PHILIPSBURG – There are two teakettles on their stove, and that gnaws at Ryan Nicodemus.
No one needs two teakettles to make a cup or two of tea.
He knows why he and his new roommate, Joshua Fields Milburn, have two teakettles – they each brought one along when they recently moved to Montana from Ohio.
Why they still have two – that he doesn’t understand.
“It just really bugs me,” Nicodemus says, staring at the two teakettles in the little kitchen of the sparse, two-bedroom, end-of-the-street house they rent in Philipsburg.
The obvious solution for most people – stash one away in the upper reaches of a closet or cupboard – isn’t really at play for Nicodemus or Milburn.
For about 20 months now, the two longtime friends have dedicated themselves to shedding everything they don’t really need from their lives.
They have a higher purpose. By getting rid of everything they don’t need, they believe they can concentrate on the things in life that are truly important to them.
But, almost by accident, the lifestyle change has become an important part of their alternative careers.
Meet “The Minimalists.” They didn’t invent the lifestyle, but they’ve suddenly become two of its most visible spokesmen.
The pair, both 31 years old, gave up high-paying, high-pressure jobs less than two years ago – both were earning north of $100,000 annually in the telecommunications industry – to live simpler, and for them, happier lives.
Freed from their 80-hour-a-week corporate existences, they started a website where they write about their new lifestyle – www.theminimalists.com – and were tickled when it got 52 visitors in its first month.
“I’d never had 52 people read any of my stuff,” says Milburn, who – even when he worked for Cincinnati Bell – set his alarm for 4:44 a.m. so he could spend an hour a day pursuing his passion of writing before heading to work.
In another month, the 52 had become 500 and now, just months after that, 150,000 people subscribe to the blog they write three times a week, a number that staggers them both. They’ve been interviewed on national television and, between the two of them, authored five books.
They don’t push the lifestyle on anyone, just explain their experiences with it to people who are curious. It’s brought them far more fame than fortune – neither remotely approaches the six-figure salaries they used to make – but they never set out to make a penny off it.
Nicodemus mentors paying clients still in the corporate world he abandoned on how to achieve success there. Milburn teaches writing classes online.
Most of their minimalist-related income comes off sales of the books, three of which deal with the lifestyle they say their blog subscribers requested they write. Two are compilations of the essays they’ve posted online. The two rotate their essay responsibilities. When Nicodemus writes it, it’s handed off to Milburn to edit and add his two-cents worth. When Milburn writes it, the opposite is true.
One of the three books – “Minimalism: Living a Meaningful Life” – is all new material.
“It was 300 pages long when we got done,” Nicodemus says. “You could almost taste the irony.”
They boiled it down from there to concentrate on five areas they believe are most important to finding happiness via minimalism.
The two refuse to sell advertising on their well-visited website, believing it would be the height of hypocrisy to write about living better with less while allowing others try to sell their readers more stuff.
Income doesn’t drive them anymore, anyway.
“I’m 31, and I make less money now than I did when I was 19 years old – but I’ve never been happier,” Milburn says. “That says something.”
It was his mother’s death in 2009, followed less than a month later by his own divorce, that pushed Milburn to examine the life he was living.
He was the first of the two, who have been friends since they were 11 years old, to turn his life on its ear. A trip to Florida to pack up his mother’s belongings and move them back to Ohio after her death got the ball rolling.
“I was going through all her old things and I found these four sealed boxes under her bed,” he says. “I opened them up and you know what was in them? All my elementary schoolwork.”
At first, Milburn says, it made him angry.
“Why was she holding onto all this stuff if she wasn’t accessing it?” he says. “I mean, the boxes were sealed.“
Eventually, Milburn says, he came to the realization that his mother was trying to hold onto a piece of him by saving the 20-year-old schoolwork.
“And I thought, ‘Aren’t I trying to do the same thing, putting her stuff in boxes and hauling it back to Ohio, where I’ll put it in a storage bin with a padlock and pay $100 a month to leave it sit?“
Instead, he got rid of it all.
“Sold it, donated it or threw it away,” he says, including the schoolwork that he tossed in the garbage. “It’s why there’s so much emphasis on sentimental items – we assume our memories are in these things, but the memories are within us.”
With his marriage crumbling at the same time he lost his mother, “I didn’t know which way was up,” Milburn says. “I went looking for answers. I’m glad I found this one, and not (Branch Davidians leader) David Koresh. It had got to the point I didn’t know what was important anymore. I was chasing happiness through a combination of stress, debt and unhappiness. I started to figure out what was important in life.”
Meantime, his buddy Ryan was also questioning where his life was headed.
“If you had told me at 18 I’d have everything I did at 28, I’d have thought I had it made,” Nicodemus says. “But I was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and nothing was ever good enough. One time I hit 130 percent of the goals my company had set for me, and you know what my boss wanted to talk about? Why wasn’t it 135 percent?”
His boss was miserable, too, Nicodemus says. So was his boss’s boss.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna work my butt off for 15 more years so I can be one of these guys?’ ” he says.
Milburn clued Nicodemus in on the less-is-more path Milburn was choosing.
“I didn’t even know what minimalism was – did you live without electricity, or what?” Nicodemus says. Curious, he did some research – they are hardly the only people who blog about it – and decided he’d try an experiment he found online.
“The packing party,” Milburn remembers with a smile.
Nicodemus invited friends to his home – a three-bedroom, two-bath house he lived in by himself – to pack into boxes every single item he owned, down to his last pair of socks, his last fork and spoon.
“Just like you were moving,” Nicodemus says, except he didn’t go anywhere.
That night he unpacked what he’d need – blankets, a set of sheets, his toothbrush.
The next morning he unpacked clothes to wear for the day. The next night, perhaps, a plate, glass and fork and knife to eat with, and dishwashing detergent to clean them with.
So it went, for three solid weeks.
“And after that, 80 percent of my stuff was still in boxes,” Nicodemus says. “I hadn’t touched most of it once.”
The minimalist lifestyle, he says, is not about pursuing less, it’s about living more deliberately.
“It makes you think about smaller choices you make all the time,” Nicodemus says. “Instead of consume, consume, consume, you think about what’s of value in your life.”
In the world of shedding stuff, you can easily locate online minimalists who hardly own anything.
They’re not homeless or jobless – they’re people who have made a conscious effort to reduce the possessions that clutter their lives, and taken it to extremes. The theory essentially is that if you can live out of a suitcase for a week, you can live out of it for a month, a year, a lifetime.
Some minimalists reduce their worldly possessions to extremely low numbers – Tammy Strobel owns 72 things, Colin Wright has 51 things, Leo Babauta 50, Nina Yau 47 – although the counting methods can come into question.
Some, Milburn wrote in one of their pre-Montana essays, don’t count items they may share with others, such as furniture.
That said, he set out to count every single thing he owned, furniture included, after adopting the minimalist lifestyle.
“Things like the clock on the wall, my toothbrush, photo frames, my solo oven mitt, the trash can under the sink, salt and pepper shakers, cooking utensils, and even that metal thing in the shower that holds shampoo,” he wrote.
Grouping only things such as clothes hangars, his total number of possessions at the time: 288. That’s counting everything from his car to his BlackBerry to his kitchen utensils.
“The nicest thing about creating this list is that I actually use everything I own,” he wrote. “There is not a kitchen item or a piece of furniture or an article of clothing that I do not use regularly. It’s an amazing feeling.”
In their new digs in Philipsburg, which they rented furnished, it’s hard for a visitor not to join in the counting game. In the living room there’s one couch, one coffee table, one lamp, one candle, a mirror on the wall, a wood stove, and next to the stove a sack of newspapers for starting fires and a small box of firewood. Even if you counted each piece of firewood separately, you wouldn’t come up with more than 15 items in the room, and the wood and candle are the only things Nicodemus and Milburn contributed.
TVs are often one of the first things a minimalist jettisons. For Milburn, television did nothing more than distract him from more important things in life.
“If I watch TV, I watch it all the time,” he says. “It’s like staring at a fireplace to me.”
In minimizing possessions, they say, you also minimize bills – no TV means no cable to pay for – and to a minimalist, fewer bills equals more freedom.
To those who tell them they’d have a hard time getting rid of a particular object, the minimalists point out it’s your life, and you get to choose.
“If it adds value to your life, keep it,” Milburn says.
So what are the five areas they believe are the keys to finding happiness through minimalism?
“Health is the first,” Milburn says. “If you’re unhealthy you have a chance of being depressed, so we believe you need to concentrate on eating habits and exercise.”
The second is relationships with the people who matter most to you. Most people have three layers of relationships, they say – one with family and significant others, one with friends, one with co-workers.
“People tend to dedicate the most time to the third group, the co-workers” Milburn says. “The primary people in our lives we take for granted – we don’t treat those who are closest to us like they’re the ones closest to us.”
Next up: Finding your passions, and pursuing them. For Milburn it’s writing, for Nicodemus it’s snowboarding.
“There was a time if you asked me what I did, I’d have said, ‘I manage people in the telecommunications industry,’” Nicodemus says. “But if you asked me what I did for fun, that would have stopped me in my tracks. I literally worked 362 days a year. Even on a day I supposedly had off, I’d field a dozen or more phone calls dealing with things at work.”
Personal growth and becoming the person you want to be is the fourth key, and it’s a never-ending effort, Milburn says.
“It’s not a one-time shift and everything is different,” he says, “any more than you decide to get in shape so you go to the gym for one day. If you want to be healthy, you’ll keep going for the rest of your life.”
Last is making a contribution to the world beyond yourself, some way, some how.
“Back in Dayton (Ohio), we volunteered at a soup kitchen and did work for Habitat for Humanity,” Milburn says. “And Ryan found a really neat way to contribute this year on his birthday.”
What do you get for the person who doesn’t want anything?
Nicodemus asked family and friends not to buy him birthday presents, but instead to donate to Charity Water, a nonprofit that brings clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Then he wrote about it in their blog, which spurred several more contributions, and by the time it was done, Charity Water had collected more than $5,000 in donations because one individual asked that people spend money on it, and not him, on his birthday.
“What was cool,” Milburn says, “is that while we repeat the cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness, the truth is if it buys clean drinking water for people who don’t have any, money actually does buy happiness.”
The minimalists’ move to Montana this fall, like their sudden stature in the small but growing lifestyle choice, wasn’t planned.
The pair had been talking about temporarily relocating someplace more isolated for the winter and rooming together while concentrating on upcoming projects – it’s easy to move when you don’t own much stuff – but neither had ever set foot in Montana, much less heard of Philipsburg.
After the following for their once-little blog suddenly grew by tens of thousands of people, the two – whose books are essentially self-published and sold at Amazon.com – had decided they wanted to meet some of their readers.
They announced plans for a self-constructed “book tour.” The “tour bus” was Nicodemus’ Toyota Corolla.
“It was almost a joke,” Milburn says. “The top five places we have subscribers are Chicago, New York, Seattle, Austin, Texas and Atlanta, and we said we’d hit a few more along the way if anyone wanted to set up a venue and host it.“
They ended up visiting 33 cities at readers’ requests, adding Vancouver, British Columbia, after their 32nd stop, in Seattle, just so they could call it an “international” book tour.
“We were in coffee shops, bars, yoga studios,” Milburn says. “We had two people turn out in Knoxville, Tenn. and more than 100 in San Francisco.”
Their jaws dropped when they hit the Idaho Panhandle and western Montana on the drive home from Vancouver to Ohio after the tour ended.
How was it they didn’t know how beautiful it was here? They spent some time searching, and found the rental in Philipsburg on Craigslist.
The minimalists will pack up their belongings at some point down the road – packing shouldn’t take more than a few minutes – and move on. Milburn says he may make his next move a short one, to Missoula, which he’s taken a liking to.
Freed of most of their possessions and their high-paying careers, the two can live anyplace in the world there is Internet access and still communicate with their readers, clients, students and each other and make enough money to live on.
The only question is whether they’ll both have a teakettle to take with them. If Ryan Nicodemus has his way, one of those things will be soon be off the stove, out of the house, and gone for good.