Minimal Respect for Minimalism

I think minimalism is overrated.

I could be ironic and end my post with that, but I’d rather defend my view. In the sense I mean the term, I’m not referring to minimalist art (which isn’t overrated, but terrible), where the term originated. Minimalism is one voice in our cacophonous Zeitgeist. It declares “Your possessions rule you. Banish them and rule yourself.” It usually amounts to people bragging about how few possessions they have.

As trendy as minimalism is, I think it suffers from three fundamental flaws:

  1. It depends on a flawed theological view of ownership.
  2. It is a hobby for wealthy people with tech jobs and no one else.
  3. It pretends to make people care less about their belongings while making people spend more time thinking about their belongings.

First, minimalism presumes that ownership is inherently bad and possessions are a necessary evil. On the contrary, and as I’ve written before, owning possessions – including large, maintained, curated collections – is actually good for us. We are creatures who create, and creation requires some maintenance. Especially for men, I’ve found, keeping good collections is a source of virtue. This makes sense; the created world has been declared good already. Why arbitrarily limit yourself when it comes to possessions just for the sake of a trend?

Second, minimalism is not something that anybody can do whenever they want. It requires some serious wealth and a particular sort of job. I see this all the time with people who blog or build websites. They seem to think that they’ve become enlightened by some fad like minimalism or a 4-hour work week, and they write books and articles which make them even more money in the process.

But imagine a carpenter trying to live the minimalist life. A common minimalist challenge is to live with 100 items or fewer. Have you ever tried to run a wood shop with one hundred items or fewer? As an amateur woodworker myself, I own well over one hundred hand tools, let alone power tools. And then there’s all the stains and finishes. And speaking of the 4-hour workweek, exactly how do I build bookshelves at 10x speed?

Or consider a plumber, who probably carries well over one hundred tools in his truck from job site to job site, with hundreds more in a shop.

No one working a trade – or any job outside of the tech world – can do their job with a laptop and a backpack. That’s a luxury for very specific jobs, as apparently is the smugness that accompanies it.

It’s more than just certain jobs which are incompatible with minimalism. The fact is, the worse off you are financially, the more you need to rely on keeping large stocks of things. A wealthy person can afford to replace his overpriced macbook if it falls to the ground. A poor person needs to keep old PC’s around since he can’t replace anything. A wealthy person can afford minimalism because he takes no risk in giving away the insurance of holding extra possessions. A poor person’s wealth is probably not much more than that insurance.

And then there are families, which pose a whole new set of problems. Single men and women might get away with living out of a backpack, but as a father of two young boys, I can barely survive a car ride without bringing multiple bags of baby gear with me. That’s three categories of reasons to dismiss minimalism as a luxury of a particular group of people. Those people are free to do as they please, but it would be better for everyone if they realized just how unique their situation is.

Finally, and probably most importantly, minimalism undermines its own efforts. If you spend your time thinking about how much you think about your possessions, you will not improve your situation by thinking about them even more. Getting rid of junk you don’t want is one thing, but constantly reassessing which possessions you can part with is still a way of thinking about your possessions.

A much better thing to do with your time is to not think about your possessions at all. If you have clutter you don’t like, spend a weekend getting rid of junk you don’t want. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. In doing that, you’ll accomplish the stated goal of minimalism better than any minimalist approach.

You can be ruled by a desire to acquire more things, but you can also be ruled by a desire to control what you possess through minimalism. Stop worrying about it. There are more important things to spend your time thinking about.

Writing Well Means Thinking Clearly

In the three or four English classes I was required to take in college, there were no lectures on the topic of writing well. We “studied” politics – exclusively by reading poorly written papers created by our peers, all combined into a parody of a textbook – but we never studied English.

Good writing is a product of clear thinking. If you can’t get your thoughts into written form, you probably don’t understand what you are thinking about. When English professors stop teaching how to write clear English, they either do it because they are unqualified to teach or because they aren’t English professors in the first place but amateur political hacks. I’m not sure which of these is worse.

I’ve since graduated college, but bad writing thrives just as much in business as it does in education. Thankfully, good writers have addressed the problem before, and yesterday I found an old piece by George Orwell which had me thinking about it again.

…quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to [bad writing]. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

Bad writing is ugly, stale, and imprecise. It follows that good writing is better in each way. I hope in my own writing to avoid ugliness, staleness, and imprecision.

Orwell lists a few bad habits that writers should avoid. Business-speak – the dread language invented by people who wanted to seem important by using many words to say very little – seems to be nothing but these habits taken as law:

Dying metaphors … there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves…

Operators, or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry …  In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active…

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenonelementindividual (as noun), objectivecategoricaleffectivevirtualbasicprimarypromoteconstituteexhibitexploitutilizeeliminateliquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements…

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning…

A quick look at some recent company emails I’ve received removes any doubt that the sort of language spoken in the business world is one with a passing resemblance to English. It has English words, but unlike English, it’s purpose is not the communication of information.

Consider these incredible phrases:

  1. “distracting instability”: This is pure jargon. It appears to confer information, but it is more of a passphrase used to indicate membership in a group – the group of professional businessmen. Like all jargon, it could be replaced by a simple English expression like “
  2. “operational excellence”: More jargon. This phrase is does not mean what the English words that comprise it mean, which makes it bad. A thing which is operational is in use or ready for use. Excellence, on the other hand, is the quality of surpassing mere goodness and being great. Imagine someone using the phrase “operational red”. The only difference is substituting one quality with another. It doesn’t make any sense, either.
  3. “get the ball rolling”: A metaphor that can always be replaced by the word “start”.
  4. “bubbled to the top”: There are few more complicated or less clever ways to say “rose”.
  5. “compliant to the ever-evolving requirements related to this area”: The end of the phrase (“related to this area”) is redundant. Was there any question the requirements were related to what we’re already talking about?
  6. “opportunities for growth”: More redundancy. The word “opportunities” gets to the point without the botany reference.
  7. “tackle this challenge”: This is not only a dying metaphor, but a bad one in the first place. You don’t “tackle challenges”. Challenges are abstract, and tackling is a physical act.
  8. “eliminating potential delays”: Since potential delays, being potential and not actual, do not actually exist, it seems impossible to know what they are, let alone to eliminate them.
  9. “a ticket to entry toward building a partnership”: Another dying metaphor, this time used to pad a sentence toward artificial importance. The entire phrase “a ticket to entry toward” could be replaced with the single-syllable word “start”. Does the author know that English has such a word available?
  10. “this will allow us to ensure we not only enable”: We will do something. What will we do? We will be allowed. What will be allowed? We will be allowed to ensure. What will we be allowed to ensure? That we not only enable, but also do something else. All that this phrase adds is confusing layers of verbs. Is that a useful device in other languages?
  11. “working to leverage”: The word “leverage”, outside of physics, can always (ALWAYS) be replaced with the word “use”. And it always (ALWAYS) should be.

I’m probably guilty of business-speak and other errors in writing. This is especially so because I didn’t realize just how bad business-speak was until years after I began being forced to read it.

Useful to me, and hopefully useful to you, Orwell gives a list rules to keep in mind as you write:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell’s purpose for expounding the virtue of good writing is to avoid the political manipulation that requires bad writing to hide bad thinking. This same sort of motivation exists in the business world. Business-speak is used to hide things – ignorance, motivations, lies, manipulation, information – from readers by making those readers feel they’ve been told something important and informative.