McMinimalism Is Sabotaging Your Quest for a Simpler Life

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Minimalism has become mainstream.

And honestly, it’s easy to see why: With thousands of ads, notifications, and inputs bombarding your brain every day, minimalism promises an effective antidote to chaos. If you trim down your life to the essentials, you’ll finally gain space to breathe. That’s the promise, at least.

But here’s the big fat irony:

Somewhere along the way, minimalism itself joined the swarm of overwhelming inputs and aggressive sales strategies. Gurus and marketers started leveraging the ideology of minimalism to sell products, distract from their wasteful policies, and assuage consumption.

These days, it’s not hard to find a shirt branded as “minimalist” that was bleached in China, sewn in Bangladesh, and retailed on the shrine of a massive mall in the US. Brought to your attention through incredible marketing at an unbelievable price.

Can a product like that really be minimalist? And does buying it make you one? Hardly.

I think it’s time to differentiate between the original idea of minimalism — the quest for a simpler, more intentional life — and the emerging counterpart that has turned into a neatly packaged product.

The latter is what I call it McMinimalism.

The Roots and Troubles of McMinimalism

To understand this new twist on minimalism, it helps to know some history.

What many people don’t know is that minimalism has deep philosophical roots. The first public figure of minimalism was probably Diogenes the Cynic (ca. 412 BC), who defied societal aspirations of accumulating status and possessions. He merely owned a cloak, a stick, and a leather pouch.

Other philosophical movements — like the Stoics — continued this idea of detaching from materialism. In one of his letters, Seneca writes:

“… I do not forbid you to possess [wealth], but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it …”

What does minimalism look like in the 21st century? Modern definitions of minimalism typically include these two elements:

  1. Intentionally focusing on the things that matter most.
  2. Eliminating anything that stands in the way of that mission.

Noble ideas. And yet, when they drop into the ocean of a post-capitalistic society, most people aren’t satisfied by just spreading them. They also need to package them with overblown promises and, of course, sell them. The baby of this unlikely mashup between minimalism and marketing is McMinimalism.

Sounds familiar?

Yep, something similar happened with mindfulness a few decades ago. Mindfulness is the ancient Buddhist idea of openly experiencing the present moment without judging it, given that no explanation or label will ever do it justice.

Salespeople love to disagree.

And so, they gave birth to the McMindfulness industry. In a frenzy, gurus launched books, workshops, and apps to “teach” mindfulness. And while it’s great to see the practice spreading, there’s one massive problem: relentless commercialization. Mindfulness has turned into an oversold, overpromised, and overpriced ideal. (Along the way, it has lost rich cultural context, but that’s another topic.)

Minimalism went through the same transformation.

These days, it’s often marketed as the ultimate remedy to the disease of consumerism. The blueprint for a perfect life. And sure, just like mindfulness, minimalism can help people live better and overcome certain problems. However: it’s not the magic bullet.

And it certainly can’t be bought.

Despite this, McMinimalism continues to take over self-help books, fashion, furniture, and home goods. Again: it’s nice to see good ideas spread. But unfortunately, most of these products betray the principles they claim to stand behind. And as a result, they’re sabotaging people’s chances for a simpler life.

Let’s look at one particularly striking example.

Marie Kondo’s Overwhelming Home Collection

Marie Kondo is the queen of tidying up and decluttering. Her elevator pitch is simple: If you toss out everything in your life that doesn’t “spark joy,” you’ll be much, much happier. And sure, this would be an amazing idea — if it actually worked.

Here are three central flaws:

  • A boomerang effect. Marie’s advice is to declutter all your possessions in one go to create a “joy-sparking” home within a few days. Unfortunately, this ambitious and radical advice might encourage you to fill trash bags without considering economic or environmental repercussions. After a few days, you might need to buy back the items that didn’t spark joy but were still useful.
  • It’s a privilege. Clearing out your house based on the (irrational and emotional) “spark joy logic” requires you to have a financial safety net that allows you to buy back any items you might need after all.
  • The real journey is inward. If attaining happiness was as easy as one big decluttering campaign, everyone’s home would be neatly organized, and landfills would turn into mountains. The problem? External circumstances can’t solve internal problems.

But here comes the spicy chili pepper in the salty soup:

Since releasing her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie quietly shifted her mission from “tidying up” to “sparking joy.” She even boldly announced that her KonMari Method isn’t part of minimalism. Why did she make this change? It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to find out: 

Marie Kondo is a brand. And this brand wants to sell.

A ton of stuff.

In 2019, she launched her online store with a (vastly overwhelming) selection of home goods. In an interview with FastCompany, Marie says she first got the idea when followers asked her about items she uses “every day that spark joy.”

Well, it looks like she uses a lot of items every day:

Screenshot of the “Shop” tab on Marie Kondo’s website
IKEA for aspiring minimalists: Marie Kondo’s vast e-commerce offer. (Source: konmari.com)

Or, maybe — just maybe — this is an e-commerce empire that doesn’t care so much about helping you spark joy as it loves making a profit.

But hey, if you need something to soothe your emotionally exploited nerves, here’s a tuning fork & quartz crystal set for $75. Or check out that “calming” cardboard organizer for $25. Need something to collect your tears? This $40 glass jar can help (it’s on sale!).

Jokes aside — I do understand the strategy. To some extent.

Entrepreneurs need to sell stuff to keep themselves and their businesses alive. And to get there, they might need to market their products aggressively and emotionally. All of that would be somewhat acceptable — if it weren’t for the toxic, hypocritic subtext.

“If you buy this product,” it silently screams at you, “your life will magically be happier, cleaner, and tidier. In fact, your home could look just as zen as the pictures on Marie’s website — all you need to do is throw away your old stuff and replace it with our home goods worth thousands of dollars.”

McMinimalism in a nutshell.

The Overly Sellable Aesthetic of Minimalism

But it goes beyond cherry-picking examples like Marie Kondo.

If McMinimalism has made one thing clear, it’s that minimalism is a “look” you can buy. Whether it’s a stylish sweater, designer laptop, or furniture — the premise tends to be the same: Here’s a product that will radically simplify your lifestyle while also making you happier, calmer, and more progressive.

In fact, the marketing strategies go deeper.

It’s not so much that you buy a minimalist product — it’s more that you literally buy the lifestyle of minimalism. Brands subtly communicate that purchasing a “minimalist product” actually makes you a minimalist. The product is a means to an end.

The problem is, of course, that this goes against the very essence of minimalism. A simpler life isn’t something you can buy. It’s something you have to live. And to get started, nobody cares about your computer brand, fashion style, or how you furnish your apartment.

The truth is simply this: Minimalism is available today. To everyone.

But, of course, most gurus don’t want you to know that because then you wouldn’t need to buy their course, subscribe to their Patreon, or purchase other overpriced products.

A Funky Twist on the American Dream

Ultimately, McMinimalism is a wicked remix of the American Dream.

McMinimalism took the previous path of salvation — work hard, earn money, buy nice stuff — and turned it upside down. The new route suggests working less, having less money, and buying less stuff. And at first, this seems nice. It’s a neat counterplay.

But the trouble is that this new path still contains a promise — a condition — you must meet. The toxic idea is, “If only this happened, then I could finally be happy.” And sure, minimalism is a supremely useful concept, but it doesn’t singlehandedly guarantee The Good Life.

Now, full disclosure: I’m painfully aware that I’m also contributing to McMinimalism.

I write about minimalism not just because I enjoy it but also because it sells much better than my other topics — like loneliness. It’s easier to offer decluttering tips with quick results than lay out a profound philosophical concept that takes hard work to understand and implement.

This creates another paradox: Minimalism is a highly saturated topic. And as a result, people who search for advice on it get overwhelmed by choices.

Ironic.

Think about it — how many minimalist apartment videos are uploaded on YouTube every day? How many blog posts on simple living are launched into the vast void of the internet? How many pictures with minimalist aesthetics get posted on Instagram day-to-day?

Frankly, I don’t know.

But certainly way too many.

One Question for You

I don’t want to tell you how you should live your life. Feel free to support Marie Kondo if her products spark joy in your life, buy a course on minimalism, or furnish your apartment in monochrome colors. 

There’s nothing wrong with that. Seriously.

But whenever you make one of these decisions, ask yourself, “Am I buying this because it actually helps me live a simpler life, or am I buying into the sheer ideology of minimalism?” 

In other words, do you want to purchase the concept of minimalism, or do you want to experience it? Do you want ethics or aesthetics?

McMinimalism wants to tell you that if your life looks minimalist, it is, in fact, easy. Zen. Blissful. But if you’re looking to live up to the original idea of minimalism — less clutter, more intent — it takes real actions and restraints.

So, don’t let McMinimalism sabotage your quest for a simpler life.

Minimalism can’t be bought. It has to be lived.