04 April 2014

On Culling Mistakes

Source: Cole Haan

Since I started simplifying my life in Spring 2011, I have set a lot of items free - books, DVD, decoration items, clothing... Three years later, the effects of this culling process are overwhelmingly positive and I have more time for other pursuits. However, where most minimalists say they got rid of their stuff and never looked back, I'd like to point out that I did make a few culling mistakes, which I'd like to share with you if it can help avoiding them in the future.

Relying On Arbitrary Limits and Numbers

Whereas it can be a good thing to set ourselves a temporary challenge or experiment based on a fixed number (such as project 333, or the minimalist game for example), I believe that culling items on the basis of a number limit can lead to mistakes.

For example, when I started wardrobe editing, I decided to limit my closet to 100 items, divided in 10 items per category (tops, pants, shoes etc.). Not as a challenge to choose a 100 item wardrobe and see if I missed anyting, but as a hard and fast rule to actually sell or donate all the rest. The problem was, by limiting myself to 10 short sleeved tops for example, I culled some that I actually liked and could have used, but didn't make my top 10. Three years, many laundries, holes and high rotation later, this resulted in replacement purchases which could have been avoided if I had kept those I actually still liked.

I don't regret this limit I set myself at the time, as it helped a lot to kickstart my editing process, and set me in a motivated mood to tackle the rest of my possessions. But if I was to repeat the process, I probably would set the limit as a temporary challenge, packing the rest of the items away to set off the process, and then cull items based on more tangible factors.

Learning: The goal of culling is to make sure your collection of items is adequate - matching your needs, taste and lifestyle. The decision of culling a specific item should be made in regards to this item's inherent characteristics, and not in comparison with other items. If a maximum  number is to be set, it should be linked to a tangible reason (for example, limited available space), and not an arbitrary number which can lead to getting rid of actually useful items.

Using Minimalism as an Excuse for Unnecessary Upgrades

I adhere completely to the common "quality over quantity" minimalist philosophy, and a lot of my purchase criteria and habits are linked to it. I prefer to save until I can afford a proper quality item, rather than buy a cheaper one now. I prefer to buy 1 quality item rather than 3 poor ones.

However, wanting to have a "perfect collection of items", I ended up culling perfectly useful items just so I could buy one with a better material, or a higher end brand instead. At some point, it even became a sort of justification for buying new, high quality items: "but it's part of my simplification process". The problem was, I was right into the discarding > replacing loop of consumerism, which is not my definition of simplifying my life. Besides, it made me devaluate my items, just on the basis that I should have higher quality standards, whereas they were just adequate for my needs.

 See, the basic principle of simplicity, at least in my vision, is to buy less as a whole and make the most of what we own. Yes, part of the simplification process is to curate a smaller selection of items of higher quality, but this should happen over years, as needs arise and we meet them my purchasing a higher quality item, not by "creating" the need by culling a useful item just to replace it with a better one.

Learning: In my opinion, culling is a consequence, a side effect of simplification, not the main action of it. If your goal of simplification is to own less, spend less money and purchase less items, then culling shouldn't become an excuse for new purchases. It doesn't mean you are not allowed to upgrade an item if you find a higher quality one you really like, it just means simplification shouldn't be an excuse for doing it. In my opinion.

Culling Too Early in the Process

I'll give the specific example of wardrobe editing for that, since I was pretty sure of my music, film and literary tastes when I culled my collections of cultural items. In 2011, when I started culling my wardrobe, it was a reaction to my style of the time: very feminine and chic, with high heels, long nails, a lot of jewelry and make-up. I had built this style as an armour to feel more secure about the fact that I was an adult to be taken seriously, but most of it wasn't actually in line with who I was inside and who I wanted to be.

Therefore, my very first reaction was to remove all the sophisticated, chic items from my wardobe, and restart my style searching from a much simpler outfit canvas. After two years of trial and error, I have found a style I feel comfortable in, and, as it turns out, it does contain details from my previous style. I may have dressed to compensate a lack of self confidence, but I still was choosing clothes I liked, so it is logical that some aspects of that style actually fit my taste.

The problem is, by culling items before style searching, I ended up getting rid of items that could now fit perfectly in my current wardrobe and outfits. For example, V neck tops and knits. In 2011, I culled most of them because I felt it showed too much cleavage, was too feminine and represented a symbol of the style I wanted to get rid of. As I refined the details of my style, I actually noticed I still have an affinity with the V neck over other shapes. There are a lot of V neck tops and jumpers I culled that I could use within my newly found uniform.

Learning: Deciding to engage in life simplfiication often is the result of major life changes, or view changes, which are very emotional times of identity searching, change of views etc. I believe that, in such times, it is important to discover who you are, what you like, your identity beyond material possessions, before making radical culling decisions.

As A Conclusion

I think it is important to acknowledge my culling mistakes, because sometimes I wonder if it isn't discouraging for readers to hear only success stories from bloggers and minimalists. I have failed along the way, but that's how I learned.

But most importantly, even though I regret to have set some items free that I could have kept, I don't regret to have started editing my collection of items. And I'm not particularly sad about these culling mistakes. I could have avoided recent purchases, but I don't miss the items I have culled. That's the shift ov values I have managed to cultivate over the years - I remember these mistakes in order to grow and avoid them in the future, but I'm not as attached to material items as I once was. 


What about you? Have you ever sorted out and culled some of your possessions? Have you made any culling mistakes or regretted to get rid of something you finally could have used? What did you learn from it?

30 comments:

  1. i love your blog. your posts about simplifying are so inspiring and it sounds relieving.
    i think, i will give it a try, considering advices like these to prevent any regrets.
    x, mia.

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    1. Thanks, I'm happy if it can help! Good luck in your own simplification journey, and welcome :)

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  2. I'm curious about the "minimalism as an excuse for unnecessary upgrades" part--could you elaborate on a specific experience? I get the general gist of it, but what item did you end up upgrading and then re-evaluating?

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    1. Hum, I have several examples in various item types.

      For example, a few years ago I upgraded my TV furniture - from a basic Ikea-style thing to a higher end, mahogany, exotic looking piece of furniture. It sure looks great, but it is so big I can't use it in Paris, so I now feel a bit stupid to have upgraded a piece of furniture which initially was perfectly adequate for my TV and gaming consoles.

      Another example, which I stopped in time, was the coffee machine. We have a "Dolce Gusto" at my boyfrend's appartment, and, at the time, we pondered buying a Nespresso machine, because these machines look sleeker, there is a wider choice of capsules etc. Thankfully, I was right into my interior minimalism phase and I decided it would be a waste of money. When I moved to Paris, I favoured practicality, and coffee quality over the brand, and got a French Press.

      Finally, a wardrobe example would be the breton shirts. I initially bought a Muji one as a test of whether I could integrate stripes in my style. Back in 2011 or beg 2012 I think. It was a huge success, I used my Muji striped top several times a week. So I decided to upgrade it. At the time, I said it was because the Muji one showed signs of wear and tear but to be honest, I still could have worn it at least a couple more seasons. I replaced it with a Comme des Garçons one, 120€. But it was more fitted than the Muji one, and, honestly, less comfortable. I wore it MUCH less often than the Muji one and realized I had made a mistake. I kind of feel like I wasted my money, to be honest. But I keep it as a reminder that higher end brand isn't necessarily better, and that I should use what I have until it really wears out.

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  3. I agree about not getting fixed up on a specific number. Those things are meant as experiments, and I notice the bloggers that do subscribe to X number of things do give themselves considerable leeway about what does and doesn't count. When I finally decide to get rid of something, I don't miss it because I either don't want/need/use it anymore, there's fit/quality/issues, or it's been upgraded!

    I also don't buy expensive things just for the sake of buying expensive things. Everyone has different opinions based on their lifestyle what is/isn't worth it. Also sometimes it's good to go a lesser route when you're trying a particular trend you're unsure of. If you don't like it, it didn't cost a lot, and if you do--you'll know a higher priced upgrade will be money well spent. Learning what styles, silhouettes, and colors work on you comes with trial and error too--perhaps the "WTF was I thinking??!!" errors even more so.

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    1. Yes, it's true that choosing an arbitrary number can lead to illogical "extra rules" or walkarounds that don't make any sense. I remember at the time of the "100 items limit", I had a list of what counted and what didn't. For example, lounge wear didn't count, and when I updated my wardrobe number, I happened to count some basics as "loungewear" so I could take them off the total, or counting all black tops as 1, which defeats the purpose of sizing down. I now think that criteria should be more sensible - limited space, number of uses, potential to wear out etc.

      As for the price range of purchases, to me it is exactly the same thing - price range should be based on sensible criteria, such as the durability of the item, whether it is versatile or part of a more fleeting trend... I guess my point was that "I'm simplifying my life so I should replace this perfectly adequate item by another adequate but higher end one" is not a sensible criteria. That's only my opinion though, but a few of my regrets come from that mindset.

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  4. Oh god, I'm so guilty of the "minimalism as an excuse for unnecessary upgrades". Even worst, I'm a maximizer (http://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2006/06/are_you_a_satis/) so when I go about upgrading it's a whole long process. I'm getting much better at avoiding this excuse and making do with what I have, but it's a process...

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    1. Very interesting article, I didn't know about that concept. When thinking about Barry Schwartz's TED talk about the paradox of choice, it seems obvious that being a maximizer can be terribly time consuming and unsatisfying.

      I started as a maximizer as well - when you decide to pare down your collection of items and curate it to a smaller selection of perfectly adequate objects, you tend to want to explore ALL options before settling. Only, I realized this was a dangerous game in today's society. Because even if you manage to explore all options and find the "best possible" (if it even exists), next year there is the newer, shinier and better version coming out and you feel like wanting to upgrade. That's where we come back to the discarding > replacing consumerist loop.

      I didn't know these 2 concepts, but it appears that over time I shifted from maximizer to satisficer in most item categories. Chances are, if I buy a car or an appartment one day, I'll have a maximizer mindset, but for most every day objects (furniture and decoration, kitchen tools, clothing...) I've come to adopt a satisficer mindset. But true, it's a process. Took me almost 3 years to slow down, and I feel I still have much progress to make :)

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  5. "Minimalism as an excuse for unnecessary upgrades" and "culling too early" - Oh, I can so relate to those! I used to be so bad for the former and still sometimes fall victim to the latter. In fact, right now I'm struggling with myself over the thought of getting rid of a pair of navy khakis I have that are sort of inharmonious with the rest of my clothes (the cut and the colour are surprisingly difficult to match with my other items). But I like them so much that part of me doesn't care that it's not effortless to get dressed when I wear them!

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    1. That's an interesting example, I have also culled or considered culling items that I liked but somehow didn't fit with the rest of my collection in the past. Sometimes the solution is to give it another chance by looking for new inspiration or ways to use it. At least, that's what I do now - before culling anything, I make sure I have devoted enough time trying to make it work first.

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  6. I'm in the midst of culling right now - as a step toward simplification and because my clothes have outgrown my closet. This is particularly timely. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for your kind word! I'm happy to hear this can help. Good luck in your simplification journey :)

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  7. Oh dear, I have this feeling, I made or would make some of these mistakes to some extent, too... Thank you very much for this posting!
    I tend to make the opposite mistake, btw. I cull like mad, then my too few clothes tear apart after a while because I wear them so often (because I have so few), then I search very desperately for new ones, can't find exactly what I'm looking for, go with "ok" clothes, buy quite a few of them because otherwise I would have to go naked after a while, then have a wardrobe full of mediocre things I don't really like, which makes me want to cull again.. And so forth!
    The problem is: I have to realise that a really minimalistic wardrobe just doesn't work for me because there are often long periods of time when I can't find clothes to replace torn ones, because as a Cool Winter colour type, I find most of my colors in winter (if I don't want to go in black all the time) and often fashion seems to work against me like now. I'm in desparate need of some pair of jeans that come with a non stretchy and rather thicker fabric and a straight cut. It's impossible to find them, and the other styles like skinny or boyfriend just don't work on my body type and the thin fabric tears so quickly.
    That's what wrong culling can lead to, too :(

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    1. And when I say, in desparate need, I mean: I mostly wear trousers. I have two trousers. One pair of ill fitting, ugly faded black jeans and one perfect fitting perfect coloured one with a big hole twice repaired (between my thighs, the downside of sexy curves) and already tearing apart again and this time it's beyond repair. My alternative is one skirt.
      Don't go too far with culling, girls! :(

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    2. That's an intersting aspect of culling - and it's exactly the reason why I think setting an arbitrary number isn't a good idea. Who is to decide what number defines a "minimal wardrobe"? In my definition, a minimal wardrobe is one with nothing superfluous, but also with nothing missing. It is an adequate wardrobe, with enough clothes to ensure proper rotation between laundries, and face all lifestyle situations.

      Your story about the items wearing out reminds me of the ideal I had at the beginning of my editing process - a sort of 19th century fantasy of having a few hand-picked items, tailored/custom made by a craftsman, and being able to live with a rotation of this minimal selection (of, say, 3 dresses, you know).

      But I think that, even if my vision of the 19th century consumer was accurate (which I'm not sure it is), it is impossible to reach today. First, because the items, even the higher end ones, are not qualitative enough to be worn several times a week without wearing out (I see it with my fiancé who has less clothes than me, but replaces them much more often. He changes shoes every six months, that's crazy). Second, because our lifestyle isn't comparable to that of a 19th century bourgeoise who has tailor made dresses - we move more, walk under the rain, use washmachines (which wear out our clothes)...

      I agree with you on colours and not finding exactly what you want whenever you want. It's the same for me - I'm a warm Autumn, and I have very specific tastes. Some years, the fashion favours me and my favourite colours/cuts are all over the place, and some years there's nothing. I'm all for stocking up on good pieces when you find them. I have 4 GAP skinny minis from last year and I don't regret having stocked up, as I don't know when I'll find the perfect pants cut again. (this year's skinny minis are cut slightly differently and don't suit me anymore).

      Maybe a solution would be to hold on to your "mediocre" things until you find something you really like, and then stock up when you do. One may think it isn't "minimalist" to own multiples of the same thing, but I disagree. If it's perfectly adequate, why not own 2 or 3 to rotate them and avoid them wearing out too quickly?

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    3. a sort of 19th century fantasy... YES oh dear, I had that too!

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  9. I've done all three of these in my quest towards minimalism. I've also made the mistake of curating "the perfect wardrobe" only to discover the elements I've purchased aren't really that practical in my life right now. I love to wear cute skirts and dresses so I would invest in those pieces, but I work a job where I have to wear jeans and a t-shirts everyday.

    I'm about to embark on a spring wardrobe culling and this post was quite timely. It's got me rethinking my whole game plan for summer.

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    1. Ah, "the perfect wardrobe" is a topic in itself! I think it is very difficult to be satisfied with one's wardobe when the objective is to reach "prefection". There will always be something better out there. It's true that it's aso hardly perfect if it isn't suited to your lifestyle!

      I like Anuschka's (@Into Mind) idea of ensuring both "form and function". Meaning having something aesthetically satisfying but also adapted to our lifestyle. I think it's a good basis for setting useful criteria for wardrobe culling (and the culling of any other item type, too). I'd love to hear about your summer editing plan!

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  10. Great post as usual, Kali! I empathize with so much of this, and definitely agree that arbitrary limits might be useful guidelines to trial a separation but shouldn't dictate what you throw away. Personally I worry that something like the minimalist game may make you seek out things to throw away for the sake of it, which seems a little... well, firstly not very environmentally friendly, and secondly creating an unhelpful focus on stuff. I've also had moments where I've seen the other points you make in the minimalist movement, or in my own attempts to live more minimally.

    For me the overarching problem here is speed - the urge to change our lives from one day to the next can be quite strong (a fresh start! Everything will be different! This time I'll get it right! - I've definitely felt all of those before) but it can lead to the mistakes you mention. Upgrading when what we have is perfectly adequate, culling a lot to get to a specific number and culling early in the process all seem like issues that arise when we forget that change is a gradual thing.

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    1. This truly is an excellent post and a valuable addition to what I've been reading so far on minimalism (in the midst of a major wardrobe and home cleanout). Personally I have a hard time letting go of stuff, so I tend to let things accumulate until the point where I'm so fed up I want to do a major overhaul. That's when I end up in dangerous territory: as Emma rightly points out, the urge to change our lives fast and swift in the hope that everything will be much better from then on, can be quite strong. But I can see how this would lead to mistakes being made. I wonder though, if there are people who have other regrets after doing a major culling - sentimental regrets instead of practical mistakes. Like a gift or a well-loved item that lost its use and place in your life. I tend to keep so many memorabilia that I'm having a hard time deciding what to keep, what to let go, how to move on...

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    2. It is true that focusing too much on numbers can lead to an unhelpful focus on stuff as Emma points out. Generally, when reading minimalist blogs or articles, that's the point i'm not always comfortable with: the emphasis is still put on stuff. In the end, I find myself liking "growth" blogs better, like Raptitude for example.

      It is a very good point that the common factor of these mistakes seems to be speed - wanting our collection of objects to diminish and become perfect right now, and, more importantly, holding on to the idea that a perfect collection of items will solve everything else and lead to a simpler life. With time, I found it is quite the opposite - facing my own demons, incertainties, weaknesses first then lead to naturally minimizing my collection of objects. It is the simple life that lead to a simpler collection of items, and not the other way around.

      To give my opinion on your question liesbeth, I think that parting from a sentimental object can be a mistake if you still have unresolved things linked to that sentimental reason. In other words, often, the material item isn't the real focus of your emotions, the real focus can be memories of a loved one, a reminder of some good (or bad) moments etc. In my personal experience, I always worked on the emotion itself before getting rid of the related object. Once I had solved any unresolved issues, I never regretted parting with the item itself. If it makes any sense. Also, from the stories I have read, people usually overestimate the loss of the item before parting with it, but most times they don't regret it after it's done. I think we overestimate the value of the items we own (there is a scientific name for this cognitive bias but I can't remember it...)

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    3. Thank you so much for this input. You are probably right, both about dealing with your emotions first and about overestimating the value of items. In that last respect I feel it's an additional challenge to live with another sentimentalist as we're then both rationalizing the act of (unnecessarily) holding on to stuff.

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  11. My issue with culling tends to be the opposite: I'm play-it-safe by nature so I want to save everything "just in case", because what if I will at some point miss it and regret culling it? So I end up with a lot of things being stuffed away in closets, and while I do have the space, simply having too much stuff feels kind of oppressive... and it rarely happens that I decide to pull something back into my active closet from the stored stuff. I need to will myself to be more ruthless in letting things go.

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    1. Ah yes, that's the opposite problem indeed. "Just in case" was the worst excuse for keeping something in my case, and at some point, I set free all the items when I thought "just in case" about them. Unless the "case" in question is really going to happen in the future, like evening wear for example.

      Maybe a solution would be to put the unused item in a storage box and decide of a time limit - for example, if in 6 months you haven't used any of its content, you get rid of the box? It worked for me at least - I'd put stuff in the cellar and sort boxes out twice a year. If I didn't even remember owning it, I set it free. I hope it helps!

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  12. This is a perfect article. It sums up exactly how I am feeling, thank you for your well thought out words making it easy to think about mine!

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    1. Thank you for the kind word! I'm happy to hear it can help :)

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  13. You are by far my favourite blog to read. You are so insightful and contemplative. I really enjoy everything you write about and question. Thank you so much Kali for taking the time to write these wonderful posts.

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    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this kind word. I'm happy you are enjoying the read :)

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  14. This is a wonderful post and the tips are really useful. I used to think minimalism was all about boring white houses. I only discovered minimalist blogs a few weeks ago, but I have been moving in this direction for a long time. I read an article about a woman who got rid of a lot of furniture when her family moved to a smaller house, but then regretted some of it because the pieces meant a lot to her. That made a lot of sense to me. I have gotten rid of a lot of clothes lately, but I'm taking it slow to make sure my current personal taste isn't just a phase.

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