the art of turning minimalist: carving out creativity in a hamster-wheel consumer culture




In his book HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE? Clayton Christensen explores the decisions people make that result in happy or unhappy lives (and possibly jail time).

One way to doom yourself to unhappiness is to choose a job based on compensation alone.

Christensen distinguishes between hygiene factors and motivation factors.

Hygiene factors are the things that can’t make you love your job (or, presumably, your life) – but can cause you all sorts of problems.

Bad hygiene must get fixed, or you’ll get miserable.

Compensation, it turns out, is a hygiene factor. You have to feel that your compensation is fair. If it isn’t, you’ll be pissed. But if it improves, you’re not going to suddenly be happy (if you aren’t already). As Christensen points out:

“The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all. It is important to address hygiene factors such as a safe and comfortable working environment, relationship with managers and colleagues, enough money to look after your family – if you don’t have these things, you’ll experience dissatisfaction with your work. But these alone won’t do anything to make you love your job – they will just stop you from hating it.”


The things that offer true satisfaction, that create within us a sense of well-being, are the motivation factors. They include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth.

“Feelings that you are making a meaningful contribution to work arise from intrinsic conditions of the work itself. Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you, and inside of your work.”

A person would be wise, if happiness is his or her main consideration, to choose a career based on motivation factors. Work that is meaningful to you, that is interesting and challenging and allows you to grow, that provides opportunities to increase your responsibility. Stuff like that.

Instead, so many of us tend to make hygiene factors, like status and income, the main criteria.

We tell ourselves we’ll work that job just long enough to pay off our student loans, and then pursue something that feeds the soul, that saves the world.

Problem is, as the income expands, the lifestyle expands. And it’s not easy, or fun, to cut back. Researchers have discovered that the brain registers a blow to your social status in the same area that registers physical pain. (This makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective – we need each other to survive, and social exile often meant death.)

Not to mention that human beings have an uncanny ability to get used to material comforts.

Yesterday’s privilege becomes tomorrow’s necessity: we didn’t know we needed it, but how could we give it up?


I used to go shopping a lot: because I could, and because I was miserable. There’s a New Yorker cartoon where a well-heeled woman asks a salesperson: “But what would you suggest to fill the dark, empty places in my soul?” As it turns out, footwear won’t do it.

And what struck me, even then, was the crazed spinning hamster wheel of consumerism. There is no enough. There is always another event, another dress, another season, another clutch, another stylish woman to envy, another expectation to meet, another reason to feel insecure, another glossy fashion magazine, another beautiful item hovering just outside your price range.

No matter what you can afford – and I could afford a lot – you will crave what you can’t. There’s always another level. It doesn’t end.

Unless you step off the wheel – or, better yet, avoid getting on in the first place.

Unless you learn to say: Enough.


What I crave now – is minimalism.

And I don’t mean deprivation. (Frankly, I’m not that type of girl.) As Leo Babauta puts it:

“Minimalism hasn’t been about living with as little as possible….It’s been about removing the extraneous, so that the essential things have space to live.”

But first, you have to decide what those essential things even are. Perhaps one of the benefits (I use the word loosely) of consumerism is the distraction it offers, the fantasy it holds out of who we will become if only we buy this and this and this.

Minimalism, on the other hand, forces us to consider the truth of who we already are. You can disappear into your clutter. But when you live a well-edited life, you have to sift and sort and prioritize. What you keep makes a statement about your identity…simply because it is there.

Everything you have tells a story. The story of you.

That kind of story demands clarity.

And with clarity, comes focus.

And with focus, comes the freedom to do what you love.


In art, ‘negative space’ is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image that defines the image itself.

Stepping away from the churn of consumerism is, I think, an embrace of negative space. It’s the kind of space that offers possibility. It gives you room to grow. It is the blank canvas, the fresh page, the spot of solitude where you can hear yourself think. It is a release of energy, unblocked, unhindered.

To carve it out of a consumerist culture –

— is an ongoing challenge. But in that space, you can find out what’s inside of you. You can create your self, your relationships, your life.

And maybe even some happiness.

Jun 7, 2012

7 comments · Add Yours

Well said as always, Justine.

This hit a nerve with me. My husband and I have been taking steps to downsize and live a life that will grant us spiritual and cerebral success. It’s crazy how voiding your life of things that don’t matter leaves you room for things that do.


I would love to be able to convince the rest of my family to do this, but I’m not sure it can be done. Not being cluttered is a very freeing feeling, but how do you get the kids on board with that? And I mean pre-readers who need stimulation to boost their education, you know? Good luck with your journey and I hope you arrive at a beautiful destination from it!


I love the hamster wheel metaphor. In my own life the last few years, I’ve noticed that I breathe easier (literally) when I’m not focused on getting more stuff. The more stuff I have, the more pressure I feel to maintain that kind of lifestyle. It can be suffocating. But as Tania pointed out above, it is hard when there is more than yourself involved.


Absolutely! Definitely relate to this one. I had a huge walk in closet. Half of the stuff in there, was 15 years old. Half of that, I had not worn in 10 years. It just kept getting fuller. I added shelves, to put more stuff. When that no longer worked, I took over another closet in the house. I had stuff in the kitchen with the price tag still on it:)
Every year, I tried to clean it up and then I would think, “maybe I will need it one day…” That day never came.

The day I realized that all this stuff, and my corporate job was not only taking up my energy, effort and money, but, was keeping away from what I really wanted to do, I got rid of it all.

Obviously, I did it in small easy steps:) Today, I am FREE.


Hi Justine, we met au telephone during one of Dan Blanks calls – as you so aptly put it ‘the negative space defines the subject’ – Personally I think the only thing that matters is what happens in the gaps, it’s where we connect back to source, listen to our true selves and understand how we go about creating our own life – Love your work ..Namaste!


Great insight.

For me it is not about just getting rid of what is unnecessary, but making that which I have, a meaningful addition to my life. Put simply, Is there a good reason for your stuff to exist in your life? Can you explain why it is there? I have an old, beat up tool chest in my garage. I will never let it go. I can replace it with a newer larger one, but it is functional as is and works well. When I was 9 years old I ran into it with the car. ( yes I was driving and yes it was in the garage) The meaning that was imparted to that object then cannot be replaced. It has meaning now. It has a story of its own. Perhaps minimalism is a misnomer. Keep that which has meaning, let go of the rest. What is left my be less in volume, but but exponentially more meaningful.



I love this post. I sold my big (paid for) house and most of my stuff three years ago so I could be more connected to myself, others, animals and nature.
I blog about my thirty years of traveling to Africa and how it keeps me connected to what matters. Living simply and adopting the attitude that I have plenty, rather than the scarcity attitude we are taught in this American culture ( I don’t have enough ), has shifted me to living a much sweeter life.


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