifeline rather than a burden. Many of today's gurus maintain that minimalism can be useful no matter one's income, but the audience they target is implicitly affluent—the pitch is never about making do with less because you have no choice. Millburn and Nicodemus frequently describe their past lives as spiritually empty twentysomethings with six-figure incomes....Today's minimalism, with its focus on self-improvement, feels oddly dominated by a logic of accumulation. Less is always more, or 'more, more, more,' as Millburn and Nicodemus write."
Some critics see "minimalism as a lifestyle that smacks of privilege—a form of conspicuous un-consumption," according to the Star Tribune in Minnesota. "People who are poor have no choice but to get by with less....Indeed, images of curated spaces on Pinterest showing off white bedspreads and sparse furniture suggest that minimalism can become just another version of keeping up with the Joneses."
In a New York Times op-ed, Stephanie Land called into question the class politics of decluttering. "Suddenly, decluttering is everywhere," she wrote. "But minimalism is a virtue only when it's a choice, and it's telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option." She then accuses Millburn and Nicodemus's anti-consumerism movement of being "just another form of social shaming."
Jillian Steinhauer, a freelance writer for the New Republic, found fault with The Minimalists in an article titled "The Hollow Politics of Minimalism" in which she claimed that minimalism's "pristine, stripped-down aesthetic conceals the messy realities of society." She went on to claim that minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella were "mostly white men" who "whitewashed" their influences. Pivoting back to The Minimalists, she wrote, "Millburn and Nicodemus's 2016 film Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things combines footage of people storming big-box stores for sales with social scientists talking about how advertising drives us to consume, but the word 'capitalism' is never uttered during its 78 minutes. I caught one mention of 'inequality.' Instead of digging into systemic problems like poverty or exploring ideas of wealth redistribution, the film frames having less as an individual, moral choice with no political strings or implications."
In an op-ed for the Globe and Mail, Joy Pecknold says, "the market for advice about decluttering is becoming, well, cluttered." Her piece suggests that the problem with minimalism's ethos is "its suggestion of a generic, universal solution," going as far to say that minimalism has "very little character."
Another Globe and Mail article, "Consumerism Is Good for the Soul," by Margaret Wente, pokes fun at Millburn's and Nicodemus's lifestyle choices and their supposed hypocrisy: "One of the avatars of minimalism is Joshua Millburn, 31, who used to earn $150,000 as a telecom executive. He bought a lot of stuff, but it didn't make him happy. So he ditched his job, his house, his car and his wife and moved to a cabin in Montana with his best friend, Ryan, who was also sick and tired of empty material success. 'Less is more,' he says. Now the two have launched a cottage (or cabin) industry advising other people on how to live minimally, which includes a book you can buy for $14.83 on Amazon." She claims that minimalists' sneers at consumerism are "misguided snobbery" before punctuating her critique with a call to consume more: "So please ignore those joyless, soul-sapping, censorious puritans who insist on how rotten and corrupt we are. Deck the halls and buy a few more ecologically irresponsible gifts. Indulgence isn't the worst thing in the world. 'Tis the season of abundance, and we should celebrate, not let ourselves be guilted out."
In an article she wrote for Showbiz Cheat Sheet, Chloe Della Costa questioned whether "minimalist consumerism" applies only to privileged people, and whether it is an "insult to the poor," stating, "when you have more income or wealth, it's easy to start shedding most of your possessions because you can discard something and say to yourself, 'I can always buy that again later if I need it.'"
The writer Charlie Lloyd attacked lifestyle minimalism on his Tumblr blog, claiming that "The only way to own very little and be safe is to be rich." He expanded on this thought by saying, "Poor people don't have clutter because they're too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk. When rich people present the idea that they've learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth. If you buy food in bulk, you need a big fridge. If you can't afford to replace all the appliances in your house, you need several junk drawers. If you can't afford car repairs, you might need a half-gutted second car of a similar model up on blocks, where certain people will make fun of it and call you trailer trash." He then finished the blog post with a plea: "Please, if you are rich, stop explaining the idea of freedom from stuff as if it's a trick that even you have somehow mastered."
"Who are these guys?" the Chicago Tribune asked before answering their own question and then criticizing Millburn's and Nicodemus's preference for hugs rather than handshakes: "We only get to know them as spokesmen, really. (Spokesmen who prefer hugs over handshakes. I wonder if they've considered how uncomfortable this is for some people.)"
In an article titled "Your 'Minimalist' Lifestyle Is Quasi-Religious Anti-Poor Bullshit," Vice (magazine) condemned The Minimalists as "glowing examples of asceticism-as-solution," ascribing "deeply religious" motives to their movement because they are "a pair of white dudes who travel the world to proclaim the joys of simplicity, and just happen to be close friends with evangelical legend Rob Bell." The article goes on to claim that "'slow' and 'simple' stuff tends to be considerably more expensive and time-consuming than buying [things at] Walmart or Tim Hortons."
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