An Interview with Courtney Carver

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.

Courtney models two outfits drawn from her collection of clothing items.

Courtney Carver models two outfits drawn from her collection of clothing items.

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.

Courtney Carver's wardrobe.

Courtney Carver’s wardrobe.

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.

You can read more of Courtney’s writing at Be More With Less, or follow her on Twitter.

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