Category Archives: Meaning

John Krygiel on Minimalism, Vagabonding, and the Freedom(s) of Less

When I graduated college two years ago, I had lived the “normal” life for 23 years. That is, go to school, get good grades, graduate. But, what comes after that? Oh, right: get a starting-level job, trudge through years of unfulfilling work, indebt myself to material wealth, look back in thirty years and wonder if I had really lived my dreams.

I didn’t want to be “normal” anymore.

The idea of having to pursue a career that would increasingly be on someone else’s terms frustrated me. But, what was I going to do to instead of the normal? After all, I, like most other people I know, live in the real world. How would I make money? How would I pay for all those essentials in life?

You know, essentials like gold iPhones, bottled water from Figi, a TV large enough to see from space, and a financed car with a sound system that can make your ears bleed. What I realized was that all these things are fictional happiness—happiness that rides along the backs of unicorns. You can chase it, but it’s never really there.

So instead of asking myself what essential things I needed, I began to think in terms of what’s most essential about me.

Trading Things for Passions

When I thought hard about myself, I realized that I love music, the outdoors, and writing.

I’m happy to say that right now I’m pursuing all three of these passions. I’ve started my own guitar lesson business, I work for a friend’s solar panel company, and I write at my blog [and now here!-ed].

Do I make a ton of money? Heck, no. But do I need to?

My ultimate dream is and always has been to live a fulfilling life and be able to travel wherever the hell I want, when I want, all while making the world a better place to live. This doesn’t quite align with the typical and safe way of pursuing life, but I’ve always found the words “safe” and “typical” to be boring.

I wanted to live my passions just like Chris Guillebeau a normal guy who has now visited EVERY country in the world.

Or be able to play music like Victor Wooten who is a five-time Grammy Award winner, producer, author, and is widely regarded as one of the best bass players in the world.

I wanted to set out and achieve my own goals on my own terms just as Derek Sivers did when he decided at age 14 he would become a traveling musician. Derek eventually went on to found the world’s largest independent music retailer, CD Baby. He later sold the company for $22 million and much of that money went into a trust that ensures future generations will have access to music education.

Have I met achieved all my dreams? Not yet. But I have realized that my pursuits are much more achievable if I don’t embrace materialism, even if the mainstream says I should.

Today, I own fewer than 300 items and couldn’t be happier with how owning less has led to my personal freedom and the ability to pursue my dreams.

Even though I don’t own many things, I feel rich.

Prioritizing My 300 Things

In my pursuit of renouncing materialism, I came across several bloggers that had written about owning less than 300 things and the idea stuck with me. You see, I grew up in a well-to-do neighborhood where brand-name items were commonplace. Owning several cars, large animals, and fancy electronics was the norm.

Owning fewer than 300 items was unheard of.

Why did I choose to prioritize down to 300? The number itself isn’t set in stone. It just happens to be a challenging number to get to for those pursuing a minimalist way of life. The process was simple and yet will be different for every person. I have my priorities and you have yours. If you want to see what I ended up with, I’ve listed every single item I own at the bottom of this post.

But, first, let me explain how owning just 300 things has afforded me the freedoms to go after my dreams.

Monetary Freedom

The first and probably most obvious personal freedom comes from burning less money on things that are superfluous.

Society has programmed us to become slaves to our things, a term I am using here to include both goods and services.

For example: need a mobile phone? Clearly the ONLY way to have such a device is to sign an agreement that allows you to pay $150 every month so you can have unlimited access to: mindless video feeds, tweets out the ass, selfie pictures to give the world an up-to-the-second update on your whereabouts, and oh yeah, you can make calls if you want.

OR, if you’re looking to save on your cell phone service there are numerous providers that are realizing people are tired of paying an arm and a leg for unnecessary extras for two contractual years. It’s still a small portion of the market, but the contract-free trend is growing.

Your monthly cell phone bill is a great place to start trimming down services you overpay for. Once you begin with something small such as a cell phone bill, it becomes easier to apply this type of thinking to every area of your finances.

But, of course, you have to learn to be happy with the choices you’ve made.


When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’ ~The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama said it best. Power lies in being content with what you already own.

For example, shoes that are tucked away in the closet that you haven’t worn in a year become novel and awesome when you pull them out and wear them again.

This is being content with what you already own.

After getting my belongings down below 300, I learned that contentment comes in simple forms. Not being able to buy new things makes you appreciate instead what you already own. Instead of constantly trying to pursue the next hottest fashion or gadget that offers a buyer’s high for a day or two then wears off, I appreciate what I already own.

Buying and accumulating things can be an addiction just as dangerous as alcohol, drugs, gambling, or porn. Though the activities differ they are all defined by the excessive release of dopamine in our brains.

Being content with the present also relies on understanding and (sometimes) relinquishing the past.

Freedom from the Past

To varying extents, we all harbor feelings related to painful memories from the past. Often, personal possessions are tied to our painful memories. These possessions could be pictures, mementos, clothing we wore, etc. Perhaps we had these things during a breakup, a loss of a friendship, or a death in the family.

By removing these items from storage or even just from plain sight, we let go of the past and free up mental space to work on more positive aspects of our lives in the present.

Having little reminders of an uneasy past serve no purpose but to bring us down. For example, when I purged my belongings, I got rid of some clothes I’ve had since high school. I remember wearing those clothes in high school and not being “cool enough” for friends I had had since elementary school.

I’m not claiming that not wearing Abercrombie & Fitch in high school was the only reason I was no longer “cool enough.” But have you ever seen how the “cool kids” are portrayed on T.V. shows? Rejection due to the fact that I didn’t fit in with a certain culture troubled me for some time.

Getting rid of my high school clothes released me hurtful memories; it felt as if I was cleaning out the cobwebs from my mind.

Organized House, Organized Mind

The last and probably most awesome freedom I have gained from owning less is the fact that I can find my things very easily. I know where everything is and what purpose it serves. This is an extremely liberating feeling, and more important than you might realize.

I don’t have to trip over clothes on the floor. I don’t have to rummage through my closet looking for a tool. I can locate any utensil I need in the kitchen. If you don’t believe me when I say that organization really matters, simply look at how much importance chefs place on mise en place.

The more important thing is that this organization has begun to transfer over to other aspects of my life. For instance, my e-mail inbox is less crowded with useless crap messages. My phone is not overflowing with apps that I never use. My finances are in order and automated. I can locate any file on my computer with ease.

A keen awareness has risen up within me and I can look at any situation/activity and know almost instantly if it will benefit me in the long run or simply be a waste of time. Just as my items are organized and few, my mind is becoming more organized and I can more easily prioritize what I should spend time on.

Getting Down to 300

If you are interested in one or all of the above freedoms, it’s easier than you think to purge down your stuff.

The rules for getting below 300 are not set in stone. You can tailor your own rules accordingly. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Group consumable items together. My consumables included the separate groups of undergarments, foodstuffs, hygiene products, office supplies, and cleaning supplies. By grouping these consumables together, I could more easily compare items with other items in a group.
  2. Apply a simple question to every item you encounter: When is the last time I used this item? If you haven’t used an item in the past month or year, it’s a safe bet that you no longer need it at all.
  3. Evaluate items in every room that are in plain sight. Any items collecting dust?
  4. Move on to closets and storage areas.
  5. Tackle kitchen and bathroom gadgets/cleaners/gizmos. As it turns out, you don’t need that much equipment to cook well, and you hardly need any cleaning supplies at all.
  6. Prioritize your collectibles. Be honest about which collectibles bring you enjoyment vs. which ones simply collect dust. It’s okay to have some guilty pleasures and still be a minimalist!
  7. Take a count of your things and see what your number is. If you are over, it’s time to evaluate your things further using steps 1-6. You will most likely have to challenge yourself to get down to 300.
  8. Sell or donate your discarded items. Craigslist, book and media stores, The Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Facebook all work great to harvest a small fortune or simply afford someone less fortunate to actually use your items.

That’s it in a nutshell. Want more money for things that truly matter? Maybe you desire reaching a state of greater contentment?

Downsize. It will help. Without further ado, here’s:

My list of 300 things

Clothing: 94

Books, Magazine Volumes, Records, CDs, DVDs: 88

Electronics: 9

Furniture & Bathroom: 14

Music & Camping Gear: 25

Wall Décor: 10

Closet & Tools: 13

Kitchen Wares: 35

Miscellaneous: 4

Transportation & Accessories: 4

Consumables:  5 (Undergarments, Food, Hygiene Products, Office & Cleaning Supplies)

Total: 301

dangit! I’m still over. But the point is to get some of your personal freedom back and live a more fulfilling life, remember?


Millennials: What Does it Mean to Find “Meaningful Work”?


Too busy to read the whole article? [1500 words, a 6-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Many millennials struggle with the balance between finding meaningful work, being happy, and protecting financial security.
  • Smiley Poswolsky struggled with a nontraditional career path and wrote The Quarter-Life Breakthrough to help others like him. He also happens to be one of my personal mentors and friends.
  • Check out a free excerpt from the book here.
  • To win a free copy of the book (5 available), leave a comment by Tuesday, April 15. For a second entry, shoot me an email too.

Time to pull back the curtain a bit.

The reason I first created this website was because something in my work life didn’t feel quite right. At the ripe old age of 26, I wasn’t feeling as fulfilled at work as I once had and knew it was time for something new.

Whenever I told my friends and family about my plans (quit my job and start a publishing company for young people) they invariably thought I was nuts. I wondered: am I the only one who feels this way?

Then, I discovered StartingBloc, an incredible 5-day business seminar/meditation retreat/all-night rager that introduced me to over 100 young people (and some not-so-young people) desperate to make a change in their lives and find meaningful work.

During StartingBloc, I met Smiley Poswolsky. Smiley has found himself working everywhere from a film festival in Buenos Aires to the headquarters of the Peace Corps in Washington, DC. Yet, throughout a varied and often rewarding career, he kept finding himself struggling to find a balance between purpose, happiness, and financial security.

he kept finding himself struggling to find a balance between purpose, happiness, and financial security.

And Smiley’s not alone. American millennials increasingly find themselves defined not by their jobs, but by their personal narratives.

The difference is, Smiley’s actually doing something about the problem. In his new book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, Smiley profiles changemakers who have found meaning in their lives and provides effective exercises and step-by-step to-do lists for young people looking to do the same.

In my opinion, the list of helpful books, internships, grants, and supportive communities alone is worth the price of the book.

Now, without further ado, a short excerpt from The Quarterlife Breakthrough that illustrates two actionable ideas that can help you get a job that means something.

Enter Smiley

(Excerpted from The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, page 105)

Try on jobs to see if they fit

Finding meaningful work is all about experimentation, and being open to new opportunities. Remember Kristen, who left her sales job at Google and by pursuing her esthetics certificate, found that she has a gift for doing make-up and making others feel comfortable in their own skin? Or Zack, who taught himself how to code, got a full-time job at a tech start-up and is now developing his second app? Both Kristen and Zack were okay with being beginners. They admitted what they didn’t know and experimented with a new opportunity to see if it was the right fit.

The job search process is time-consuming, and the last thing you want to do is start a new job and realize a month later that it’s not at all what you thought it would be. A great tactic when you’re considering a career transition is to try on a job in person to see if it fits before you even apply.

When I was considering other opportunities for after the Peace Corps, one thing I considered was teaching. I researched teaching credential programs, master’s programs in education, Teach for America, and New York City Teaching Fellows. I spent countless hours preparing for my Teaching Fellows interview, reading books, and watching documentaries about education. I talked to my teacher-friend Gayle about my job search, and she said, “Smiley, you should just come visit my class next week.”

When I visited Gayle’s class, not only did I realize what an amazing teacher she was, but I also realized that teaching (at least in an elementary school classroom) was not for me. I found the smell of the building nauseating and twenty-five kids running around like maniacs made me freak out. By 2:15pm, I was exhausted. I kept looking at the clock to see when class was over, and I realized I had no interest in classroom management, which is a huge element of good teaching. I still care deeply about education. But spending one day in a 4th grade classroom made me realize that being an elementary school teacher is not for me, at least not right now.

Reach out to people that work in environments you’re interested in working in. Ask if you can shadow them for the day, or even a morning. Can you picture yourself in their job? Why? Why not? If you’re interested in two or more opportunities, test both. If you can’t shadow someone, consider interviewing her about the work she does, her environment, and what her day-to-day is like to get a sense of the job.

Seek short-term entry-level experiences

Six months after graduating from college, when I moved to New York City to do freelance work in the film industry, I took any job on a film set I could get. For a few months I worked as a production assistant (or PA, as they’re commonly referred to) on several different films. For one gig, my job was to sit on the back of the grip and electric truck, and make sure no one that wasn’t part of the crew took anything (like lights or cables) from the truck.

For twelve hours a day, six days straight, in 20 degree weather, I sat on the back of a truck near Bryant Park and froze my ass off for $100 a day. Since the truck was a few blocks away from set, I didn’t learn anything about film production. I barely interacted with anyone, except for a few grips who chain-smoked all day and a few tourists who wandered by, asking if anyone famous was in the movie.

On my next gig, I worked for $50 a day as a PA on a small independent film, but told the line producer I didn’t want to watch a truck, I wanted to be on-set. Because the film was a low-budget project, they were highly understaffed, and I ended becoming the assistant location manager, helping the location manager and the line producer scout new locations and manage on-set logistics for the film. I saw first-hand how involved making a movie really is.

While I got paid half as much, the experience of being an apprentice on-set taught me infinitely more than making $100 a day guarding a truck. Two months later, my location manager brought me onto another gig as her assistant location manger and paid me $200 a day. After that, I worked for nearly two years doing freelance location work. I learned so much that after two years of freelancing, I produced a short film about a day in the life of two Iraq War veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Taking the skills I learned on various film sets, I managed a cast and crew of over 40 people, something I never would have been able to do had I not turned the  experience of getting frostbite on my toes into an opportunity for an apprenticeship.

If you’re new to a field, look for short-term, entry level experiences in the form of internships, apprenticeships, consulting opportunities, or freelance gigs that offer on-the-ground learning and mentorship from people with expertise. While these experiences may pay less, they can often be much more valuable than entry-level jobs where you do something you already know how to do (like watch a truck, answer a phone, or schedule meetings). The best thing about short-term experiences is that if they aren’t the right fit, you can easily move on to something else.

Often the best entry-level experiences are not advertised on websites or job boards. You may have to create one for yourself, like Zack did when he convinced the Vice President of TaskRabbit to give him an internship, or when I told my line producer I wanted to work on-set.

If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for an apprenticeship, check out the Leap Year Project, created by Victor Saad. Interested in going to business school but worried about the cost, Victor created a self-directed, multicity master’s degree in design, business development, and social innovation. He developed 12 different experiences in 12 months for himself, apprenticing with places like a leading architecture firm in Seattle, an art and apparel community in Chicago, and a digital agency in San Diego.

Inspired by his leap year, he decided to create an actual school for others to learn by doing, called Experience Institute. Victor’s story teaches us that it’s possible to create any kind of short term apprenticeship that makes sense for you.

Your next action: join the Quarter-Life Breakthrough Community

  • Liked what you read? Simply leave a comment below about what “meaningful work” means to you for a chance to win Smiley’s new book (5 free physical copies available). For a second entry into the random drawing, shoot me an email about life, work, or just to say hi. I’ll announce the winners on our email list next week. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, April 15th.
  • Smiley would love to hear from you about your own stories or questions—to get in touch, simply email him.
  • Don’t forget to buy the book. Even if you win a free copy, I bet you can think of at least one friend who could benefit from their own copy, no?