Interview with author of The 100 Thing Challenge

100-thing-challenge.jpg Recently I interviewed Dave Bruno, the author of a book called The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul, in which Dave describes his attempt to whittle down his possessions to just 100 items (he's married and has kids, which made his challenger tougher). I found the book to be very entertaining and inspiring, and I asked Dave if I could interview him for Boing Boing. He kindly obliged.

On page 40 of your book, you describe what the challenge was. Can you describe it for our readers?

Essentially, the objective of the 100 Thing Challenge was to live one year with 100 or less personal possessions. I tried to count anything that was definitely mine: all clothes, my camping gear, wallet, wedding ring, car, mobile phone, stuff like that. But I didn't count stuff like our couch or kitchen table or place settings.

Also I put some rules in place. For example, I said that if I was going to replace an item, say my sunglasses, then I had to get rid of the old item before purchasing the new item. Another example was that if I was gifted an item, I gave myself seven days to determine if I'd give it away or keep it and, if necessary, purge something else to make room for it.

I probably should mention the big cheat. In our house we are readers. No TV. No game consoles. Pretty much our living room decor consists of books. So on my list of 100 things was "one library." Some people feel like this invalidates what I've done. I don't think I could justify myself to those people. But one positive thing that has come out of my big cheat is that it has allowed others some liberty in their efforts to simplify. For example, a lot of crafters have been interested in the 100 Thing Challenge. I think that by me keeping my library, some of them feel it's legitimate for them to simplify but still keep their crafting supplies. I think that's cool.

What's wrong with having a lot of stuff?

We'd have to put "wrong," "a lot," and "stuff" into some context to answer that question properly. But for argument's sake, I'll just say that yeah, it's not good to have a lot of stuff. Why shouldn't I? Because stuff isn't passive and I'm not superhuman. Stuff requires maintenance, both physical and emotional. It influences what we do and what we want to do. A normal human being can only handle having so much stuff before the stuff starts to take control, whether it be clutter or wasted time or unhealthy desires. If we don't self-impose limits, stuff is always going to win.

Also, and I think we're all coming to understand this more, the priority on having lots of stuff has damaged the earth and hurt many developing people groups. So it's like, those of us who jump headlong into overconsumption help destroy the world. But our over consumption thrashes ourselves, too. Who's getting the benefit? Maybe some microbe that feasts on ocean garage gyres. But the rest of us aren't deriving much good from consumer indulgence.

You mention that having a lot of things puts a strain on you. How so?

At the most fundamental level, stuff requires time to keep organized, cleaned, operating, etc. It's like the iPad my parents gave me. (Ironically, it was a gift because they were proud I'd gained some fame as a minimalist... sigh.) It's taken me a year to figure out what to do with the thing. Flipboard shows some promise to help me streamline news reading and some social media connections. Keynote has been a little helpful. I like the iPad, but truly at this point it's taken up more energy than it's provided efficiency. That's a trivial strain, I guess. But this kind of strain gets compounded when we add lots more stuff to our lives.

Also stuff takes up mental and even spiritual energy. I mean, think about cars. The research we do. The visualization of ourselves zipping around town. We learn a whole new vocabulary about features and financing options, as if this knowledge somehow makes us smart enough to over-spend on credit, which is how most cars are purchased. Then what happens? We drive off the lot and start coveting next year's model or the sport package or a different color interior. When we go through this time and time again, purchase after purchase, it causes quite a strain on our souls.

What triggered your idea to take the 100 Thing Challenge?

While the actual moment I said, "I'm taking the 100 Thing Challenge!" was a snap decision one day in the summer of 2007, the idea of simplicity had been brewing for years. I come from an eccentric Italian family that put a big priority on material possessions. So there's probably some family dynamics involved. Also, I've seen some people close to me crash and burn because of living for stuff. At Wheaton College, where I got my M.A. in 2002, I studied the effects of suburbanization and mass consumerism on America. I'm religious, a Christian, and think that a life of simplicity matches up with my faith. Anyway, all those influences, and probably more, got me thinking hard about my own life. The 100 Thing Challenge just felt like the honest thing for me to do. I was against mass consumerism but was participating in it. It seemed like I had to stop myself.

Dave-Bruno.jpgWhat was your goal?

My goal was simple, I wanted to break free from American-style consumerism, the pressure to always want more and more. What I mean is that I wanted to form habits that matched my convictions. Before the 100 Thing Challenge I believed that living for stuff was a dead end lifestyle, but I still managed to own too many things. I wanted to finish the 100 Thing Challenge and have a new way of approaching consumption. To that end, the goal has succeeded in my personal life. My consumer behavior has completely changed.

Another goal emerged as the 100 Thing Challenge gained notoriety. I've gotten the chance to encourage people in the U.S. and other consumer-oriented societies to consider some form of simple living. I'm not trying to "change the world," but it's become a goal to influence as many people as I come in contact with to embrace simple living as an alternative to over consumption.

When did the experiment run?

Officially from November of 2008 to November of 2009. I guess it's worth mentioning that a year after the challenge officially ended, I'm still pretty much at about 100 things.

What did your wife and daughters think of the Challenge? Did you ask them to join you?

I have three pre-teen daughters who are all old enough to understand their dad is a bit weird when it comes to stuff. In my humble parenting opinion, that's enough of a lesson for now. Children need to be directed by adults, that's for sure. But the best lessons are observational not dictatorial.

My wife didn't participate either. But over the last couple of years she's definitely purged a ton of her own stuff. And together we've downsized hundreds of household items from furniture to nicknacks. We both agree that we still have too much stuff, so we keep at it. Our goal isn't everyone in the family doing the 100 Thing Challenge, but it is a goal to simplify our household.

What were the things you kept? What did you keep that you didn't use? What are you sorry about getting rid of?

Mostly, I kept the necessities. I guess I kept quite a bit of adventure gear, though. In fact, I took up surfing during the year of my 100 Thing Challenge. So I got a few things for that which I used quite a bit until the water got really cold. San Diego has warm air and cold water! Anyway, the surfing and camping gear didn't get tons of use, but I deemed it all worth keeping because of how much I like getting outside when I get the chance.

Honestly, I don't have much regret about the things I purged. If anything, I'm a bit bummed that I got rid of a nice DSLR. Also, I sold my guitar. That was the one thing I rebought after the challenge was over, a new guitar. So I suppose I should have kept the old one.

You said you realized you bought things to aid your escape from a dull life. What do you mean by that?

My wife and I called it "shop therapy." We'd reach the weekend without anything planned, having felt like the previous week had been lackluster, and not having a clear sense of what we wanted to achieve down the road. Talk about a dull Saturday! So we'd hit the mall for a little purchase pick-me-up. I've spoken to other folks who've done the same. It's like, "Oh, I just bought something. I feel a little more alive."

You said it felt good to get rid of things that unburdened you from unrealized aspirations, like becoming a rock climber or a building a model train layout. Could you explain?

No matter how much I tried, I just didn't actually want to build a model train layout with my Marklin Z-gauge trains. I love the idea of tinkering and building, especially with anything electronic and motorized. I hope that someday my life has margin enough for me to do some hobby work. Yet, the trains I had were not about enjoying a hobby. They were about trying to be something that I am not.

Same with the rock climbing gear. I'm never going to be found dangling from a crack on El Cap in Yosemite. The rock climbing gear was less about aspiration and more about not accepting who I truly am. And don't get me wrong. I love getting outside. This year I summited Mount Whitney in March. It was the real deal -- crampons, axe, fifteen-degree nights. That's a far cry from serious roped-up rock climbing, though. I'm not a rock climber.

All to say, some of the stuff I held onto I kept because it seemed like the stuff that the person I wished I'd be would keep. Getting rid of those things has helped me to be more content with who I actually am. In the past when I sought after an achievement, I'd often start by asking myself what I needed to buy. Now shopping is way down the list on my steps to achieving goals.

What happened as a result of doing this Challenge that you didn't expect?

I'm a bit stunned by all the attention. But maybe that's just an indication that a lot of people feel the pressures of consumerism in their lives. People want permission to simplify.

Did you save money?

Well, sure! But also, the 100 Thing Challenge motivated us to get even more serious about saving money. Because of it, we're taking 2011 to get our personal finances more streamlined.

One thing I like to say is that when we use our money and skills well, it's always good for an economy, be it a personal or national economy.

What's hard about doing what you did?

It's really easy to get stuff in our culture, but it's very hard to get rid of stuff. Sometimes I couldn't even give away something valuable -- people already have so much. It took a concerted effort to purge week after week and month after month. That said, living with less stuff has been a cinch. Way easier than you might imagine. You really got to want to simplify to do it. Once you do simplify, though, you're not going to want to go back to excess.

You wrote "What we really want we cannot buy." What do we really want?

What I mean is that we really, truly, honestly cannot buy the stuff we all long for the most: contentment, purpose, love, meaning. Look, there are people who disagree with me on this. They'll say, "Fine for you Dave. As for me, I love Ferraris, and a new one would give me all the purpose and contentment I need." Pardon me but, bullshit. If we really think that things are going to satisfy our souls, then we're lying to ourselves. That lie has done so much damage to people I know and care about. It has thrashed our economy. It has hurt the world. I'm tired of mincing words. Thousands of ads a day tell us we can buy our way to a better life. We know deep down inside that's not true, and it's time we start living like we know it.

What did you learn from the challenge? How has it changed the way you live and the way you think?

One thing I learned is that there are a lot of other people in this world who feel stuck in stuff. Many people have houses, garages, and off-site storage units filled with stuff, but they feel empty in their heart, their relationships, and their work. The fact that consumerism doesn't offer fulfillment is on the minds of lots of people. I talk to people all the time who feel frustrated with this circumstance but don't know what to do. Something that the 100 Thing Challenge taught me is that it's possible to break free of consumerism. It's not an overnight process. But after living a year without much stuff, I've learned it is doable and enjoyable. I'm freed from consumerism, and freedom changes the way we live and think.

On March 14, 2011 Dave Bruno will present "Contribution Over Consumption: The 100 Thing Challenge Story" at SXSW Interactive, Austin. More information here.