I’m super excited to bring you this TEDxCapeTown follow-up conversation with Ang. I was so energized by her talk that I included it in a previous inspirational TED talk post. We connected on twitter recently and she graciously agreed to answer a bunch of questions for us. Enjoy!
Tell us a bit about yourself and one thing that has you excited?
I guess you could call me the poster child for a recovered lifestyle. In my twenties I was about as unhealthy as one person could get. I subsisted on a steady diet of hamburgers, beer, coffee, nicotine and sugar, exercised intermittently at best, and thought water was something you drank when you ran out of tastier alternatives e.g. when lost in the desert.
When I turned 29 I fell in love and my life has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Initially Sporty and I were both unhealthy, but an aha moment involving a marshmallow fish and an Oprah Winfrey episode led us to rethink our ways. Over the next 10 or so years we quit smoking, gave up sugar, dialed back our drinking habits and became vegan (coffee remains a challenge).
It might sound nerdy, but there’s no one thing I’m excited about. Rather, life in general is just a really happy experience for me, and it keeps getting better.
I loved your TED talk, it is incredibly inspiring. How long did it take to reach your minimalist philosophy? Was there an ‘aha!’ moment, or more gradual?
The exact details are little hazy now (we downsized back in 2008), but it all boiled down to two separate aha moments. The one was obvious; the other only dawned on me in retrospect.
First, the obvious one. We tend to move house a lot, which isn’t a big deal unless you have a household full of stuff. In July of 2008 we were on the verge of moving again when I suddenly experienced this feeling of complete overwhelm. I just couldn’t face the thought of packing up our stuff, arranging movers, and then unpacking again.
Then it dawned on me, if we sold everything and moved into a furnished apartment we could eliminate the hassle of moving and allow us to simply enjoy the benefits. I proposed the idea to Sporty and she bought into it, albeit a little reluctantly at first. It was a hugely liberating experience and we’ve never looked back.
The other aha moment has actually occurred a little over a year prior to selling everything. After moving my parents into an old age home I was left to clean out their house. Going through 40 plus years of stuff made me realize just how much it weighs us down. More than that, I saw how little value it has when compared to the experiences one gains from getting out there and actually living your life.
What was the decluttering process like? Did you do it all at once, or gradually?
We made a list of everything we wanted to sell and placed an ad on Gumtree (our version of eBay). We were so excited by the idea that it wasn’t hard at all. Serendipitously, our neighbor was in the process of kitting out her house and bought almost everything we were selling. We made our first post-declutter move with the help of a small van, so clearly we were still holding onto stuff, though looking back I can’t remember what exactly. We progressed with each subsequent move until we eventually reached a point where we could fit everything into our car. Now that we don’t own a car we call a cab for the boxes and one suitcase and cycle our foldys to wherever we’re moving next.
In your TEDx talk you mention having consumer debt. Did selling those things help take a chunk out of it?
The amount of money we made selling our stuff wasn’t really enough to put a significant dent into our debt, though it helped a little. Getting rid of our debt was more about rethinking our attitude towards spending. We also enlisted the help of a financial advisor who mapped a way forward for us and then we (and by we I mean Sporty, she’s our family’s CFO) came up with a kick-ass budget to make it work.
You have a 3-month rule where you get rid of stuff you no longer use. Have you ever given something away and then regretted it later?
Sporty and I have an on-again-off-again relationship with juicing. There’s nothing like starting your day with a tall glass of freshly squeezed green juice, but it’s a fairly time-consuming process, which is a problem when you have a day job.
One time we bought an expensive juicer and then got fed up with the work it entailed so we gave it to our friends. I can’t say I regret it entirely, because they use it daily and they’ve introduced their little girl to green juice, which is really cool.
But at the same time I think maybe we were a little hasty in our decision to up and get rid of it. Given the same scenario again I don’t think I’d be so quick to give it away.
Hedonic adaptation is a common frustration among minimalists. Have you adjusted to the new lifestyle or does it still fulfill you as it did initially?
Yip, I know the hedonic treadmill well, or at least, my younger self does. Nowadays we’re so happy with our lifestyle that owning less is simply the norm for us. We see how other people live and we just can’t imagine what that must be like. It all seems so complicated. There’s a saying: ‘Nothing tastes as good as thin feels‘. And being debt-free is similar in that there’s nothing we could buy that could ever give us the same satisfaction that comes with being debt-free.
How do you fill the free time that minimalism helps create? How else is life different now?
We’ve become a lot more mindful about how we live. Before when we had stuff to maintain and debt to worry about there wasn’t really room for anything else. Since downsizing, and particularly since becoming debt-free, we’ve become a lot more aware of what we can do to make the world a better place. I’m not talking anything big, just stuff like recycling, composting, finding charitable projects, that kind of thing.
We’re also a lot more focused on personal growth. We read more, we take courses, and we’re also very focused on our health, which we weren’t before. Overall the best thing that’s come about as a result of adopting this lifestyle is how dramatically our lives have slowed down. I won’t say we’ve perfected it, but we’ve become really intimate with the concept of slow living.
Have you applied the same philosophy to your digital life as well?
Hmmmm, this is an interesting one. Last year while cleaning up my laptop I came to realize that I’m something of a digital hoarder. I’d download free stuff, buy eBooks, bookmark websites, and then more often than not never give them another thought. I had to employ the something ruthless tactics I do with my IRL stuff to get my online life back in order.
I’ll admit it was a little humiliating having to admit as much, but I think I’m in recovery now. Ha ha. In terms of actual technology I have an old MacBook I love (her name is Bonnie) and a shitty Samsung that has me hurling expletives on a daily basis, so I’m definitely not a gadget freak.
What has changed since your TEDx talk two years ago? Would you modify anything about it anything in retrospect?
Having the opportunity to share my idea at TEDx Cape Town was a profound experience and one I’m so grateful for. It’s had enough views to prove what I’ve believed all along, that this is an idea worth spreading. So that’s really cool. I love knowing that it’s making a difference to people, getting them to rethink things.
I wouldn’t change anything about it, I think I touched on all the relevant points and provided enough motivation to get people started. As an aside though, I’m still amazed I had the courage to stand in front of such a large audience and tell my story. Growing up I was probably the shyest kid in my school, a real scaredy-pants, so getting over my fear of public speaking was huge for me.
Who do you think Break the Twitch readers should check out in the minimalism / intentional living space?
Colin Wright is cool if you want a lens into the world of a young, single, über minimalist. His blog is called Exile Lifestyle and he’s written a book by the same name, which I really enjoyed. I don’t follow him anymore, but only because I want to broaden my horizons. I find it’s easy to get stuck on one person’s writing when in fact there’s a world of creative genius out there.
Recently I discovered The Minimalist Vegan. Based in Canberra, Australia, Masha and Michael, the duo behind the blog, write about all things minimalism and vegan. I’m only just delving into their writing, but so far I’m really enjoying it. What fascinates me (and makes me super happy) is how me vegan minimalists there are out there.
If you’re married with kids then I’d definitely recommend scouring Joshua Becker’s blog Becoming Minimalist. He offers lots of useful tips for living with less as a family.
What’s one sentence that you’d like the entire world to hear?
Choose to spend your money on experiences that will feed your soul, rather than stuff that’s just going to clutter up your life.