Interview: man who owns only 15 things

Well known start-up founder and conference organizer Andrew Hyde (@andrewhyde) recently decided to sell most of his worldly possessions. He currently owns only 15 things. Look around your office or home, I’m sure you can see more than that number of owned items around you right now.  I bet some of you have nearly 15 items on you, between clothing and what’s in your pockets.

I interviewed Andrew about his motivations and experiences as an American with so few things.

SB: Given our hi-tech, gadget obsessed, culture, minimalism is not the typical lifestyle a young American would be expected to pursue. How did you get interested in minimalism and what motivated you to make this change now?

AH: I dabbled over the last few years by taking a small backpack on 3 or 4 day trips. I was shocked in how much stuff I had. Even when I had packed my apartment, I was still shopping for more. It wasn’t about need anymore, it was just habit. Realizing that changed the way I looked at buying stuff. I just stopped.

I remember reading a post by Fred Wilson with the message of “when was the last time you didn’t spend any money in a day?” That made me think. I experimented from those thoughts. I left my wallet at home to see how I would ‘get by.’ Turns out, everything I spent cash on was pure comfort goods, and I could a week without spending cash besides groceries. My regular coffeeshop was more than understanding if I forgot my wallet, so were my coworkers and friends. It created a non confrontational way for me to really start aggressively saving.

This whole experience has taught me something very simple: debt kills dreams. Debt is cash, things and fear.

In one my favorite films, Fight Club, Tyler Durden says “the things you own end up owning you” which is likely a riff inspired by Buddhist or stoic philosophy. What do you think of this phrase? And given your current lifestyle, can you think of a different quote you’d offer in response?

The book is also fantastic, a must read for me. Although I love it, I have still never been in a fight. I love the message of the movie- relationships, not stuff, matter, and message runs community.

I don’t have much right now. 3 shirts, a pair of pants and shorts. Some odds and ends. I do some pretty interesting and amazing things everyday, and not once in the last month did I really want anything more.

It has turned by life from stuff centric to relationship centric.

To get down to 15 items must have taken serious thought. Can you describe the process you used? Did you do it all at once, or one or two items at a time?

The 15 items was a simple goal. I was trying to tell my friends that my life would fit into a backpack. It wasn’t until I turned my life into a number before the trip was official. I started with my clothing basics. 2 shirts, 1 pant, 1 short, 1 sandals, 1 sunglasses and underwear. I added a few ‘must haves’ for me like an iPad and camera. I added a backpack, toiletries kit, towel, and a few random things (pen, connector cable, chargers) and tried it out. After five weeks of the trip, there is more that I have not used in the bag than there is in the bag.

Given how few items you possess, has it changed how you look at your friends, family or other people you meet on your travels?

The weirdest thing is I don’t have a home to go back to (homeless, you could say). I see a guy who owns a bag like me and spends his days begging or with nothing to do. I choose to have a bag and travel around while there are many I have talked to that do not choose to live on the streets. The guy is surviving, and it is really sad to think we are both equal except I have more in relationships and bank accounts. That is hard to see.

It is pretty funny to see peoples faces when I show them by bag and tell them it is everything I own. People either get happy or confused. The happy ones challenge themselves to think if they could do it (with wonder) and the confused tend to tell me that I shouldn’t travel to ‘dangerous’ countries like Colombia.

One of my favorite interactions was at JFK. I talk to a lot more people now that I don’t have a job, it is just interesting to see what people are up to, where they are going, what they are living for. A middle aged guy said I was elitist for traveling. I was standing there with everything I owned on my shoulders, being called elitist.

Update: Check out Hyde’s book on what he’s learned in his travels: This is a book about travel

40 Responses to “Interview: man who owns only 15 things”

  1. Simon

    Wow. 15 things! We thought we were hardcore with nothing but our two small backpacks and a travel guitar, but fifteen things is something else! Time for us to have another clearout, I guess.

    Also, this I like: ‘ I was standing there with everything I owned on my shoulders, being called elitist.’

    It’s funny how people react. I think that those who are comfortable with themselves and their choices (whatever they are) tend to react in a supportive way, whereas those who aren’t tend to see your crazy lifestyle as a personal attack.

    Great interview!

    Reply
  2. Alex C

    “one underwear?” First thing, eeew; second thing, underwear is a mass noun so he should have said one piece of underwear. He makes similar nails-on-chalkboard mistakes with “1 pant, 1 short, 1 sandals, 1 sunglasses”. Are you sure this guy’s not a spambot? :-)

    Also, “there is more that I have not used in the bag than there is in the bag” reduces to “there is more in the bag than there is in the bag” which is impossible in a logical universe. What could he have possibly meant by that?

    Reply
    1. tony watkins

      The distinction between countable and uncountable nouns in English is very blurry. Case in point: beer.

      Reply
    2. Pollux

      This was a verbal, spoken interview, not something written down. The rules of grammar are meant to apply primarily to writing to aid in clarity in conveying the intended meaning. The same “rules” do not apply to the spoken word because tone, body language and context all work to aid this conveyance. Do you honestly not understand what he was attempting to convey? If not, your complaints are disingenuous.

      Criticizing the way someone verbally answers a question is a bad habit and has given English teachers bad reputations for generations.

      Reply
    3. Mariah Hinojosa

      You’re stupid. Who cares about stuck-up perfect spellers. You shouldn’t be reading these articles

      Reply
  3. Jérôme Radix

    Great experience to have as less stuff as you can, but totally useless (in my point of view).

    I don’t think traveling a lot helps you turn your life to relationship centric. Making real friend (not just the kind of friends you meet once in 1 year or you have on Facebook) takes time. The sharing of experiences on the long term helps build a real friendship and confidence.

    When he says “iPad”, “camera”, “connector cable, chargers”, he forgets to tell that electricity does not come from nowhere (I don’t even talk about network connection as you could have free Wifi in cafés). I don’t understand where he sleeps at night ? outside ? in the office ? I don’t see where it is relationship centric to sleep below one’s desk.

    This kind of life resembles ascetic life of ancient philosophers like Socrate, or Diogenes of Sinope, without the philosophy.

    One last point : you can have real relationships even you possess things. The more important is to know they are only things.

    Reply
  4. Goose

    Hope he never ends up visiting anywhere cold.

    Reply
  5. Per Håkansson

    This is insanely awesome. Kudos for pushing the envelope, create an interesting conversation and to live your life on your terms.

    I’ve never aspired to own a lot of things, yet I started to *downsize* 5-6 years ago. I got tired of wasting my time on consumption and worry about stuff. What a liberating experience, never felt so connected with the world and myself.

    I now spend 5-minutes packing for personal or business trips across the world as I know that I have what I need to do what needs to be done. You can get amazingly far with an iPad, a pair of shorts and flip-flops… ;)

    Reply
  6. Ricardo Patrocínio

    It is possible, even without a comfortable bank account, if you have enough skills and resources you can always find a way of living in the places to were you travel. This is what Tim Ferriss preaches in is philosophy of life.

    Reply
  7. Stephen James

    If he doesn’t own any cookware, does he eat out every night?

    I guess you could cook at a friend’s house, but that’s making use of other people’s stuff that they have bought.

    I completely agree that large amounts of debt are imprisoning and buying can be excessive/obsessive even when you have the money. This story just feels a little more “Up In The Air” than backpacker communing with nature.

    Reply
    1. tony watkins

      He probably eats out. He never said he wants to live without money or comfort. He never said he doesn’t want to use things. He only said he doesn’t want to OWN things.

      Reply
  8. Brian Wawryk

    Why didn’t my original comment get posted? Please email me and let me know.

    Reply
  9. Devon

    I find the contrast of sparse living to technology interesting, because in my life technological development has allowed me to simplify my life without reducing its quality.

    The only way I could reduce my possessions to 15 objects is by using my laptop, because on its own it can fulfill my needs of entertainment, commmunication, data storage, etc.

    Reply
  10. Roman

    This guy is totally off his gourd. This is the bit that really got me:

    “I see a guy who owns a bag like me and spends his days begging or with nothing to do. I choose to have a bag and travel around while there are many I have talked to that do not choose to live on the streets. The guy is surviving, and it is really sad to think we are both equal except I have more in relationships and bank accounts.”

    So the main difference between he and a homeless person is GOBS AND GOBS OF MONEY. Who would have guessed? He is either living off the charity of others (they are paying for his needs) or he is plunking down the plastic and paying for himself. He also sold most everything he owned and went on a big trip. I don’t think he left money behind. Food costs money. Shelter costs money. Cleaning your stank 1 pair of pants costs money. Either he is paying for it or someone else is.

    “My regular coffeeshop was more than understanding if I forgot my wallet, so were my coworkers and friends. It created a non confrontational way for me to really start aggressively saving.”

    Oh, really? The coffeeshop gave him free coffee? His coworkers pay for his lunches, drinks, etc.? Maybe that is aggressively saving him money, but not his favorite coffeeshop or friends who are now picking up his tab. While he says his life is now “relationship centric” he clearly has no wife, no kids, and does not provide care for anyone other than himself. I have another way he could cut out all of the “comfort” spending that he was doing – get married and have a kid or two. Those $5 coffees soon become a vague memory from times long past.

    It appears he still has a job, but he only owns 3 shirts, 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of shorts, and some flip flops. Maybe he works at the coffeeshop.

    Reply
    1. tony watkins

      He never said he had a desire to live without money or without comfort. He just wants to live without the worry of owning things. I think you’re confusing two issues.

      Reply
    2. Jane

      I love this, and I’d love to live like this. However, the comparison to the homeless poor is insane. I assume he made a lot of money off his various start-ups and is now enjoying it. Great. But having one bag of things and traveling light indefinitely (while awesome) has nothing whatever to do with being utterly broke, involuntarily homeless, and having one bag of things.

      Being baffled at being called “elitist” because he has all he owns on his back shows how much he misses this point. He’s doing exactly what he wants with his money, spending it wisely on experiences and not things, and has the freedom of mobility that others can only dream about. Many people could make choices like he does and live better lives. I like what he’s doing. But he can do it because he has money and a degree of priviledge that not everyone has.

      Also, while the coffeeshop probably gets paid weekly or whatever, and the lunches with friends might be balanced out by taking everyone out to eat on days he does deign to carry cash, it does sound like there’s some serious mooching in there. If not carrying cash leads to “aggressively saving”, then some of that is declining impulse buys (a good thing) and the rest is other people picking up the tab.

      Reply
  11. Allergeek

    That’s a challenge!
    things we need occasionally can have different sources, take different forms, while things we own are our past. And past should not define our way, right? Well, i feel a great respect for people like Andrew Hyde, Chris Yurista and others achieving (digital) minimalism.
    Thank you for sharing, Scott!

    Reply
  12. Ralph

    Reminds me of the line in the George Clooney movie “Up In The Air”. The line is “the slower we move, the faster we die”. Hence, we can soar higher, move faster and enjoy life more if there is less personal stuff to weigh us down.

    Reply
  13. Nancy

    Well, I can understand why someone would say that he is “elitist.” He said it himself when he noted that the only different between him and a bum on the street is money and a network of friends/family. It is a luxury to be able to travel and not have to go to work. In any case, this is making me look around the 700 square foot apartment I share with my two young children and husband, and thinking about what we could do without that would make 700 square feet feel bigger.

    Reply
    1. tony watkins

      How does that make him elitist? He didn’t get a chance to explain himself fully, but I’ll assume he meant that in some ways he was the same as the homeless man (they have the same number of possessions or maybe he means they have the same amount of humanness), while in other ways they are very different (the homeless man has far fewer resources, relationships, and money).

      What’s elitist about this? He’s simply stating a fact. How would you describe the differences between you and a homeless man?

      Reply
  14. Bruce Robb

    Nice article, I really liked it. And I will check out your book – is it self-published? Small potatoes (potatos?) but you had a couple of typos in your article – notably by instead of my. And by mail, I’m sure you mean e-mail (maybe I’m behind the times here and it has simply changed to mail?)

    Bruce Robb
    Toronto

    Reply
  15. tony

    There are a lot of haters here.

    He never said everyone can do what he does. He also clearly made money in his previous job, and now he’s not really working. He’s got money – he just doesn’t want a lot of physical things.

    The point is that a lot of people have too much stuff, and getting rid of stuff might make life easier for those people. This guy did it in an extreme way, which doesn’t make sense for most people, but his message definitely resonates with me, even if his actions can’t be practically applied to my life.

    Reply
  16. wolf

    While many of his statements are suspect (i.e, he seems to be living off of others’ generosity; he needs electricity to charge his gadgets; he needs to eat and needs a place to sleep)…. The fact is, his example serves as the starting g point for a perhaps more realistic template towards saving.

    1) stop using credit cards
    2) minimalize – look at what you’re spending money on, like cable, Internet and telephone – and get rid of the stuff you don’t actually need
    3) make sure you have access to something for recreational value (running shoes, gym membership, iPad for viewing books or movies
    4) try walking around for a day, a week, a month without your wallet or credit/debit cards; then
    5) re-evaluate and jettison useless recurring costs; and
    6) pay off your credit and finally
    7) save like there’s no tomorrow

    Reply
    1. tony watkins

      What’s suspect about using credit cards or sharing expenses or living off others? He’s never made any claims about following a philosophy of Asceticism – he’s talking about reducing the number of things that you own, worry about, store, and take care of.

      Reply
      1. wolf

        Look, I’m not a hater and I don’t disagree with his message. It’s just that there are parts of it missing, that’s all. If he has a huge bank account and can meet daily expenses (rent and food) that’s great and what follows after that is logical. But we don’t know that so we can only work with the info provided, right?

        Anyway, I explained what I got as a takeaway from his story – given that I, like many others, don’t have a huge savings account to draw from.

        Reply
        1. Daniel Warren DuPre

          Sometimes I live at home with all my stuff, sometimes I travel with just a knapsack like he does. Guess what, it costs more to travel. I don’t mean the cost of getting from here to there, I mean the cost of staying alive and healthy and maintaining a minimum standard of comfort. If you don’t have the things that sustain you at hand — food storage and cooking utensils, shelter, electricity, water and sanitation, laundry, etc. — you must rent or buy them as you go, and the costs really add up. That is why most of us own more than 15 things. We can’t afford not to. We aren’t rich enough to play the carefree wanderer.

          Reply
  17. maurine

    I think this middle aged man calling him elitist may have been hinting at the fact that a lot of privilege is required to be able to hang out and travel and feel good about one’s material possessions. The difference between him and the homeless person is likely that the average homeless person has experienced marginalization for more years than you can imagine. Homeless people usually don’t get to choose to take on a minimalist lifestyle to feel good about themselves. They do it because they have few other options. This guy, however, has externalized all the costs of his lifestyle onto friends and family.

    Reply
  18. Taavi

    Can you list the things. 15 items is not a lot.
    I have a feeling that this is not sustainable.

    I could live with:
    – laptop & charger
    – shoes
    – socks
    – pants
    – underwear
    – t-shirt
    – credit card

    Live in a hotel room, wash everything in the evening and hope it’s dry in the morning.
    But since you are renting the hotel room, you could also rent the laptop, rent a car, a suit… whatever and claim that you don’t even own socks.
    It’s expensive but could work.

    Reply

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