21 December 2014

On Variety


The post about needs brought up the interesting question of variety : how many items are necessary to fulfill our needs, and how many make us feel satisfied ? This is a subject often discussed within minimalism, especially when talking about the numbers game, but I think the notion of variety is personal, as is everyone’s simplicity journey.

Do we need variety? 

The first question would be: do we need variety? This isn’t an easy one to answer, and I’m not a psychologist, but I often see people stating minimalism feels inadequate to them because they need variety.

When I ask myself how many of something I need, I take a look at my everyday life and estimate the number that will make my life easier without cluttering my home. The “right number” depends on your lifestyle. I would define my right number by asking myself: what need does it fulfill? How often will I need to use it? Does it need to be washed or replaced regularly? In other words, defining how much variety is adequate to my needs.

Examples: I have my plates, glasses and cutlery in sets of 4 because this is the maximum number of people I can invite for dinner. I have 2 sets of sheets so I can take the time to wash and dry them while sleeping in fresh sheets. I make laundry every ten days in average so I need 12 days worth of climate appropriate clothes.

Can variety make us satisfied? 

Evaluating the need only partially answers the question of variety; you can own 4 times the same plate, or 12 white tops and that will fulfill the adequate number, but it may feel boring. Besides, how many decoration items feel adequate, knowing that we don’t technically need any? Since these are not washed often, should we own only one climate appropriate scarf or is it OK to have a small (or large) collection of scarves of different styles and colours?

I am currently forming ideas about this so I don’t have any definitive opinions or answers, but here are two topics to start:

  • Knowing yourself and what kind of variety brings you little joys 
  • If you have one area in which you own a large quantity of items, why is that? 

The Kind of Variety you Like 
When you take a look at different minimalist blogger's environments, you will see a diversity of universes. Sure, you always have the minimalists who also like minimal aesthetics - white, grey, clean lines and no fuss. But others like a variety of colours despite engaging in a simple life. This is a proof that we all have our own preferences and you can tailor simplicity the way you want.

If minimalism sounds unappealing because you like having several different tea mugs and you feel like you’d have to own only white ones, I’m suggesting that you can lead a simple life and own 15 colourful tea mugs if that’s what you like. But the first thing would be to identify what kind of variety you really enjoy. Here are a couple of first ideas:

  • First, which items you like to have several of? For example, I’m perfectly satisfied with about 2-3 pairs of climate appropriate shoes, but I like having 10 different scarves to match the overall colour theme of the outfit. I have 3 belts, and use only one of them 80% of the time, but others may enjoy wearing a different belt every day to bring a touch of originality to their outfit. 

  • Second, what type of variety do you enjoy? Variety, or diversity, doesn’t mean the same thing from a person to another. For example, for me, variety is colour. I don’t mind owning several copies of the same item (for example the GAP skinny mini I own 4 of, or the American Vintage Jackson tee I own 3 of), but in different colours. But other people may not even consider owning the same model twice, because variety means different cuts and styles for them. 

I think these apply to any item type, I thought the wardrobe example was a good concrete illustration of it. In my version of simplicity, once you define for what items variety makes you happy, you can gift yourself with one item once in a while, as a little joy.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean you will own an insane number of possessions. Society makes us believe we need to own a lot of everything, but we don’t. When you find out what items you like to own in variety, you can also find out you only need few of other item types, hence editing your possessions. If that makes any sense. In the end it’s a way to balance things out without owning more overall.

Why Do You Own So Many of These? 
The second question to consider is to see things the other way around: identify an item type you own a high number of and ask yourself why that is. Is this because it brings a bit more joy to your life? Or is there something else? When we try to fill a higher need with objects – whereas no amount of objects really helps – we can end up accumulating quite a bit as we hope to alleviate the need with every purchase, and it doesn’t work, so we keep purchasing.

For example, in my early twenties, I wanted to be taken seriously, considered like a proper adult. To fill that need of self-confidence and recognition, I bought a lot of clothing – high heels, tailored shirts and blazer jackets for example. However, if the outfit can be a symbol to start a change, it isn’t enough to meet that kind of need. So I ended up accumulating quite a number of “grown up” clothes, not because I like outfit variety, but because I hoped each purchase would “heal” my self-confidence.

Of course it didn’t work. Once I realized this tendency, I asked myself why I bought so many heeled shoes, and found out the need behind this, I started working on acting like a “proper adult”, asking myself what kind of adult I wanted to be and work toward it. And the accumulation of “grown up clothes” stopped.

In other words, when you tell yourself you can’t simplify your life because you like owning a variety of items, maybe you can ask yourself why you own that many. If the diversity of these items really is joyful to you, then it is compatible with a simple life and you can engage in a modest growth of this collection – at least in my opinion. But if this accumulation is a symptom of something else, it might be worth asking yourself a few questions and uncover what is really hiding behind this.


Final Thoughts on Objects & Happiness 

In the end, this raises the question of “can objects make us happy”? When we talk about a joyful variety of items, we assume treating ourselves with items is a source of joy. Is it an idea contrary to simplicity, where a common mantra is “experiences over things”?

In my version of simplicity, the answer is balance and moderation. Yes, experiences can be far more rewarding than items, because it is a part of how you spend your time, it is how you live. No amount of collections sitting on shelves can replace a good time spent alone or with your loved ones.

But, in my opinion, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy growing a small collection of material items – tea mugs, mineral stones, scarves or shoes, or books, vintage earth globes or whatever. There can be much joy in finding a new item to add to this collection once in a while, taking the time to integrate it to the rest of the collection, and using it.

For example, when I found this silk scarf in Thailand, it made me so happy to buy it and integrate it in my outfits. However, in my version of simplicity, again, I believe this is enjoyable only if you are aware this is a collection you enjoy growing – and not an unhealthy accumulation as a surrogate to a higher, unfulfilled need – and only if you actually use this items in a way or another.

This is a personal view, but I don’t see the point of a collection hidden in a closet. Why do you enjoy collecting these things? Because they are beautiful? Then display them. Because you like using a different one every day? Then use them. In the end, it isn’t the objects themselves that are enjoyable, but the fact that we use them every day, making the moment a little more joyful.


  1. i've really pared back my belongings but i definitely still have lots of colour and prints in my wardrobe and home. even still, whenever i see the homes and wardrobes of people who say they're minimalists, i'm still struck by how 'normal' they look, like i expect someone who says they're a minimalist to wear only white and have an asymmetric haircut or something, even though i don't do that... the only collection i have is of touristy fridge magnets. my good friend lives in another country and he buys me silly fridge magnets on his travels... even still, since i "became a minimalist" i haven't kept all of them and i try to stay on top of how much stuff i have attached to the fridge door! it feels like too much visual clutter otherwise.

    1. I like your example of the fridge magnets! It is true that once we get used to simplicity and owning less, visual clutter becomes less tolerable and we can end up paring down even the collectibles :) It is the same for me with tea mugs, in the end I have a small collection of hand-made mugs gathered here and there over the years but most mugs from my older collection were disposed of long ago. As if the simple life lead to a natural self-moderation of sorts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love variety (colours, forms, scents) so I have been a maximalist for many years. But in the past two years I have pared down my wardrobe and posessions allowing myself for example only two colours of any one top, to get away from my previous excesses. I have collected perfume for many years but also recently purged many I was not wearing and have decided to avoid purchases for 2015 or perhaps longer. I know a lot of my previous purchases were driven by low self esteem, so I am focusing now on why I want a certain item and what need it would satisfy. It has been an illuminating process.

    1. Thanks for sharing, it's very interesting to read! From what you wrote it seems many of your accumulations were linked to this low self esteem rather than a satisfaction of the collector. I noticed this is often the case with "appearance" items like clothing, make-up etc. It was the same for me - I still notice, when life situations lead to a small blow to the self esteem, that I tend to turn to buying jewelry or clothing, it's a matter of noticing this and stopping ourselves :) I'm happy to hear that your simplification process has been helpful for you!

  3. Kali, your closing comments makes me want to ask: Does a huge closet that gets a lot of use, justify the existence of all the excess? Assume nothing is being left out and everything gets used.

    Secondly, i have a personal question to ask. I hope i am not borderlining rude by asking this: I am letting go of things and simplifying to gain more mental space. Which i have. Its really refreshing. You write about simplicity a lot, makes me wonder if you are constantly thinking of it? I feel like when i hear minimalists like Joshua talk, on the surface, it looks like he replaced the mental space accorded to clutter --> now allocated to thinking about simplicity, everyday all day. Its his full time job now. I assume its a conscious drive to get you to that place, where objects dont tempt. But is simplicity ongoing mantra ?

    On a different note: My dad is a minimalist. He doesnt feel the need to buy anything. He looks at objects every day, and keeps on walking. Since, i have spent more time in my life living under his roof than with any other minimalists, it feels like thats a good definition of minimalism. Versus people like me who are battling letting go of things everyday, to keep their life simple.

    I have so much to talk to you. Now, about variety and minimalism. I can see cases when over simplifying can be detrimental. One great example is food. A wide variety of food is good for the body. Ofcourse, there is excess food and too rich a diet. 15 ingredient meals, are complex, time consuming, space consuming. But food science, balancing nutrition and cooking can be an art. And i consider learning to cook --> knowledge. This knowledge can only be gathered through experimentation. I would love to know your thoughts on this. Simplifying a wardrobe has been much easier for me, but when it comes to the kitchen, it too hard.

    1. Thanks for these interesting ideas and conversation starts Arachna! I'm going to do my best to answer to these.

      On the first topic, I'd say it really depends on what you mean with "large". For me it isn't the number itself that matters, but the link between these objects and the owner. If the person is really using all their collection regularly, then it can't be that large, otherwise they wouldn't have time to make the most of everything. For example if the person owns 400 pairs of shoes, they can use an average of 365 pairs a year (maybe more if they change for the evening) but even then they'd use each pair once a year only, so in my opinion it doesn't qualify as "making a good use of it". So in my opinion, a collection of items which are put to good use self-moderates itself after a certain size, so that you can keep using all of them regularly. Now I'm no judge to say 400 pairs of shoes is too much. It would certainly feel too much to me, but it depends on how the person considers their shoes. For example, if it's a family passion and the shoes have been gathered by the mother and daughter for 30 years, hence buying a little over one pair a year and being a shared passion - why not? Whereas owning only 10 pairs but buying (and disposing of) all 10 of them each year would be worse in my own opinion, as it means wasting earth's resources more, and putting many items to landfill every year. The bottom line is, it all depends on context and the mindset toward objects.

      Secondly - about your second question, maybe people like Joshua Becker think about simplicity a lot because they have become coaches as a professional activity. I don't think about simplicity all the time. I think about it when I plan the blog post to write and let my questionings unfold in my head. Or when I'm tempted to buy a material item and try to understand my own motivations and remind myself of my endeavor. There are times of the year I think about it more (like the holiday season that calls for a lot of consumerism). But I noticed overall with the years, that more and more behaviours are becoming natural and automatic, and don't require to think about it so much. I'm hoping that as I move along on my journey, more and more things will become automatic (like being insensitive to sales or travel purchases), and leading a simple life will become even more natural as years pass.

      On the third point, I also met a kind of minimalist who seems to be like your dad. I met him at my cousin's wedding, he is a yoga teacher and also home builder (he buys and restores houses). He was very simply dressed and seemed insensitive to trends, novelties and growing a collection of items, and I felt very admirative of him. But he is over 50 years old and a part of me hopes that I might be like him when I am his age.

      And on your final point - I think that depends on what "simplify" means. I have simplified my cooking and food routine a lot. For example I have gotten rid of all "specific" electric decives - for just waffles for example - and gathered a simple collection of inox pans, wooden spoons and japanese knives to cook everything. In terms of food itself, I got rid of most industrial, prepared foods to concentrate on simple, natural ingredients like vegetables, legumes, dairy and a reasonable amount of farm grown or wild meat and fish. But I agree with you that variety is key for food - which is more easily brought by buying seasonal foods (which change each season), and try something new regularly for example. But variety isn't incompatible with simplifying, is what I'm trying to say.

      I hope that all makes sense. This is of course only my opinion and not some undisputable truth. I hope that helps advancing the thoughts and discussion though :)

    2. Kali,

      Firstly, i am so glad you see my comments as discussion and patiently answer them. I am always afraid of offending by asking personal questions.

      "But variety isn't incompatible with simplifying, is what I'm trying to say.". Love that ! Thank you for taking the time out and writing back. It definitely helps me a lot, reading your posts and comments.

      Have you checked out Kitchen 333/33 ? Its nothing to do with appliances but ingredients. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Lastly, " I felt drawn to this notion of simplicity imbued in traditional japanese art and culture - not only the depurated aesthetics, but also this idea that a beautiful piece is better appreciated when simply displayed on its own - for example a single flower in a vase, instead of a full bouquet.". I love this quote. May i quote you in my next blog post? Is it an original ? Any reading recommendations for me if i wanted to read more about simplicity and japanese art.


    3. I'm glad to keep the conversation going, your questions are very interesting as well. I don't pretend to know all the answers, but that's a good way to question my own beliefs as well.

      On the topic of the new kitchen 333 project, I admit I haven't taken a close look at this, because I feel this brings unnecessary complications to the simple task of cooking food. I have always gone to the market or organic store, checking out the vegetables, taking those that felt the freshest, and which I most wanted to eat (I feel the body is telling us what kind of vitamins or nutrients it needs, that's why we can sometimes crave specific foods), and I'm afraid this kind of project brings too many rules and difficulty to a process that should be quite natural. But that's also the way I feel about the initial project 333 so I'm not sure how valid my opinion is.

      To answer your question on how I feel about simplifying the ingredients - I do agree that it makes cooking easier to focus on simple dishes, a few fresh ingredients of high quality bring enough flavors, I don't think there is a need for too elaborate recipes with too many ingredients which taste cancel each other.

      However, the idea of limiting oneself to 33 ingredients in the kitchen fow however many weeks seems so limiting and boring. I think the palate needs diversity. The body needs a variety of nutrients, and even to eat healthily and avoid turning to comfort food too often it is important to vary the tastes, colours in the plate to never feel bored by eating the same thing everyday. I'm rather an advocate of buying small quantities of fresh food twice a week to avoid keeping stale stuff in the cupboards and always eat a variety of foods. So yes, I'm a bit dubious of the kitchen 333 thing...

      And finally on the Japanese culture thing, yes the sentence you quote in your comment is written by myself, but of course I took these ideas from tradition Japanese culture, and didn't invent them :) Right now all the books I read on the subject are rather academic (for my master's thesis) and I'm afraid it wouldn't be so interesting to read as an introduction to the subject, but I'll look for more general, interesting books on the subject and share them as I find them :)

  4. * If you have one area in which you own a large quantity of items, why is that?
    This is such an interesting question! Especially when you focus on things that you own a lot of but don't use very often.
    For me, the answer is embarrassing (hence posting anonymously :))
    I have an obsession with white shirts. Silk white shirts to be specific and the reasons are complex.
    I was raised in a poor family and was ridiculed for it while growing up. Deep down inside, I always envied the rich girls I was around for their access to nice things.. clothing being one of them. To me, the silk white shirt was the mark of wealth. Silk looks so easy and elegant but is so hard to maintain. It signifies someone who lives a good life, eats at nice places, takes cabs or drive everywhere, pays for a dry cleaner etc. etc. This was complete opposite of the life I lived a that time.
    Although I graduated and have a well paying job, the insecurity remains. Owning a bunch of silk Equipment blouses is a security blanket for me. I hardly wear them because they don't align with my city lifestyle but having them in my closet is reassuring.

    Marketing at its best don't you think?

    1. I love silk blouses! On the hanger. When I wear them, I sweat, drop food, and have difficulty hand-washing the stains out. Sigh. Cotton is slightly more forgiving. Slightly. I'm a knit girl, through and through.

    2. That's a very interesting testimony, thanks for sharing! You seem to have given a fair bit of thought about this, and your silk blouse collection seems to be linked to something deep indeed. I agree that it is marketing at its best - linking material needs to the feeling of security is quite classic, and I think we are all subject to this at one point or another :)

  5. I've been working on walking the fine line between "enough vs. variety vs. too little" for the last 4 years. I've found that the following helps me decide:

    1.) Do I have enough clean items of X to get me through a week before doing laundry on the weekend?
    2.) If one of X were to break suddenly, do I have a replacement(s)?
    3.) Is it boring me to tears to wear the same X over and over again?

    I've found that 2-3 pairs of jeans, plus an extra pair of slacks is the sweet spot between too much and "oh no, I have a hole in one pair, the other pair is dirty, and now I'm without pants!"

    For sweaters (which I wear constantly in winter), it's more like 4-6 sweaters.

    Blouses, I don't wear much. 1-3 will do.

    For shoes, the climate here is a strong influence on what is appropriate day-to-day. Cold, wet weather calls for a couple pairs of boots; cool, dryer weather lets me wear flats w/out socks and low heels, work calls for more dressy flats/low heels, walking outside calls for 1-2 pairs of tennis shoes. Of course, summer is sandal weather. So 1-3 pairs of each style.

    Scarves - I CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH!!! Actually, not true. I have a 1-3 in various sizes/materials/styles, and I don't feel deprived. Again, climate - rain is not kind to silk, better to wear wool/cashmere blends. Bags - Again, never enough, but realistically 3-10 in various sizes (tote, handbag, crossbody), and I don't feel deprived. I currently have 3 coats.

    1. These seem to be sound principes indeed - there is the need, the practicality, and the variety component. I hope this combination works well for you, from what you are listing is seems quite enough indeed :)
      PS: I hear you on scarves, there is always room for a new one once in a while...