(Thanks to @monkd for letting us share this awesome video.)
A few weeks ago, several members of the TOM BIHN Forum began cleaning up: their homes, their closets, their wardrobes—all in an effort to live less cluttered, simpler lives. A popular thread that emerged from this discussion was a wardrobe-streamlining method outlined on Project 333 by Courtney Carver, a writer and photographer whose work focuses on voluntary simplicity.
The bare-bones rules of the Project 333 challenge are simple: practitioners live for three months with a 33-item wardrobe, including shoes and outerwear. (For a more detailed explanation, see here.) Courtney challenged herself to do this back in 2010, and now, four years later, thousands of people from all over the world have joined her, some permanently changing their relationship to buying and wearing their clothes.
Courtney leads a busy life as a public speaker and author of books and three websites. She took some time out to talk with us about Project 333 and her thoughts on simplicity.
TOM BIHN Crew: What inspired Project 333?
COURTNEY CARVER: I started this minimalist fashion challenge because I knew that my closet was a major source of clutter in my life. There were so many items that I never wore, but felt compelled to hold on to. I thought that if I could simplify my closet, I’d really begin to understand my relationship with stuff and better identify what “enough” meant to me. I announced the challenge on bemorewithless.com for some accountability and was thrilled when almost one hundred people joined me. Almost four years later now, there are thousands of people from around the world dressing with 33 items or less.
TBC: There are a lot of simplicity/minimalist bloggers/writers/personalities out there, some of whom are notorious for dictating imperatives to the reader, such as the total number of items s/he should own. Conversely, your approach allows readers to exercise a lot of free will; for example, although the “rules” of Project 333 say that shoes count towards the 33 items, you invite participants to change the rules to suit their own situations and preferences. What has made you develop this flexible approach to minimalism?
CC: As I discovered the benefits of dressing with less, with 33 items or less, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. I also realize that 33 may seem out of reach for some people, and instead of giving up or discounting the challenge as too extreme, I wanted to make room for people to discover the benefits by starting where they were. If that means not counting shoes in the 33 or dressing with 50 items instead of 33, there are are still valuable lessons to be learned. The number is just a number. That said, this is as temporary as you want it to be, so there isn’t really any risk to jumping all in.
TBC: On the flip side, are there benefits to occasionally exercising a large amount of restraint, living in a radically austere way, or being rigid in one’s practices? Can you think of situations where this might be the best course of action?
CC: I love a good challenge, so for me that kind of approach works, but it isn’t for everyone. This is life we are talking about, so if something like this makes someone completely unhappy, it has no benefit. In my experience though, people who take on Project 333 usually start out thinking that it’s crazy and extreme, and then find out that it makes everything easier.
TBC: How do you decide which non-consumable items (clothes or otherwise) come into your home?
CC: Anything I purchase or bring into my home/life has to add value in some way. I don’t shop to make myself feel better, or to fill a void. I think the majority of my purchases, especially with clothing, was an effort to feel more beautiful, powerful, loved, or something like that, and after parting with the majority of my stuff, I realized that you’ll never find something to wear that makes you feel beautiful, smart, or loved if you don’t believe that you already are. What I really wanted wasn’t at the store.
TBC: What is your philosophy about objects/possessions/materiality (noting that these are distinct but slippery categories)?
CC: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately to determine what the shift has been since I started simplifying my life. I still own things, but my things don’t own me anymore. I appreciate the things I have, but I’m not attached to them. It’s just stuff. I’m ok with the fact that it will come and go and really doesn’t define who I am or what I’m about.
That said, I know during the initial decluttering and letting go, stuff has a big hold for most people. It comes with so much attachment and emotions, and not just the sentimental stuff. We feel bad for the money we spent. We feel like if we let it go we are throwing money out the window. The reality though is that we’ve already paid enough and if we keep that tight grip, we’ll keep paying. We will pay with our dollars by taking care of the item. We will pay with our time and we will continue to feel the guilt and regret. The best thing to do is to let go all the way. Let go of all of it: the thing, the attachment, and most of all the guilt. You’ve paid enough.
TBC: A few years ago on the website Becoming Minimalist, you described yourself as “a sap and a sentimental fool”, meaning that you had some difficulty pruning down the number of purely sentimental objects in your life. Where would you say you are today? Has your perspective on sentimental objects changed?
CC: I’m still sap and sentimental fool, but now I am moved more by moments and memories and I know that I don’t need stuff to trigger that. There were some sentimental items that were hard for me to go of, but less because I wanted to keep them, and more because I didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process. To avoid that, I was very open about things and I took pictures of a few of the items. And I kept a few things. Less is not nothing.
TBC: On your own website, you wrote a post called “Less is Not Nothing,” which addresses the assumption or misconception that minimalism is the same as self-denial or self-imposed suffering. Are there other assumptions about minimalism that you have heard, and wish to correct?
CC: You don’t have to live out of a backpack, burn all of your stuff or live a certain way. There are so many versions of this lifestyle that labeling it is almost a disservice. My version isn’t about suffering at all. In fact, if it isn’t contributing to a happier, healthier life, I’m out.
TBC: A follow-up question: one assumption floating around is that minimalism is actually a luxurious way of living. In other words, to practice minimalism a person must have achieved a certain level of economic and social security, and that poor people do not have the luxury. What are your thoughts on that?
CC: There is a reason they call it voluntary simplicity and it’s likely much harder to find the upside when you don’t choose to live with less. I can’t comment on every situation, but I do think that if we are in a position to help people who don’t have what they need, we should. I also believe that living with less can contribute to the security many desire but find impossible to achieve. So many of us (including me) thought we were working to have it all, but on closer inspection, I had less before than I have now. The bank owned my house and between car notes, credit card debt and student loans, I really didn’t own anything. Now I rent my home and live with things that are paid for. There is great security and freedom in not owing anyone anything.
TBC: A lot of simplicity/life enhancement bloggers work in “location-independent professions” that are also very elastic in terms of time investment. In fact, this sort of work situation is often touted as one of the major goals or benefits of adopting a minimalist lifestyle. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think that this emphasis on personal freedom and rejection of typical middle-class responsibilities might alienate people; for example, those who have 40-hour work weeks, or a mortgage, or are tied to a given place for one reason or another?
CC: It shouldn’t alienate, it should inspire. I know it inspired me. Living with less, paying off our debt, and reducing monthly expenses all contributed to me leaving an almost 20 year career in sales and marketing. For the longest time I thought I’d never leave because I couldn’t find another job to replace my income, but by changing my lifestyle, I didn’t need to. I think it’s also important to note that you said “personal” freedom. That means something different to everyone. If you enjoy a 40-hour work week or living in a certain neighborhood, that’s great. For me, being creative in my work, and not reporting to a certain person or place is my personal freedom.
TBC: Do you have any rituals or routines in your day-to-day work and personal life?
CC: I do have a morning routine that I practice five or six days a week when I’m home, and if I’m traveling, I practice at least a slice of it as often as possible. My morning routine changes during the year but usually involves some combination of exercise, meditation and writing. I also have become much more verbal about what I’m grateful for. I either journal about it, or make quick notes throughout the day withThe Random Gratitude App. It’s great, because after you record what you’re grateful for, the app shows you what you were grateful for this time last year or at another time.
TBC: You’ve recently downsized a lot, from a house to an apartment, and have written a bit about that. One of your readers said that her love for her pets was posing an obstacle to achieving her minimalist goals. But you have a dog (and also a child, which some minimalists consider an impediment to the freedom and location-independence I mentioned above). What mindset or thinking has permitted you to say kids and dogs are not just tolerable, but welcome in your life?
CC: Minimalism may help location-independence, but they are different things. Minimalism looks different for everyone. For me it made more time and space for me to engage in my daughter’s life and spend more time with her as she was growing up. She is currently in Australia on a working-holiday. Coincidentally, she introduced me to Tom Bihn. She was determined to leave for a year with only a backpack.
While I didn’t start simplifying until my daughter was a pre-teen, I can’t help but think that this shift in lifestyle contributed to her desire to travel the world and experience people and places over stuff.
And about the pets, I’ve joked that if I had simplified my life earlier, we wouldn’t have a dog, but if that’s true, I’m so glad I waited. Guinness is part of the family and brings me so much joy. I wouldn’t trade joy or connection for any amount of simplicity.
Minimalism will change your lifestyle, but it really impacts is your mindset. It makes you think differently about everything and helps you value relationships, health, love and purpose over money, stuff and busyness. At least that’s what it did for me.
TBC: What are some items that you consider essential to your work and personal life?
CC: A computer, a camera, and a journal. While I have my favorites, I could make any of them work.
Thanks to our awesome production and shipping crews, backorders for the following bags have been shipped and they’re officially in stock and ready to ship within one business day:
Shop Bag, Small, in Ultraviolet, Solar, Steel, and Iberian, and the Shop Bag, Large, in Wasabi and Iberian
Western Flyer, Backpack Straps, in Navy/Solar and Black/Steel
Synapse 19 in colors Olive/Steel, Black/Iberian, Black/Wasabi, Navy/Ultraviolet
Synapse 25 in Black/Steel, French Blue/Steel, Burnt Orange/Steel, Cocoa/Wasabi, Steel/Ultraviolet
Night Flight Travel Duffle in Coyote/Steel, Forest/Steel, Steel/Steel
Aeronaut 30 in Black/Wasabi
Aeronaut 45 in colors Black/Iberian, Black/Ultraviolet
Pilot in Navy/Solar, Steel/Ultraviolet, Forest/Steel, Black Steel, and Steel Dyneema/Steel
Clear Quarter Packing Cube in colors Steel, Iberian, Ultraviolet
Packing Cube Shoulder Bag in colors Steel and Wasabi
Smart Alec in colors Black/Black/Steel and Black/Steel/Steel
Super Ego in Black/Black/Steel
Medium Cafe Bag in many colors, including Kelly/Navy, Burnt Orange/Navy, and Black Dyneema/Ultraviolet
Yeahh: the Night Flight Travel Duffle fits the Canon C100 Cinema.
And after having ordered both Synapses and made his choice, Ineffable was kind enough to post a thorough comparison of the two sizes (with photos, just a couple of which are below). See Ineffable’s full post here.
One. Dogs show us the breadth and limitations of our humanity.
Two. It’s always hard to say goodbye to a friend.
When members of the Forum learned that Riley, Tom’s stalwart companion for over a decade, had passed away this spring, they created a tribute to Riley to express their sympathies. What follows are pictures of Forum dogs, in this life or the next, along with memories and anecdotes from their people. We hope you will honor Riley with us by honoring the animals in your life.
“Sophie and Callie enjoying a New Hampshire winter.” — jodel, New Hampshire
“Here’s our buddy, Chaos.” — GriffCouch, New Orelans, Louisiana
“Faith is a rescue dog so we don’t know for sure, but were told she is a Shepherd/Saint Bernard mix.” — Shanisol, Denver, Colorado
“Tom, I feel for the loss of your dear, hairy friend and I just know that you will cherish all the great memories that you had together. As a tribute to Reilly, here’s three of his Retriever friends from Scotland—for once they are clean and presentable—from the left: Mulloch, Brodie and Dileas (pronounced Jeelus). I was probably eating a biscuit at the time—that’s why they look so attentive.” — davys, Scotland
“Here is my dog Whitney, a.k.a. Booda, who just recently joined Riley. She spent her life being loved by my family in Virginia, and made our lives better each day she was here.” — luvdabags, Virginia
“Best wishes and happy memories from my dog buddies, Zero and Daisy.” — Missy, West Virginia
“Kuiken was adopted from Ohio and Tedu from New Hampshire.”— kkintea, Miami, Florida
“Tom, I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing Riley’s life with us.” — Susan M (and Lizzie), Denver, Colorado
“This is Maggie, an 11 month old German Shepherd cross.” — Wendyk, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada
“Sweet Jane.” — BHappy, western Washington
“Boudreaux, our Bouvier des Flanders. We miss her. And Zepper, who loves the Thing! He sends condolences to Tom.” — Gulfcoast, the gulf of Texas
“This is Oliver. He lives in Maine and loves the snow; good thing, too.” — Moose, Maine
“This is the dog trio currently living at my house. The black dogs are Hank and Stella and belong to my son; the blonde dog is named Ariel and is mine. They are all mixed breeds. Hank and Ariel are shelter dogs.” — bunchgrass
“K (our Samoyed) hereby respectfully reporting for the 21-wag salute in honor of Riley!” — haraya
“Titus is looking and feeling naked without his collar. RIP, Riley, and our condolences to his friends and loved ones.” — The Badgers, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“This is my late family dog, Licorice. We lost her to cancer in January 2011, shortly before she would have turned 13. She was the best labrabeagle in all of Missouri. She was an expert in napping, looking extremely guilty when she knew she’d done something dastardly, and photobombing all outdoor family photos by pooping in the background. However, her true calling was snack theft. Not even a counter more than three times her height could protect pies, bread, or any other delectable treats she wanted to get her paws on. She’d find a way to snag them all with not a single crumb left behind, no broken dishes, no ripped packaging.” — capncat
“We can’t have a dog of our own so we sponsor a dog via the Dogs Trust organisation. This is Cuillen. He lives in the rehoming centre in Glasgow but, hopefully, someone will give him a forever home soon.” — CeePee, England
“Tucker, RIP 10/27/12, now with Riley at the Rainbow Bridge, waiting for us; and Tucker and Daisy.” — Karen, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
“This is Sweet Dee on the left and Rickety Cricket on the right. I had just woken up last Tuesday morning to find my car stolen from the driveway. These two bark at EVERYTHING except that. I was asking them ‘why???’ in this photo and you can clearly see they couldn’t care less. RIP, Riley!!!” — Chiro75
“Tom, as dogs are more intelligent than humans in all the ways that count, Ede KNOWS there is a special place in heaven reserved for as good and true a friend as Riley has been to you. He hopes that you can find the place where remembering Riley is more joy than pain soon.” — Ilkyway, Germany
Before we began our next production cut of Brain Bags, we decided to make a few minor updates to the design. (Just one of the many reasons we have our own factory here in Seattle: we have the power to have a good idea and make it real.)
– You asked for it: six more (nine total) o-rings! Two additional in each main compartment and one o-ring each in the front left and right exterior pockets.
– The best combination of fabrics we can imagine: an exterior main body of 1000d Cordura with a 1050 HT ballistic nylon bottom and an interior of 420d Parapack.
– Reconfigured front left organizer pocket (fits your iPhone better).
And that’s it. The Brain Bag is solid, classic, and true; the longest standing design of our current offerings. We didn’t want to mess (too much) with a good thing.
The Brain Bag. $190. Available for backorder in colors Burnt Orange, French Blue, Olive, Navy, and Black. Ships by early August.
When we introduced the Double Organizer Pouch in size Small, it sold out in less than a month. Figuring that meant everyone liked it as much as we did, we introduced the Double Organizer Pouch in size Medium. And it too quickly sold out — a couple of times, in fact. Without further ado: meet the Double Organizer Pouch in size Large. Hope you like it as much as we do.
Double Organizer Pouch. Available in sizes Small, Medium, and Large. $14-18. In stock and ships within one business day.
Allison Levine is a web developer, traveler, and writer. Last year, she demonstrated in this video how she packs her Synapse 19 for trips of indefinite length. On her blog, Off the Blueprint, she writes about the symbiotic relationship between travel, minimalism, and living lightly on the earth. We wanted to find out more, and here’s what she had to say.
TOM BIHN Crew: Tell us a little bit about your website. What relationship do you see between traveling and minimalism?
ALLISON LEVINE: Minimalism completely changed the way I travel. The less you’re clinging to, both mentally and physically, the easier it is to immerse yourself in a new culture. I realized how incredible that freedom to experience was when I took my first trip with my Synapse 19, to China. I got lost. I shared wonderful meals and conversations with people I’d just met. I questioned my world view. And I never had to say “Hold on, I need to go take care of my suitcase.” Traveling with only one small bag gave me the confidence to explore, and alone. I couldn’t wait to share that when I got back, so I created Off the Blueprint.
TBC: You’ve been traveling for a while with your Synapse 19. Are you still in love with it? What features do you appreciate the most?
AL: Yes! I love the size, of course—the fact that it fits everywhere, including inside a hostel locker. It can also hold so much for its size, thanks to the genius shape and pocket design. When I first took it out of the box I thought, no way am I going to fit everything in there. Then I started packing it and realized how huge the water bottle and bottom pockets are. I also really like that the main compartment only zips halfway down. That allows me to pack or unpack it while it’s standing, which is much easier than trying to get things organized while they slip out sideways.
TBC: How did you generate your 12-item list of packing essentials?
AL: I read a lot of packing lists to see what worked for people. That helped me nail down the basics: light and efficient outerwear, quick-drying clothes, multi-use items, and tiny cosmetics. Then I experimented. I found that I could downsize some things further, like shirts, sweaters, and flip-flops, but that I’d left other things out, like a netbook or notebook to record my experiences. My list evolves with every trip.
TBC: It’s pretty amazing that you can fit everything you need into a 19-liter backpack. It seems like part of minimalist travel is bringing only what you need, keeping in mind that what works for others won’t necessarily work for you; so, it’s as much a mindset as it is a strategy for packing.
AL: Very true. I’m a small, not-so-strong person, so packing a 19-liter bag works to my advantage. I can fit everything in because my clothes are smaller, and because my bag is small, I can actually carry it! My list works for me, but I wouldn’t expect others to follow it exactly. Even I adapt it as needed. Now that I’m a vegetarian I carry a lot more snacks with me because I know I need to keep nibbling throughout the day to stay full.
TBC: Recently, your blog has focused quite a bit on vegetarian cooking and eating. How does vegetarianism/veganism function within a minimalist lifestyle, to your mind?
AL: I think of it as eating light, both for me and the environment. Traveling light has made me question everything about the way I live, and whether there’s a better (albeit probably more challenging) way to do things. I really enjoy subverting norms because it forces me to get creative. And that’s something that inspires me about Tom Bihn—that they always think outside the box.
TBC: What is a travel-related item you thought would be really helpful but actually wasn’t?
AL: I thought a sarong would be an awesome, multi-use item to take. It can be a dress, a cover-up, a sleep sheet, a towel, etc. But I ended up only using it as a not-that-great towel, and ditching it after my first trip. It’s probably great to take if you’re hitting up a lot of beaches, but not so much if you’re mostly visiting urban areas.
TBC: Do you allow yourself any luxuries when you travel? How, in your eyes, does the idea of creature comforts interact with minimalist traveling?
AL: I try not to start out with any luxuries, but I tend to buy them as I go, especially when I inevitably catch a travel cold. I had to start carrying my day bag separately during my train trip around the States because I picked up bottles of nighttime cold medicine, agave nectar, and lemon juice when I got sick. I don’t feel better until I’ve had my hot water with honey / agave and lemon.
To travel you only really need your wallet, passport, and maybe a spare shirt and underwear. Everything else is probably a luxury that we could live without. But we’re human, and as long as the creature comforts are manageable and don’t detract from your travel experience, I don’t think they’re harmful. Plus purchasing those comforts en route can be interesting, since even the most mundane transactions are exciting in a new place.
TBC: Speaking of that train trip—it was three months long. What inspired you to do this? Had you traveled much by train before? What did you hope to learn or discover on this trip?
AL: I’d traveled by long-distance train before in China and Europe, but never in the US. I wanted to see what American sleeper trains were like, and also take a trip that didn’t involve flying. I think I’ve got flyer-fatigue, because trying to get somewhere far away without taking a plane sounds so much more exciting to me lately. It slows you down and forces you to disconnect for a while, which is a rare pleasure in this digital age. So I was hoping both to experience a slower, historic form of travel and to learn more about my own country. I enjoyed meeting people from all over and learning about the history of places like New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas on my way west. And of course the scenery was stunning, especially when pulling into Tucson, exploring California’s central coastal area, and riding the rails through the Pacific Northwest.
TBC: There are a couple of cool book reviews on your site, not of recent books but rather of guides or memoirs that were published anywhere from 50-75 years ago. Do you often look to writers and thinkers from the past as part of your research on travel and/or as inspiration for your travel philosophy? How do you see these texts from the past influencing the way you travel now?
AL: I really enjoy reading old travel books. Travel like that just doesn’t exist anymore. In The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang recounts the story of a wealthy man in ancient China who leaves his job, family, and home to wander the countryside with only a gourd and the clothes on his back. That story reminds me that the best travel is light and aimless. Some of my most rewarding travel experiences have been when I let my expectations go, or just gotten lost somewhere new. I like reading Dervla Murphy’s books because she inspires me to be fearless. And Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat reminds me to laugh in spite of travel mishaps.
TBC: What are your travel goals for the next few years?
AL: I’d like to continue traveling without flying, maybe to South America next. I definitely want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway sometime in the next couple years. More generally, I want to work towards leaving my trips more open-ended. Wandering isn’t really wandering if you know when you’re heading home. The idea of not knowing where I’m going next terrifies me, and that’s something I’d like to overcome.
The last day of June marked the arrival of a long-awaited event: the unveiling of five new TOM BIHN designs. Forum members had been aware of (and eagerly anticipating) one item, the Aeronaut 30, which was originally requested back in 2008 and which, this April, Darcy said would become a summer reality. However, the Crew was tight-lipped about the other four designs, leading to much speculation.
As May became June, forum members began searching for ways to pass the time until the new products were released, making wish lists of hypothetical items, auditioning self-distraction techniques, or planning vacations to Seattle. In the days leading up to the big reveal, the forum was abuzz with high levels of excitement, which very well may have bordered on the obsessive: there were reports of members endlessly hitting the “Refresh” button on the product pages and the blog to see if an announcement had been made; others tried to wheedle, cajole, bribe, threaten, or otherwise persuade Darcy to spill the beans, but to no avail. Three days out, trailhiker set up a countdown to June 30, and, with one day to go, eWalker began posting countdown updates (down to the millisecond). It didn’t help that a few forum members knew about some of the new items because they were testing or reviewing them, and their teasing only fanned the fires of impatience and anticipation.
At long last the announcement was made, to a round of virtual hosannas, cheers, and joyful weeping. Within 30 minutes of the reveal, the first review of the Aeronaut 30 was posted on One Bag, One World, and within an hour, a thread emerged detailing the items that forum members had already ordered (at last count, that thread was 9 pages and 129 posts long).
And then the pictures began appearing! taminca, who has achieved great forum fame for her photo essays on the multiple uses for various TOM BIHN items, posted a series of uses she had devised for the Q-Kit. Darcy posted a picture of the Night Flight Travel Duffle being stitched together, highlighting the appearance of Coyote 1050D Ballistic Nylon fabric (which so far had been used only in sister company Skookum Dog designs). NWHikergal, who lives in Seattle, posted a number of pictures of her new 1000D French Blue Cordura Daylight Backpack (see here, here, here, and here for all of them), inciting much admiration and covetousness. See here for taminca’s photo essay of her French Blue Daylight Backpack, and here for Hawaii’s 400D Black Dyneema Daylight Backpack, which she kindly bought for her husband to use as his personal carry-on item when they fly (click here to see what he can pack in it, with room to spare).
It’s been an exhilarating (and exhausting!) week on the forum! We hope you’ll stop by to look at the pictures, read some of the threads, and post something yourself as well!