Excellence through Simplicity

I have developed a deep and abiding desire for simplicity. However, this desire does not always interfere with my desire to acquire “stuff” in my pursuit of simplicity. My Motto for the past two years has been "make it simple." I started with "keep it simple" but quickly realized that my life was not yet simple, so how could I say “keep it simple”, when I needed to first "make it simple". Now I realize that once life becomes simple (I have not yet surrendered to the idea that it can never be simple), the task changes into preventing the natural sequence to complexity.

I look back into the past. Into the nineteenth century, and say, “that was a far simpler time.” Therefore, I am puzzled when I read that Henry David Thoreau, a nineteenth century man, struggled with the desire to simplify his life as well. It was because Thoreau struggled with the complexity of life that he “went to the woods”. He did this “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”


Thoreau writes of the misfortune of those that inherit farms and implements, the stuff of 18th century life. He explains “…these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” He tells the story of a deacon who died and an auction was held for all his possessions, mainly those pulled out from the basement, and pulled down from the attic. These were sold to men who were going to drag them home in order to store them in their own basements and attics until they too died. Then again they would be pulled out from the basement and pulled down from the attic and sold at auction again. I do believe I may have had some of those very same items stored in my own garage….

A couple of years ago (having perhaps complained too many times over too many years about all the stuff in the garage that I couldn’t park two cars in my two car garage) my adult son organized a yard sale. Now my wife and I have had these events in the past: carefully sorting through the stuff of life and deciding what would go in the sale (most did not go). My son, who may have taken my words at too literal meaning, hauled everything out of the garage. This required my wife and I decide what we would take back into the garage – and explain why. It was a painful process. But only a few things made their way back into the garage. At the end of the yard sale our driveway was clear, and two cars fit in the two car garage! In the two years since that sale, we have not missed anything that we no longer have. “More easily acquired than got rid of.”

Another one of my kinsman of the shelf, Richard Foster (in Celebration of Spiritual Disciplines) wrote: “Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us.” This thought started a process of introspection: “Why was I seeking simplicity?” To be certain, I was bothered by the stuff of life. And, yes, I was bothered by the bills that resulted from acquiring, repairing, and maintaining the stuff of life. I wanted simplicity. Simply because I didn’t want to be bothered. That did not seem like a noble goal. Just having less stuff seemed un-American! As I continued to reflect upon Richard Foster’s statement, I slowly began to realize that it was my possessions that were destroying me. Simplicity soon was no longer the goal, but the means to a goal – the goal of enjoying life to the fullest. It was, almost a complete circle back to the reason why Thoreau went to the woods. In short, I wanted to live deliberately. William Wallace says in Braveheart, “all men die, but not all men truly live.” I wanted the dash on my tombstone, the dash between birth date and death date, to be a truly significant and meaningful dash, not merely a blank line offering separation between the two events.

This began a further refinement, a centering of the soul; a change from simplicity meaning the mere reduction of clutter, the de-cumulation of “stuff”, through a process of reducing the activities in which I intentionally engage, into a process (yet incomplete) of determining what is most important. I chose to live deliberately; I desire to fulfill the purposes for which I was uniquely created. This line of thinking began to move me from the “stuff of life” that could be counted, boxed and stored to the other “stuff of life”, those things I occupied my time doing.

Within a manufacturing environment “simplify” is to eliminate non-value added activities, that is, those that do not satisfy a specific customer requirement. Within the University office environment in which I now work, the same principle applies – we can only eliminate those things that do not satisfy a specific customer requirement (for example someone in Accounting Operations or Procurement or Vice-President Student Affairs office). Sometimes they don’t seem to know, except that “we’ve always done it that way”. So our processes are effectively blocked from being simplified.
In my life, what are the “specific requirements” that I have? What is it, in my personal life, that effectively blocks simplification? Unless I understand those, I cannot achieve excellence through simplicity -- I will simply divest myself of “stuff”. And if I do not take into account my beloved spouse’s requirements, I risk far worse consequences. It is life itself that I seek, not mere existence. Trying to reduce my “specific requirements” has been a difficult, on-going, task. Here I found help in another kinsman of the shelf, David Whyte (The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America who wrote this:

If we have little idea of what we really want from our lives, or what a soulful approach to our work might mean, then often the only entrance we have into soul comes from the ability to say a firm no to those things we intuit lead to a loss of vitality. This way is traditionally known as the via negativa, or negative road…. The via negativa is the discipline of saying ‘no’ when we have as yet no clarity about those things to which we can say yes

Douglas Adams wrote much about the great question of life, the universe and everything (the question whose answer is 42) in his Ultimate Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. When dealing with the quandary of this answer, Adams has his advanced computer explain: “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is… so once you know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”

It seems, whether a nineteenth century philosopher or a twentieth century science fiction writer or a corporate poet – all circle around the same fact that Alice faced before the Cheshire Cat. If you don’t know where you want to end up, then it doesn’t matter which direction you go. Until I know what my “specific requirements” are, I cannot reduce the non-value added activities….

  • Making something simple is very difficult.
  • Making my life simple is even more difficult.

But the true point of beginning seems to be: knowing what I want out of life. For me, that process has included the saying “no” when I lack clarity about those things to which I can say “yes” to. This has been a difficult transition, an incomplete (as yet) transition. Have I “missed out” on occasion? Yes -- a glorious yes, a resounding yes, and even a simple yes. But it has eliminated a lot of pointless busyness out of my life. It has allowed me to slow down.

Our beautiful University campus has a rose garden (with a $50 fine for cutting a rose!). The rose garden has several pathways through it. I decided to literally take the time to “smell the roses” as I journey across campus whether it is to a meeting or a pleasure walk. Last week I was walking with a group from our office when I stopped in the rose garden, a wonderful aroma! I declared the lavender rose to be my favorite, soon the others were smelling roses too. Simple pleasures can be contagious! One staff person has worked at the University for seven years, walked through the rose garden many, many times – and had never smelt a single flower until that day.

I open my Levinger’s catalog and covet. I open my Office Depot flyer and covet. I visit Barnes and Noble and drool as well as covet. My process is not complete for there is still the coveting. But I make no purchases based upon my coveting. I wait at least 24 hours. I have discovered I really can live without “that” – the last 24 hours proved I can in fact “live without it”. This past spring and early summer, each Monday evening a friend and I would go to Barnes and Noble for hot chocolate. We would visit together, and we would visit with our friends on the shelf. There were many times I would resolve I wanted to purchase something, determine to do so the next Monday, and by the next Monday wondered why I was so intrigued by that object just the week before. Perhaps that is why my garage had originally filled up with “stuff” purchased for $10 and sold in a yard sale for $2. As I have intentionally sought to simplify my life, both the material “stuff” of life and the immaterial “stuff” of life, I have discovered that I enjoy my present possessions more. The pursuit of simplicity is reorienting my life so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying me.

In my introspection I've determined that what I want most is a rich soul life. I wish to nourish my soul. The puritans had a saying, “Acquire thy soul with patience.” That is what I have been in process of doing. Even before I knew it had a name. David Whyte wrote: “.… we understand that though the world will never be simple, a life that honors the soul seems to have a kind of radical simplicity at the center of it.”

I like that expression “radical simplicity”. I am in process. Simplicity is not the goal, it is the means to the goal of a rich and fulfilling soul life. Excellence of life is the goal, excellence through simplicity.

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That was an amazing and

That was an amazing and thought provoking article! Very clear thinking; I appreciate the guidance.

Reminds me of...

a sign a good friend had hanging in her office:

"We are pilgrims, not nomads."

That, to me, sums up the idea of fulfilled simplicity. Pilgrims are headed somewhere specific and, as travelers, can't carry a lot with them. Nomads just wander around without a specific destination and may get bogged down somewhere.

Thank you for your wonderful, timely article!

Mary Ann


What a great article! I am currently preparing for yet another garage sale and have a basement full of "stuff" that I haven't looked at for two years. I am bound and determined to "clean up my life" in both ways you discussed. You have given me the inspiration to get me motivated!

Thanks for lighting a fire under my feet!
Happy Day,
nay nay

great article/garage sale

This is a wonderful article that highlights something I've been thinking about quite a bit lately and my wife and I have started talking about. If you have too much stuff, it feels like you spend your whole life taking care of your stuff and not really enjoying it.

This line of thought just jumped to a whole new level recently when I read the book "It's All Too Much" after seeing it recommended on 43Folders.com. The basic line of that book was that if it isn't something useful, something that you enjoy, or something that makes your house look better then you don't need it and should get rid of it.

We started going through our house to see what we have that we haven't used in a year and probably won't ever use again. Luckily, the neighborhood yard sale came up last weekend and we decided to sell what we could and donate the rest. We ended up with just over $140 and a much nicer looking house.


what an amazing article.

at first i wanted to feel bad about the nearly $800 worth of levenger/circa items i have purchased in the last few months.

but then i realized, its not about NOT BUYING anything EVER, its about avoiding the accumulation of worthless and largely useless items. and for my part i have tried to do that.

Thank you

I first would like to say thank you for penning your feelings and desires in a direct inspirational manor. Myself, along with readers of your blog and other life enhancement blogs, probably all feel the dichotomy of simplicity through acquisition of stuff. For example, I switched to the hipster PDA, but I needed the best and coolest pocket writing tool to go with it. More stuff.

My wife and I are in the middle of the house selling and buying dance. The first act of this performance had my wife and I renting a storage unit to put all of our stuff in that did not need to be in the house while we sell it. Two months into the process, we have not needed to get anything out of storage because we needed it to live. Why does my family of three have three dining tables with a combined total of 20 dining chairs? More stuff.

Thank you for sharing your inner struggles, I and other share them as well.


Thoughtful simplicity

I like the idea of thoughtful simplicity - meaning one gets rid of things that are a burden and keeps those things that give joy or delight. Too often we keep things because of a fear of loss handed down through generations, a fear that has nothing to do with our own lives. There's also the sense of keeping not to hurt someone else's feelings (so-and-so gave me that, I can't give it away), while hurting our own by retaining something of little or no use or joy. And - more often that I like to think - keeping things out of nothing more than habit.

Thank you for your article. I'm not a nun, nor do I want to be one, but at the same time I think it enhances our lives to be aware of what does and does not add to our way of living. I think today "simplify" can mean many things, and your article gave me the time to think about what I love having in my life and what does not enhance it. Under no circumstances do I want to return to the "simple" life of the 19th century (after having read women's diaries, one realizes that "simple" often meant 18-20 hours of constant drudgery), but it really does behoove us to sit back and make sure we aren't busy for the sake of busy.

One of the things I like best about this DIYPlanner site is that it helps me gain a bit of control over my own life, makes me think about my life as I sort through the forms, and then fill them out. Work in progress, though. :)

Reduce clutter...

There's also the sense of keeping not to hurt someone else's feelings (so-and-so gave me that, I can't give it away)
One way to encourage simplicity is to ask friends and family not to give you gifts but to make a donation to a charity on your behalf. It's a simple step that not only reduces household clutter but also aids the community.


another option is to ask for gift cards from places that don't contribute to clutter... like grocery stores and gas stations :)

my artwork | my blog

Clutter clutter everywhere ...

Interesting idea. In my area there are no more land-fill sites where the local council can dump household waste. Indeed there is nowhere in the county; it has to be bussed to adjacent counties for disposal and even those sites are filling up ... fast.

The problem is the "clutter" used to wrap groceries. Our local council recently announced that they would surcharge households that included certain plastics in the recycling boxes. Basically anything that is not a plastic bottle has now to be put in the conventional rubbish; even when the plastics have a recycling symbol stamped on them. Apparently the council's chosen recycler cannot recycle these other plastics at all. So their answer is to threaten householders whereas the culprits are the supermarkets and their packaging suppliers.

Clutter is a real problem. We can de-clutter our homes and lifestyles but some of our actions merely shift the problem to other people.

sad but true.

I am in love with the idea of "bring your own bags"... I will be making some tote bags for my groceries (if I can ever learn to use the sewing machine my mum bought). THere are some grocery stores in the area that will give you a discount if you bring your own tote bag for yoru groceries...

I also watch for minimal packaging... no poing i individually wrapped things if i'm eating them at home. and no point buying small if i can get a huge thing for less money :)

my artwork | my blog

Amazing article


This is one amazing article on simplicity! I have a bookshelf full of books on Voluntary Simplicity, and I'm wondering why I haven't seen your name on any of them. Seriously, you've delved more deeply into some of the psychology of why we want to simplify, and what simplicity is and is not. Thank you. This article is a keeper for me. And if you enjoy writing, I hope you'll consider expanding on this subject and writing books. (I'm headed to Amazon after this to see if you are a published author; if you're not, your writing ability tells me you could easily become one). Books are the "things" in my home that I haven't ever felt to be at odds with simplicity.

Thanks -- and I agree about the books!

One of my favorite poets used the phrase "my kinsmen of the shelf" to describe her books -- you may have noticed I used that several times in my article. Thus far, simplicity does not mean getting rid of books!

You might enjoy The Heart Aroused by David Whyte (currency, doubleday) -- it's sub-title is "Poetry and the preservation of soul in corporate america". His thoughts and those of Henry David Thoreau have probably influenced me the most. Thomas Merton (the trappist monk) has also influenced my thinking on the subject.

While I write a lot, this is the first submission for "publication".

The Passionate Pilgrim
-- Excellence through Simplicity

Timely...and a real nice job

Thanks...now about making it actually happen for "me" :)


Thank you!

I loved this post and must admit that it feels wonderful to have a fellow simplicity-nut struggling with the same basic issues and referring to the same classic texts.

As I sit here today, making my lists of the things I should do to regain control of my "simple life" gone awry again... I surfed over to DIYPlanner looking for a couple templates... and I found this.

This was more inspiring than any template to date. Thank you!