Have you ever heard of minimalism? More and more people are turning their backs on consumption and limiting themselves to the absolute essentials in life. In recent years in particular, an increasing number of people have been asking themselves: Must there always be more than is actually needed? Entrepreneur Alan Frei has already formed a clear opinion on this and has told us about his life and his experiences as a minimalist.
First of all, I’d like to know what your understanding of minimalism is?
I take being a minimalist to mean living with very few things. Or to put it another way, it means owning very little. For me, minimalism is more of a means to an end – to make my life simpler.
When was your first encounter with the concept of minimalism?
I have had three encounters with minimalism, to be exact. My first encounter, about four years ago, was Andrew Hyde, an artist and entrepreneur who traveled around the world with only 15 possessions. During his time in Switzerland he told me about himself and his experiences. I was immediately impressed by him. Some time after that, I stumbled across a fascinating article on Nicolas Berggruen, a billionaire who can be found online under “homeless billionaire” because he doesn’t own a house. My third encounter I identify as the time after my father passed away. I realized all the more when I was clearing out my parents’ home that most of the objects had just been lying around for roughly 30 years not ever being used by anyone.
You live as a minimalist – what does this entail? How do you live?
At the moment I own 119 objects. I have one plate, one spoon and one fork. Until recently I had in my cutlery both a small spoon and a big one. But I noticed that you can also just eat yogurt with a big spoon, it’s really no problem at all. I have one chair, one table, one bath towel – (lists off other possessions of his) – and my clothes are good enough for a week at a time.Generally speaking, I don’t like to let unimportant things distract me, and to that end it helps more, the fewer things I own. I don’t need a car, for instance. My Saturdays are therefore not spent worrying about washing the car or insurance. Instead, I use this time to go for a coffee with my friends.
In Kurt Aeschbacher’s 2014 interview with you, you still had over 200 possessions – this is a figure you’ve been able to reduce considerably, recently.
Yes, that’s true. Back then I still had 250 objects and was able to reduce this again by more than half.
Are there any areas where you find it difficult keeping things to a minimum?
It’s hard for me in many areas, as you can imagine. As is the case for many other people, I’m constantly being influenced by advertisements, which even have an effect on me. I’ve realized, however, that it’s tough only at the beginning, when I see something new. After a few days, the feeling subsides relatively fast. Here are a few tricks that I apply myself: If I want something, I’ll borrow it first. I’ll ask around within my group of friends to see if someone maybe already owns the object in question. More often than not, it turns out after a few days of borrowing that I don’t really need the item at all.Something that I’ve also gotten used to is the ‘one in/one out rule’. This means that if a new item comes into my possession, another has to go. So far, this has really helped me keep a balance.
But have you ever had a possession that you really struggled to part with?
I’ve found it difficult to let go of many objects, but then when they’re gone, I realize their irrelevance. To date there has been no item that I’ve missed.
What are some of the unexpected events or experiences that you have witnessed during your time as a minimalist?
The main positive is the freedom that you feel when you don’t have much. You’re totally free and independent of these things. But often we’re blind to the fact that, in a sense, the objects actually own us. This is made clear when we buy new iPhones, for example. If we drop it and the screen cracks, we become so angry that we realize that the device owns us just as much as we own it. That’s exactly what has become less and less the case for me, as I get rid of these things more and more.
Have you ever had any arguments with roommates or friends about the fact that you now live a minimalist life?
It’s extremely important to me that I don’t lead a minimalist life just for the sake of leading a minimalist life. I choose this lifestyle, rather, so that I have as much time as possible for the important things in life, such as my family and friends. This means that I don’t live the monastic life of a Franciscan, but instead live in the city of Zürich. I’m always meeting lots of people and therefore it’s important to me to be well-dressed. One funny thing I’ve found is that when people meet me for the first time or see me for the first time in several years, nobody realizes that I actually only own 119 items. When I tell them, they’re downright astounded. That suggests to me that people think they pay attention to clothing, but really I just always wear the same thing.To begin with, my friends did find it all rather odd. There were more and more media reports about me, and many of my friends back then thought that this was just some sort of gimmick. These days, I’ve noticed that they’re increasingly interested in it and a few of them have even given the minimalist lifestyle a go. They’re coming to the realization themselves that they have no use for masses of belongings and many of them they don’t need at all.
Interest in minimalist lifestyles seems to be growing. Why do you think more and more people are choosing to live in this way?
There’s no doubt that the prosperity of a society also plays a role in the decision to live a minimalist lifestyle. People have reached a certain level of wealth, noticing that they live in excess and that material things don’t necessarily make them happy. They realize that they are happier when they have less. I’ve observed this realization from a sociopolitical point of view. For example, for many people these days, owning a car isn’t so important anymore.
What advice would you give to those who are interested in leading a minimalist lifestyle?
Well first of all I’d like to make it clear that for me it’s not a question of setting down what is good and bad, as a missionary might. Equally I wouldn’t want to dictate as to how people should proceed. But when someone asks me how they should approach it, I always say the following: To start with, I threw away everything unnecessary. Things on which for all intents and purposes only dust had collected. The second phase involved me taking a big sports bag and putting inside it anything that I hadn’t used in over a year. I then put the bag in a corner for six months and told myself that if I didn’t open it in that time, I no longer needed the things inside. If you then decide to give away or dispose of the bag’s contents, it’s important not to open the bag, as you may well change your mind. During the third phase, which I’m still in today, I’m constantly thinking: What do I need and what don’t I need? New items may sometimes be added, while others later become unnecessary. At the end of the day, it’s not so much about the number as it is about me having a simple and beautiful life.
What would you still like to get rid of?
I’m currently trying to get rid of my laptop so that I can operate my whole office just by phone. As has become apparent, that’s far easier said than done. But these are the things that I’ll continue to try time and time again.