Organizers help people simplify their lives by downsizing. We also aim to teach people how to sustain a less cluttered and encumbered life by developing deeper self-awareness and better habits of maintenance. Downsizing isn’t just deciding what goes out, it’s bringing less in, and part of the way to do that is to become a lean consumer. You gotta nip that baby in the bud with questions like, “Do I really need this? Am I actually going to use it? Is that use relevant to my values, what I want out of life, and my needs? Is it going to be enduring in its ability to bring me little bursts of sunshine every time I use it or is it just a cheap thrill? “.
In my curiosity, I started looking into the psychology of shopping and all the little tricks retailers, big box stores, and online commerce use to reeeeel you in. There’s the smells, the music, the art of display, the skinny model that you’ll look like if you try it on, the clickability, the seduction of an image (we’re very visual creatures). There’s the mirage that you’re actually making choices, being a participant, and for so many, feeling a little less lonely and isolated. You’re PART of something. You’re a member of a salient brand. AND you have great taste!
Then there’s the cultural brainwash that we are what we own. Malarky! In the Official Spacial Rehab Video I say, “You….are not your stuff, and your stuff is not your life.” And I’m saying it again.
Delving even deeper into the questions of, “Why do we have this mindless compulsion to acquire? Why do we equate ownership with being somebody? Where does our possessiveness come from?”…one parable of the speciousness of these trained responses is this scenario: Let’s say we’re shopping at Century 21. We’re going through the racks and have a little pile happening that we plan to take into the fitting room. We find an extra hook at the end of the aisle, hang our try-ons there momentarily so we can use both hands to sift…and some fashionista on her lunch hour comes along and starts checking out our stack! Red lights start flashing. Intruder! Intruder! That beeatch is going through MY stuff. But we haven’t bought anything yet so technically, it’s not ours at all. BUT!…we still have feelings of ownership because we’ve already chosen these things. We’ve already decided we want them or might want them, but it’s OUR selection of options. We do not like this person. She is an interloper. She’s competition. “Excuse me Miss, but that’s MY pile.” IOW’s….”Get the hell out of my yard!”
I got my very first idea for a blog entry way back in 2012 while I was wandering the aisles of Duane Reade. During flusher times I would have bought a few things that I can no longer afford, like that jar of $39.95 face cream that promises me it will reverse gravity and the direction of my jowls within two weeks. My mind then went through the paces of my given resources, noticing my instilled urge to buy, the anticipation of instant gratification inherent in this activity, and finally the reality check that I, in fact, did not really need any of the things I was looking at. I either had something at home that I could use up first or adapt or on a ten beat count I could decide that those sexy jars of emollients are irrelevant and my limited resources should be reserved for better use. I can improve my skin by drinking more water, eating my vegetables, getting more exercise and sleep.
At the moment I made this decision, I felt this small but significant sensation of triumph because I had differentiated between desire and need and made a conscious choice to resist. I had broken free from the mesmerizing and insidious grip of retail marketing.
Indeed, marketing, as well as so many other factors in our capitalist society operates by planting in our minds an urgent sense of need when in fact, it’s merely impulse and desire. Causing us to confuse the difference between want and need is a trick, and the more it metastasizes into our brain the more malleable we become. Clutter, complexity, and obfuscation are an enmeshed triad of factors in why we’ve been programmed to have too much “stuff” materially and in our heads.
I’ll add to this train of thought that competition is also a false precept of capitalism and that slightly hostile tinge we feel when an intruder enters our shopping space at Century 21 is learned behavior. According to Alfie Kohn, in No Contest: The Cases Against Competition “Trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things”. He goes on to say that competitiveness is not natural to the human condition nor is it healthy, as it is claimed. It’s a cultural way of thinking, tied to our attachment to individualism and belief that to be a citizen is to have a piece of the grid that’s ours to keep and guard and that this chunk of the domain is who we are, in the way that people are their cars in California. Kohn also adamantly asserts that we achieve much more, with better and more sustainable results through cooperation with others. I agree with Kohn and this blog entry is about presenting a cogent argument that explains my alignment and what this all has to do with being an organizer.
I discovered Kohn’s takedown of our culturally misguided belief in competition in the first few pages of Teaming Up by Sarah Edwards and Rick Benzel. I was looking for sound business advice on how to handle working with associates, and found the added bonus of this incisive statement: “…..whereas competition often squanders resources, cooperation maximizes them”. It expands far beyond creating more productive business relationships to addressing the root of our troubled state of environmental and political affairs on a global level.
In that very first blog entry, It’s All About Ratio I establish that I’m a huge advocate of sharing resources and that this attitude is a guiding principle of my business. I state, “You can meet your own needs and often the needs of others with resourcefulness and mindfulness. It’s about the correlation between what’s available and how it’s used.” I further riff about my hero Jared Diamond who wrote the books Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He also talks about the relationship between an adaptive relationship to supply and sustainability. In his discussion about the rise and fall of civilizations and why some lasted and others did not, one of the critical factors of survival is understanding the balance between resources and how they’re maintained and applied. If they’re taken for granted and squandered, collapse follows. And as Kohn, Edwards and Benzel state, “competition squanders resources”. So it stands to reason that there are grounds to question our consumerist society, and just in the way I’ll help you clean out your closet, I’ll encourage you to re-think the whole thing in a more appropriate and adaptive way.
In their brilliant book Simple (Conquering the Crisis of Complexity), Alan Seigal and Irene Etzkorn liken complexity to clutter. And they point out all kinds of things that are refulgent sparks in this discussion of the fall out from oblivious material attachment. My notes from this book are filled with gems like, “Because it takes work to streamline, organize and clarify, people tend to skip it. They give in to the impulse to take the path of least resistance which is to ignore or tolerate complexity. This puts it off at first, but soon the path of least resistance becomes completely overgrown.” If this isn’t a spot-on description of why my clients come to me feeling overwhelmed and stressed out I don’t know what is. Then there are other quotes like:
“The key to breakthrough simplicity is to question the content and make sure it reflects reality.”
“Complexity is not a necessary evil. It’s a thief to apprehend, robbing us of time, patience, understanding and optimism.” (This is similar to what Kohn has to say about the competition.)
“Complexity gets worse over time.” (what I call “mulch”, “residue”, or what fellow organizer Gail Blanke of Throw Out Fifty Things calls “life’s plaque”. )
“Clutter and confusion are failures of design and not attributes of information.”
The most biting point Seigal and Etzkorn make relevant to revealing how our cultural consumerist mindset is fabricated and not a natural and/or superior world view is that complexity and the confusion it causes is often intentionally created by banks, corporations, government agencies, (and I add to this list academe and any kind of bureaucracy), to cloak their machinations. The more powerless people feel in the face of complexity, the more they’re apt to surrender to it and the easier it is to manipulate them. And on an even more sordid but unfortunately present level, holding us hostage to complexity makes us believe we have no other choice.
Identifying this feeling of being too beaten down to take action and cut through the crud is at the very nexus of my passion as an organizer. I believe in empowerment. I want my clients to overcome their feelings of helplessness and become independent. It’s not only a transformation and reclamation of their environment that I want them to participate in, learn and eventually take charge of, but it’s also a change in their consciousness in which they take back their power to think for themselves, rally their resolve and not collapse into consumptive patterns. In tandem with this goal is my belief in collective prosperity. I want my clients to put into use the realization that their welfare is connected to the world around them and none of us are alone. I want them to shift from being isolated and buried in their stuff to plugged into a greater good.
How we “maximize” our resources is a matter of efficiency, getting organized, simplification, and becoming integrated with the world. At the outset, this reset takes work, energy, careful thought, dialogue and time. The reward and gratification aren’t immediate, they’re gradual and manifold. But in the end, it saves an enormous amount of energy, time and resources because it functions in a more direct, clarified and smooth manner. It’s also worth it. We’re worth it. This world we share is worth it. It’s a world that’s in danger of unraveling from diminishing resources, but the potential of collective prosperity through shared economies and resources holds up hope for the future. On a larger scale, as I point out in Consolidation is a Cultural Shift, downsizing, taking up a smaller footprint to meet consolidated needs, and the effectiveness of doing more with less has become a global movement. And what does being an organizer have to do with all of this? We focus on bringing about this kind of positive transformation in the environment and the cultural mindset on an individual scale, one person/family at a time.
I leave you with some great links that are relevant to a conversation about shared resources and collective prosperity, and in my view, a necessary cultural sea change in consciousness from “this is mine!” to “this is ours”. If you have some to add to this list, please do!
Why Americans Are Crappy Sharers
Lisa Gansky founder of The “Mesh”
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