In Episode 40 of So you want to be a writer, get your freelancing business up to scratch, the best middle fiction books of 2014, the newest word in the dictionary, 10 words invented by writers, an editor reveals what she wants to read, the future of journalism, The Hoopla launches a quarterly newspaper aimed at teens, is it plagiarism or “mixing”? Why writing businesses fail, Writers in Residence The Minimalists, the clickbait headline generator, how to find the time to read and much more!
Writers in Residence
Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 3 million readers. As featured on: CBS, BBC, NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.
Working Writer's Tip
I have a question for Valerie and Allison. They talk about making time to write on their podcast, however my question is around making time to read. I find I don’t have time to read all the content I am interested in across Facebook, Twitter, blog and newsletters – not to mention magazines, books and newspapers! As a writer I know I need to read a lot so I understand my target audience. I also know I have a lot to learn, so I subscribe to a lot of content to that end. However I find I don’t have time to read it all!
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podcast at writerscentre.com.au
Valerie: So, Ryan, thanks for joining us today.
Ryan: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Valerie: We're very excited that you're doing this tour, not only of the world but obviously of Australia. For those listeners who don't know how your blog got started, can you just give us a brief rundown of The Minimalists?
Ryan: Yeah, so my name is Ryan Nicodemus. I am half of The Minimalists. My partner, Joshua Fields Millburn, he is the other gentleman who runs the website with me. We have been best friends ever since we were fat, little fifth graders up until this point; so hopefully another 20 something years. But, yeah, we both grew up together. We climbed the corporate ladder together at a big corporation over in America. And it got to a point where we were pretty successful, pretty young at about 28 years old. We kind of reached that point where we had everything we ever wanted. We had everything we were supposed to have.
I had a very important job title with a very respectable corporation. I was responsible for hundreds of employees and, yeah, I earned a six figure income. I bought a shiny new car every couple of years. I owned a huge 2000 square foot condo. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms. It even had two living rooms. I have no idea why a single guy needs two living rooms, but, yeah, I pretty much had it all. And Josh, he had the same thing. He was living in a nice, big house, had a wife, literally had a white picket fence, and we were living the American dream.
And unfortunately it wasn't making us happy. We followed this template that we were supposed to follow with having a nice job and having a bunch of nice things. And instead of happiness, it really brought us kind of the opposite. We had a lot of discontent, a lot of debt, just a lot of stress in our lives.
And The Minimalists came about with… Really Josh introduced me to this idea of minimalism. He had a couple really crazy events happen in his life where his mum passed away, and his marriage ended both in the same month, and it made him search for something else. He didn't really tell me at the time, “Hey I'm going to try out this minimalism thing.” I didn't really notice until probably six, seven months after those events happened where I noticed this significant difference in his attitude where he was feeling happier. And I noticed it on the outside and I did what any good best friend would do. I invited him out to a really nice lunch. I took him to Subway. And we were sitting there and we were having lunch. And I'm like, “Hey, man, what is going on with you? Why the hell are you so happy?” And he told me about this thing called minimalism where he was simplifying his life over the last few months. We talked about how he was able to get the clutter out of the way to make room for the things that were truly important.
And then he introduced me to an entire community of people who called themselves minimalists. They were doing the same thing. There was this young guy named Collin Wright. He was a 24-year-old entrepreneur who would travel to a new country every four months, carrying with him everything that he owned. And then there was a guy named Joshua Becker. He was a 36-year-old husband and father of two with a full-time job, and a car, and a house in the suburbs. And then there was a gal named Courtney Carver, a 40-year-old wife and mother to a teenager daughter in Salt Lake City. And then there was this other gentleman named Leo Babauta. He was 38 years old. He had a wife, six kids, and he lived in San Francisco.
And all of these people were living considerably different lives, people from different backgrounds with kids and families, and different work situations, but I did notice right away that they all shared at least two things in common. First, they were living deliberate meaningful lives. They were very passionate and purpose-driven. They seemed much richer than any of the so-called rich guys I’ve worked with in the corporate world. And, second, they attributed their meaningful lives to this thing called minimalism.
So me being the problem solving guy that I am, I got really excited and I'm like, “Yeah, I have known you for over 20 years. If this works for you, maybe it will work for me.” I said, “Great, I’ll be a minimalist,” but I didn't really know where to start.
So Josh and I come up with this crazy idea called a “packing party” where we decided to pack all my belongings in my 2000 square foot condo as if I were moving, and then I would unpack things day by day as I needed it. So Josh literally come over and helped me pack up my clothes, my kitchen ware, my towels, my TVs, my electronics, my framed photographs and paintings, even my furniture, everything. We literally pretended like I was moving.
So after about nine hours and a couple of pizza deliveries, we had everything packed up. I spent the next 21 days unpacking only the items I needed. So you can imagine that first night, I unpacked some clothes for work. I unpacked my bed and bed sheets. As time went on, I unpacked other things like a toolset, the furniture I actually used, some kitchenware. Just really being deliberate with the things that I was being delivered with keeping track of the things I was using.
And after 21 days, I had 80% of my stuff still sitting in boxes sitting there unaccessed. That was really my light bulb moment where I thought, “This is crazy. Here are thousands of dollars-worth of things that I have brought into my life to make me happy and they're not doing their job.” So I donated and I sold all of it. And that’s really where The Minimalists.com started. It was with that packing party story. I thought to myself, “I think other people might get value out of this. They might enjoy this story.” So, yeah, Josh and I did what any two 30-year-old dudes would do. We started a blog.
That’s kind how the minimalist came to fruition and we never expected it to grow this much, but we’ve had about over three million readers a year now. We’re going to be closer to five million this year.
Valerie: Wow, and when did your start the blog? How many years ago or what year was it?
Ryan: It was four years ago.
Valerie: Right, so you are going to almost five million readers in four years?
Valerie: That's fantastic. So did you just want to share your journey or did you have a bigger purpose or was it this just fun hobby on the side while you did other things? Did you stay in your sales still?
Ryan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s not like we quit our job and started a blog. That is the worst plan anyone could come up with. It was a hobby. I never really loved writing. I never really had the urge to write until this experience happened to me and I really wanted to put it out there. And Josh, he has been writing ever since I can remember. I remember him getting excited about English class when were in junior high. I never really understood until now. And, yeah, it was a hobby that we started and I wanted to pay it forward. I wanted to just put my recipe of minimalism out there. And Josh, he had his own recipe too and we thought it would be a good idea to share that via a blog.
Valerie: And so can you remember at what point was the turning point when it was no longer a hobby and you put all your energies into it? Because now you are on a world tour, you have written several books, tell us a little bit about that point.
Ryan: Yeah, so we were about seven months into the website. We had been applying these simplistic principles to our lives for about two years, but the blog was up and running for about seven months. And we reached about 100,000 people a month coming to the website. And that was when I looked at Josh and we looked at each other, and we’re like, “Wow, this is a lot bigger than we expected. We are the minimalist. We should write a book about minimalism.” So we started to craft the book and that came out about a year almost to the day when we first launched the blog, if I am remembering that correctly.
Valerie: And which one was the first book?
Ryan: It’s “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.” It's more prescriptive. The book we just came out with now back in January that we released, it's called “Everything That Remains.” It's more of a ‘why to’ book instead of a ‘how to’ book. We wrote that book. We came out with that about a year after the website. And then we put some kind of essay collections together. I guess you can consider those books that we’ve written together. It's really essays off our website, but they’re up on Amazon for $0.99 apiece. They seem to do really, really well. There’s a few those simplicity essays, essential essays, “A Day in the Life of a Minimalist,” those are all, like I said, $0.99.
But a lot of people still enjoy that paperback experience. So what we really focus on with all our books is giving that option to people, and what we realize is that with the tools we have today, we could do that. So we have audio books. We have print books. You can get our books on any of the eReaders. So, yeah, we’ve kind of built that up over the last four years or three years, I guess.
Valerie: So when you’ve written books together, especially a memoir, take us through the actual practical, physical process of writing a single book with two people?
Ryan: So the first book, “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life,” that was a real huge growth process for both of us. It was not the easiest process in the world. Really the way it started was with us outlining, having conversations about what we felt were the most important lessons that we’ve learned throughout our journeys. So we outlined what we wanted to put in the book. I would take a certain chapter, Josh would take a certain chapter, and really Josh is the one who… because someone’s got to relinquish a little bit of control. So Josh is the one who put it together, and edited it, and then sent it my way, and I did the same. But with everything that remained, this was a much different approach. Josh came to me and he’s like, “Hey, man. I want to write another book with you,” and I said, “That’s great,” but I was really tired after that last book.
Valerie: It takes a lot out of you.
Ryan: It really does. So this one, we did a little bit differently. The book is really a non-fiction narrative from Josh’ perspective. And throughout the book, there are 108 interruptions from me via footnotes in the back of the book. So what’s really cool about this book is you could have a couple of different experiences with it. You can read the non-fiction narrative and ignore all my footnotes. Some of those are very profound interruptions. Some of them I'm just being silly and being goofy, but we recommend that you read it with two bookmarks essentially.
So the way the process worked with this one is Josh wrote his perspective of our story and I took over and then I took a hold of it, and added footnotes throughout the whole thing.
Valerie: It's a unique approach. So now you’ve started a publishing company in Montana. Why did you decide to do that?
Ryan: Well, we have a third partner, Collin Wright, who came to us. He was on 48-state bus tour. He stopped through our city, and we’re having lunch with him, and he pulled out this insane-looking business plan. It was like a weird Venn diagram looking thing. And he started to talk to us about this idea he had for a publishing company. Josh and I both really… It really clicked with us, because we thought about how we were able to make a living as a writer on our own without having to go through that old guard of a million different rejections until you get someone that says yes to you and we just said yes to ourselves.
What we wanted to do was help our friends do the same thing, and we have found this really great recipe of building an audience, adding value, and then the nitty-gritty of formatting, and editing, and all of that whole process. And what we decided to do between the three of us… And Collin, he’s 29 years old now and he has published… It’s over 30 books. So the three of us have been able to do well on our own, and what we decided to do was to help out basically our friends who are trying to get their name out there and trying to publish their books. Plus it was a fun project for us as well. It was something that we were really excited to learn.
Now there are some days I wake up and I’m like, “Why the hell did I start a publishing company?” But I will say though that it is definitely positive. The learning experiences that we’ve had, the relationships that we’re building, it’s been a really, really cool thing.
Valerie: And what kind of books is the aim to publish?
Ryan: We’re not really discriminatory. It’s good writing. That's really what we want to publish. We have an author, Robyn Devine. She published her story about how she loves to knit and how she found this great passion for knitting and donating. And we’ve got another author who published a fiction about the restaurant industry and from a perspective of a certain waiter there. Josh and I’s publications are different than those two. So we’re really again not looking for any particular genre. We’re just really looking for good writing.
Valerie: Right, now you are currently on this world tour and I am currently speaking to you in Sydney which, I believe, is city number 97.
Ryan: That's pretty correct.
Valerie: Firstly why did you want to do a world tour? What is the purpose? Because I understand you are doing these meet-ups, and free talks, and stuff like that. And what's it been like going to 97 cities so far?
Ryan: It’s crazy. There are a few reasons why we did this. First and foremost, this is a message that we really believe in. And we’re not proselytizing, trying to convert people into minimalist. We can’t even do that by definition. What we’re doing is just sharing our recipe and really trying to show people that there is a different way to live life that doesn't include or doesn't have to include the pursuit of stuff or the pursuit of money. And first and foremost, that’s why we did it. Second, we really wanted to get out here and build stronger relationships, whether that is with independent bookstores or whether that’s with our readers. We really wanted to get out here and build stronger relationships. We get way out of our way to have our events at independent bookstores, because we really feel like they are getting the short end of the stick right now. And I love any independent shop, not just bookstores, but any independent shop, how people who own those shops typically are very invested and passionate about what they do. It’s not just about profit. Profit is not their main goal. Certainly they need to make a profit to stay open, but typically independent shops have owners who are very passionate about what they do.
So, yeah, building relationships. And we went on a tour with our first book “Minimalism: Live A Meaningful Life.” We didn't do any international cities, and we have, since then, just been getting tons and tons of requests. And we decided with this book that we would go out and expand a little bit.
Valerie: And so when you embraced minimalism, you were inspired by various people. You’ve named some of them, Leo Babauta, and Chris, and all of that. So what are some of the surprising stories you’ve heard from other people who’ve read your blogs or books and have made changes into their lives?
Ryan: My favorite story, it’s got to be this gentleman in Toronto, which… A side note, we were in Toronto giving a talk about minimalism and we were at the biggest mall in North America in Edmonton. I'm sorry. Not Toronto, it was Edmonton. And it was very ironic. We were in the biggest mall talking about minimalism, but this guy in Edmonton, he raises his hand, and he was like… Because we do questions and answers afterwards. He raises his hand, and he was like, “I don't have a question. I have more of a statement. Because of you, I had to get rid of my bed.” And Josh and I looked at each other. And Josh was like, “Sir, we never really encouraged people to get rid of any particular item. If your bed adds value, keep you bed.” He was like, “No! No! That’s not it.” He was like, “My wife and I, we were very on the edge, and we were lost and we didn't really know what to do. And then we found your website and we started to apply these simple principles to our lives and it really saved our marriage. And we had so much sex that our kids complained about our bed being too noisy. So we had to get rid of our bed.” That was pretty funny.
Valerie: Oh, good Lord.
Ryan: Yeah, it was pretty funny.
Valerie: Well, as your first book, the “Minimalism: Live A Meaningful Life,” it says it's not just about getting rid of stuff. You actually go through your relationships and you go through various categories in your life that’s nothing to do with you actual stuff. So it’s expanded well beyond the traditional concept of minimalism to how to live a better life. Where did you learn how to live a better life?
Ryan: Yeah, so for the longest time, success to me was so important. I grew up poor. Money was always the seed of discontent growing up. So I thought growing up, I'm going to be successful and I’m going to make a lot of money. And when I was faced with 80% of my stuff sitting in my living room is when I really started to think about what my priorities need to be.
And the first thing that I thought was, “If I hadn't spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this stuff, I would not be in debt and I wouldn't have to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to maintain this lifestyle. I could reclaim some of my time and actually foster relationships that I was ignoring.” My mom lived a half hour away from me, and I saw her maybe six or seven times a year, and that didn't feel right to me. And I thought, “If I can simplify my life and reclaim some of my time, I would be able to foster better relationships.” Yeah, so that’s one of the things we talk about in “Live a Meaningful Life.”
And then health. I found that when I am unhealthy, it’s a lot easier for me to be depressed, and I think that’s how it goes for most people. Unhealthy equals depression. And I decided to simplify my diet and simplify my exercise routine, and I was able to lose about 35 pounds. I don't have those big vanity muscles. I don't think that’s what health is. I think it’s about how you feel. And I have really been able to focus on my health and feel a lot better.
Something else that we talk about is cultivating a passion, doing something for yourself. I don't know how it is in Australia, but in the States, you get up, you go to work, you come home, you eat dinner, you watch TV, you get up and you rise-repeat. And then on the weekends, it’s just pacifying yourself until it’s time to eat again whether it's with TV, or whether it’s with the internet, or whatever it may be. And what I’ve found is that actually going out of my way to do something for myself to cultivate a hobby, whether it’s writing, whether it’s snowboarding, or whether it’s yoga. Whatever it may be, I found that that really helped break up that 9:00 to 5:00 cycle, but it was more like 5:00 to 9:00 for me but it really helped break up that cycle.
And then the last few things that we talked about in that book is growth and contribution. They really go hand in hand. We all have the desire to grow, every single one of us. That’s why we get married, have kids, buy a house, and go on vacation, and go for promotions. These are all growth experiences. And Josh and I found that we grow the most when we contribute to others beyond ourselves in a meaningful way.
So those five areas: health, relationships, cultivating a passion, growth and contribution. For me, that is what is most important to me now. And what I really appreciate about that recipe is there’s no monetary or there is no one possession that I have to have to focus on those areas. I could be rich. I could be poor. It doesn't matter. Those five areas, I can focus on. And I'm as happy or I feel as content as the weakest link in that if that makes sense.
So I could have great relationships and cultivating passion, but if I'm unhealthy, I'm not going to be happy. So everyday I'm focused on one of those areas in some way. And when I feel any type of discontent, I really have to analyze those five areas and see what I'm lacking.
Valerie: Its sound from what you’ve said but also from the book itself that much of the realization came from self-reflection. Did you have any mentors, or role models, or advice, or people to learn from apart from just self-reflection?
Ryan: Yes, certainly. I certainly look up to the people that I mentioned. Leo Babauta, he was a huge role model for me. So was Joshua Becker. I don't think I'm going to go have six kids like Leo, but I do plan on getting married and having kids one day. So looking up to people like that really helped. And then some older writings like Seneca. He’s pretty good. Thoreau, he’s had some great advice, great perspectives. I don't prescribe to any one religion, but I love the story of Buddha. I think what’s cool about all of those role models that I mentioned, they do practice simplicity. What I was able to do is tweeze ingredients out from each of their recipes and come up with my own recipe.
Valerie: So when you were both travelling the world, do you have a system for your blogging schedule or how do you keep up with running a publishing company, running a successful, and doing all these talks? Is there some kind of system?
Ryan: It’s certainly a lot. There is no mathematical formula we have in place. It’s not like we commit to posting two or three times a week. It's really about finding time to sit in the chair and write, which is definitely a lot more difficult on the road. But before we went on this last stunt in Australia, and in the UK and Ireland, we had about a six-week break. We wrote some essays to help with some of the writing pressure that we faced on the road, but typically our productivity as far as our output goes with essays and with writing, it does wane a little bit while we’re on the road, but unfortunately there is no routine we can get into while we’re out on the road. It’s finding the time to write.
I think that’s the most important thing for writers in general. Writers write and it doesn't have to be a certain environment. You don't have to have your cup of coffee in front of you and your notepad next to you. It’s really about getting in the chair, and writing, and finding the time to do that, whether you can schedule an hour in the morning or maybe it’s finding an hour to a week. It's about sitting in the chair.
Valerie: I know a lot of listeners will be interested to know how you monetized, how you get revenue, how you manage to afford to go around the world and do free talks. How has the blog, The Minimalists, evolve to become a business? And where are your typical revenue sources?
Ryan: It's funny. We don't have one main revenue source. There’s a lot of different things that we do, because we get asked this question all the time, “How do you make money?” I hate that question but I understand why people ask it, because it's the first question we ask when we meet someone, “What do you do?” Really what that question means is, “Where do you fall on the socioeconomic scale so I can compare yourself to me?” but that's really impolite if you ask the question.
But as far what minimalism has done for us is it has allowed us to be entrepreneurs. So, first, what I did was get my expenses weighed down. That first year after I got laid off of my job, Josh actually left about eight months before me, but we made six or maybe even less than that after that first year. But what we were able to do was have our time back. We started with the book and that was a source of revenue. We put couple of essay collections together. That was another source of revenue. Then Josh started a writing class, which by the way if your audience is looking to incorporate really good habits into their writing, Josh’ writing class is a great way to do that. He really helps people to come up with really good habits. I think, as a writer, you have to have good habits. And Josh really helps people come up with their own writing recipe.
And then I started mentoring. So I do one on one mentoring where I will spend time with people to help them. Maybe they’re looking to downsize and they’re feeling overwhelmed with approaching all the stuff that they have, or maybe they’re looking for another job, or maybe they’re starting a business, or maybe they’re starting a blog. I help people with that.
And then we got a publishing company, but, yeah, there is no one particular source of revenue and you mentioned that our events are free. We’re very fortunate to be able to do that. But, yeah, last year, we made more money than the year before and we said, “Hey, if we’re going to do this tour, we can probably do this for free if we do that.”
So we still keep it simple. We will stay with people. While we’re on the road, we find different ways to take out cost here and there, but, yeah, it certainly is expensive. But what we’ve been able to do, like I said, is be entrepreneurs, and we’ve done really well and we decided to do this tour.
Valerie: Great, and finally what would your advice be to somebody who is listening and they have started their blog? Obviously when you started you blog, you had no idea it was going to grow this big but now you’ve got the benefit of hindsight and you can probably pick some key things that you did to grow it to this success. What would your advice be to somebody who has started their blog and they’re hoping for it to be as successful as yours is one day? What are some of the key things that they should consider?
Ryan: I think, first and foremost, you have to add value to your readers. What I mean by that is someone is going have to get something out of your writing that they’re not going to get from someone else. That’s why people read. They read the first line, and the first line is supposed to make them want to read the next line, and so forth and so on. I think what Josh and I did is we were able to put a unique story out there that people were able to get value from.
The other thing I would say is never forsake quality ever. We would never publish anything that we haven't went through with a fine-toothed comb three times. We really have never forsook our quality of our work. It's very well-edited. Our formatting, I think it's great. It's as good as we can get it. When we launched our first book, we went to like a Barnes & Nobles or something. We had a ruler measuring the different formatting layouts. So we really paid close attention to the quality of our work.
I would say those two things are the biggest keys is adding value and never forsake quality. I think up a third one, too, is be consistent. If you start a blog, and you post once a week, and you are doing that for six weeks straight, and then you stop for six weeks, it's going to wane. The attention is going to wane, because you could be adding value and you could have really high quality work, but when you’ve got someone who is enjoying reading your stuff and then all of a sudden you’re not putting out any new content, they’re going to eventually not come back to your website. So consistency is important too.
Valerie: And on that point, do you ever feel the pressure that you have to keep coming up with new essays and new ideas because you have now five million people that you might disappoint as opposed to five?
Ryan: We write for ourselves. I write for myself. And I'm learning a lot. I’m only 33. I have just turned 33. I am still a lot. I'm still learning new lessons. I don't ever put pressure on myself to push out new content. Sometimes it’s an interview that we have. It’s, “Oh, wow, this is a really good book that I just read.” We just did an interview with Sam Harris. He just had a book come out called “Waking Up.” It was a really good opportunity for us to put something out there for our readers to show them, “Hey, this is where we get inspiration from.”
And I never write for the reader ever, because if I did that, I would never write anything because there’s no way. To please five million people is impossible. I put out the best work that I can. Josh and I put out the best work we can. And we write for ourselves. I don't remember feeling the pressure. And like I said, I never write for the reader
Valerie: I love that – right the best work you can and write for yourself. All right, well, the best of luck on the rest of your world tour. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us today.
Ryan: Yeah, thank you.
Valerie: Yeah, and any parting words to Australians who are listening to you in particular since you haven’t actually been here before, I believe?
Ryan: Yeah, yeah. If I could leave behind just one thing from this whole tour, one message, it’s pretty simple. It’s love people and use things because the opposite never works.
Valerie: Great, and on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Ryan.
Ryan: Thank you and take care.