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Stuff is ruining your life. Musings from a noob digital nomad.

As a noob digital nomad, I’ve been endowed with a few good-humored descriptions of my lifestyle.

“...strange!”

“...Hipster.”

And “generally sick.”

“Next you’ll put your bed in your closet,” my family has told me more than once. (They’re probably right.)

Before adopting the nomadic mindset, I hated traveling. Scrutinizing crumbling sculptures and searching for B&B’s at 2 AM never appealed to me.

Then I took up photography. Suddenly new scenery, new cultures and new experiences fascinated me. In just under three years, I’ve trekked through Scotland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and a handful of (mid)western states.

European Collage

This newfound interest in long-term travel exposed many shortcomings in my materialistic existence. I don’t own much, but it’s enough to make a three-month trip abroad a logistical nightmare.

This reality hit me when my family moved from Atlanta, where we had lived for 18 years. We spent 2 years emptying the attic/basement/garage, cleaning out moldy nooks and consolidating our wardrobes.

The final move was still a nightmare.

There was certainly no way our family could uproot to another state on a whim, much less another continent. There was just way too much stuff. We didn’t want or need most of it, but it had become part of our lives. And while I wasn’t the worst offender, it still might take a dozen Advil just to move my own stuff.

If I wanted to travel long-term—to spend a few weeks in Germany, fly to Greenland for the weekend, then hang out in Monterey for the summer—my closet had to downsize.

I found myself questioning every item in my room. Even with my lean habits and (what I considered extreme) regular consolidation, I still found I had a lot of “stuff” that I didn’t really need. Why was I attached to things that caused me anxiety and stress? Was I just being extreme? Over-the-top OCD about owning too much stuff?

Or, was I rubbing up against an unhealthy cultural “norm”—one that frowns on an empty house?

Melding mindsets.

I assumed I was just eccentric, but after two years of moves and travels, I’ve realized that culture has conditioned me with the wrong expectations.

Armed with experience from international trips, I began to pack smarter and lighter, bringing only what I would use on a daily basis (accounting for a trip to the laundromat).

As I began to nail effective packing, I considered an unorthodox challenge: if I can live this way comfortably for a few weeks internationally, could I embrace this minimalistic mindset all the time? Could I break myself away from extraneous conveniences and comforts that don’t really enhance my daily existence?

Stuff multiplies problems.

“There’s no set amount of possessions that will make a person happy.”
Emily Torres

“Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.”
—Peace Pilgrim

Our materialistic society loudly advertises an endlessly growing list of “must-haves.” “You need a roomy house, car, entertainment center and clothes.” Ironically, running that through a translator a few times yields a much more honest, “You need a crippling mortgage, car payment, cable bill and an unhealthy obsession with brimming closets.”

These things aren’t enhancing life—they are stealing it from us, and the comfort they offer is usually outweighed. “Whatever you have, has you.” Too many possessions, and our lives become squandered in meaningless maintenance and worry.

Maybe if we got out of our closets and away from the TV, we could experience life instead of a commercial.

Appraising your things.

Ask yourself how devastated you would be if your apartment burned to the ground. How much of your life would the flames steal?

Getting rid of stuff is hard, but if you can boil your clutter intuitions down to some common factors, you’ll find decluttering much easier.

Things hold value for a few different reasons:

  • They enable new experiences. Camera equipment powers my photography, and a nice dining room table facilitates hospitality.
  • They are aesthetic by nature and thus intrinsically enjoyable. Pleasing decor or nice candles can brighten up your day.
  • They preserve memories of an experience. Antiques remind you of a loved one, and outfits may hasten you back to overseas shopping treks with a friend.
  • They make life comfortable. A dishwasher and a couch make life pleasant.

The best things in life help you do all of these, but my nomadic side favors the first bullet most: experience enabling.

Qualify success with goal-oriented metrics.

As an experience-driven person, I need to qualify what a successful nomadic lifestyle looks like for me. In particular, I want to be able to:

  • Comfortably travel for several weeks out of a backpack.
  • Live comfortably in one place.
  • Pack confidently for an international trip in under an hour.
  • Move my life in a sedan (excluding furniture) when I move between apartments.
  • Take a trip within a trip with little repacking or prior planning.
  • Burn my home down with little adverse affect. Although I don’t recommend arson, it’s a useful thought experiment.

Am I there yet? Not by a long shot, but now I know exactly how to hold my materialism in check to make sure I’m not accumulating more junk.

Perhaps nomadism isn’t your thing.

You’ve read this far, but before we skydive further into the nomadic lifestyle, let’s make sure I’m not wasting your time.

This lifestyle may not be for you if:

  1. You’re sentimental and your memories are tied to things, like furniture and antiques from family.
  2. You value things over experiences. Would you rather spend $1000 on a new laptop or a trip to Disneyland?
  3. You don’t enjoy or plan to travel.

These preferences aren’t always clear cut, but they may shed light on what tends to bring you more enjoyment.

If you’re still interested after that disclaimer, next post will focus on more pragmatic tips from my incomplete journey to digital nomadism.

Until then, you’ll find me in an empty closet. I’m trying to make room for the bed…

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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