Need some anti-consumerism inspiration? Check out this video where we’re urged to sell our crap, pay your debt, and do what you love.
Quite often, when I’m doing something in the kitchen. Or perhaps editing images for the blog. Or anything else that means I can focus on two things at the same time, then I listen to TED talks while I work. It’s a good way to listen, learn, and be inspired. Especially when it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day!
There’s this one anti-consumerism TED talk that I keep coming back to again and again. It’s by Adam Baker. In it, Adam shares his powerful and inspiring personal account of how he and his wife found “freedom” by ditching consumerism.
Adam and his wife sold most of their possessions, defying the ‘status quo’ of how people often perceive success. In the process, they paid off their $18,000 consumer credit and student debts. They also restructured their lives to minimise debt and get the most out of life. Instead of consumerism, they now focus on experiences and living in the moment instead of relying on possessions to make them happy.
Adam’s key point of the whole twenty-minute talk is so succinct it hurts. Put simply it’s “sell your crap, pay your debt, do what you love“.
One of the parts of the talk where I find myself nodding furiously is when Adam quotes Nigel Marsh (speaker of another great TED talk). Here he says “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation. Where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”
Another great moment is when Adam says “if you don’t answer this question [what does freedom mean to me] then there is a corporation, company or product that is happy to answer it for you”.
While the main focus of Adam’s talk is debt reduction, I think there are some very very strong parallels with sustainable living. Learning to be happy living with less and rejecting consumerim is definitely key. Therefore, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the video – it’s incredibly engaging:
Sell Your Crap, Pay Your Debt by Adam Baker
If you can’t see the video, you can watch it here.
Here’s the full transcript here if you prefer to read.
Full Sell Your Crap Transcript
Hello! Today I want to challenge you – I want to challenge you to answer a question. The good news for you is that this question is actually simple, the words in the question are actually simple. The bad news is, for thousands of years people have been trying to answer this very same question for themselves. People have dedicated their lives to this question, they fought for this question, and sometimes they’ve given their lives in defense of this question. And the question is this: what does freedom mean to you?
I’m not talking about like a dictionary definition of freedom, right? I’m not talking about an academic or even intellectual discussion about what freedom is. I am talking about what does it mean to you? What does it mean in your own life? And I know first-hand that this very question has the potential to change your life because this is the exact question that my wife Courtney and I asked ourselves three years ago.
It was a little bit of an awkward time for us to be talking about freedom. It was the night we brought my daughter Milligan home from the hospital. As new parents, we struggled for 30, 45, whatever minutes, and I used to try to get her to go to sleep in her new crib and after that, we wandered like zombies out to the kitchen table, and as we sat down, I turned to her and said, “Honey, I need to talk to you about something,” which I’ve learned after five years of marriage that, that’s the most terrible way you can possibly start a conversation. I said I want to talk to you about freedom and you can imagine what her expression was and what her response was. I can’t repeat some of it here today.
But after we started talking more about it, we realised that the timing of the situation was actually in our favour. Because if there was one thing we were lacking at that point in our life, it was clarity. It was the ability to step back and analyse how we will live in our life. And whether that was congruent with what we really wanted. It started for us on our financial life.
Our financial life had degraded I guess you could say into a simple question. And that’s ‘what item in our apartment do we want to upgrade next’? Have you ever had this discussion? Do we need to upgrade the couch or maybe we should save up and get a new kitchen table? Should we switch locations to just get a better apartment or maybe let’s just get a flatter TV and call it a day? This was our financial life at that time.
And then it should be no surprise of what our debt looked like. We were in our young 20s and not even counting the tremendous amount of student loans we carried, we had $18,000 in consumer debt, to start off our new marriage and as new parents. We had four credit cards, we had store cards, we had two automobile loans. We had a loan for the jewellery I bought to get married. We had a loan from family. I used to joke that we were collecting loans, we had one of everything except for a mortgage. And guess what we were house shopping. It was the most hectic time in our life. I just started a new business, I was working 80 hours a week. Courtney had just graduated college. She was starting a classroom as a new teacher. I mean there couldn’t have been a more hectic time in our life. And we were shopping for a mortgage. This didn’t make sense.
And as I stepped back and was given that clarity that night from bringing Milligan home, I saw it was because that was the next item on the script that we’re living our life by, and it wasn’t a script that we chose, it was a script that chose us. It chose us because we were unwilling to answer this question for ourselves.
If you’re not willing to answer this question in your life, there is somebody, a company, a person, the government, an entity that will be more than happy to answer this question for you. And you wake up one day and realise that you’re living life just based on a script.
It goes a little something like this and see if you guys can relate. Like an elementary and middle school we’re taught how to be taught. Right, we learn how to learn better. But we go on and we go to high school when grades start to matter. And if you get good grades through high school, you get to have the privilege of going tens of thousands of dollars in debt to go to college.
In college, you do a lot of stuff, and at the end of college, hopefully, you get this degree, this piece of paper, and with that comes the promise of job security, of a steady decent paying job. After that, with that job, you can get an apartment and fill it with stuff. And if you weren’t able to attract a mate in college, you surely can now with your apartment full of stuff. Two to three years later, you may have some kids, you may get a promotion, upgrade to a house and you continue this cycle for the next 30 to 40 years of your life until you reach the promised land: retirement when all your hard work pays off.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with this script unless you don’t want it. And we recognise that that kitchen table that we were living a life based on this default script and we did not want it.
So we said: what do we want? That took some time to explore but we figured out that we wanted a clean slate. We wanted to wipe away all the crap that was in our life, that was in our apartment. All this acquisition of the next thing, the next new version. We wanted to just wipe it all away.
So we were going to sell all of our stuff down to two backpacks that we can carry with us. We were going to pay off the $18,000 in consumer debt, which represented our most irresponsible spending. And we were going to spend the year back in Australia as a young family. That was our passionate goal that we set.
One year later, my wife Courtney took this picture. This is me and my daughter Milligan. She’s three and a half now; she is one in this picture. We’re sitting on a plane on the runway in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The year between the kitchen table in this picture was a tough one. We had to analyse a lot of things and look inside at a picture of ourselves that wasn’t the one we wanted people to see. It wasn’t the one that we projected. We had to change a lot of habits and a lot of beliefs in order to get there. But we were able to do it. When we boarded this plane we had two backpacks full of possessions to our name. None of the $18,000 debt that we started with and we were on our way to Australia.
From Indianapolis, we head to Chicago, from Chicago to LA, layover in LA, we head to Sydney. From Sydney we went to Cairns, Australia which is a city that’s just off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef. 28 consecutive hours of flying with a one-year-old, I’d show you some pictures of what we looked like when we landed but we made a marital pact that no living human would ever see those pictures. But I will show you one more picture from our travels.
I could just sit up here and show you a slide show. But I’m just going to show you one more. It’s this one, also again taken by my wife, so you can see she’s a great photographer.
This was off the coast of [Tansy], three to four weeks into our trip, it’s a little island called Magnetic Island. And on Magnetic Island, we were staying at a little bed and breakfast after taking a ferry to get out there. And we went on about a 30-minute hike and through the hike, we saw Wallabies right across the path. We saw koala mom and a baby koala and a tree, and it was like we were in a movie almost.
And when we got to the top of the hike we looked out over this isolated beach that was private and it just really hit me, because a feeling I haven’t felt before but it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I realised that we were living our dream. But don’t get me wrong, there was a long list of things we had no idea what we were doing, even at this point while traveling, especially with the kid. We were still learning and exploring but for better or worse for the ups and downs, we were the ones writing the script. We were the ones that were finally in control of our life.
Now I realise not everyone in this crowd wants to sell their stuff and backpack in Australia. That was our definition of freedom three years ago. It’s even changed now. But what I do know is that you need to define what freedom looks like in your life. And you need to take steps starting today to realise that.
Where does it start for most people? It starts right here with your crap. Look at the crap, it’s almost overflowing. Right, it’s almost overflowing into the cars that are in the driveway. And right now it seems like a little bit maybe of an extreme example. But the more I think about it, how many of you have friends that have garages or spare bedrooms or junk drawers or closets that look not too far away from this. It’s really not even that extreme. It’s almost more of the norm.
But I have a question for you. What happens when this person loses their job? What happens when they’re offered a better job in a different city? What happens when they need to adapt either physically, emotionally, financially to any situation that comes up in life?
The answer is at best they’re restricted, they’re held back, they’re clogged, they’re congested from adapting to any sort of change because of the amount of crap they’ve brought into their life. But we do have an out. We have a little neat trick that we do if we have to make a transition with all this crap, we put it here.
Do you realise we have created an entire multi-billion dollar industry around storing our old crap, so we can make a transition and buy new crap? Think about it. Right now there is 2.2 billion square feet of storage space in the United States alone. This is mind-blowing. Every man, woman, and child could stand shoulder to shoulder just like this under covered storage space if we had to in the United States.
So what’s the deal? You know, why are we so obsessed with buying new stuff yet so reluctant to hold on to our old stuff? How have we bought into this addiction?
And I think it’s because we’ve been sold a myth. And the myth is that acquiring things in our life in the pursuit of a living environment filled with things is going to grant us security. Most of us take it so far even to say it’s going to grant us happiness.
And in the pursuit of these things we start to identify with our things, right? You can tell who is successful and who is not. You can tell who is hip and who is not. You can tell whose garages look like the picture we had before and whose doesn’t. So we start to really identify ourselves with our physical things.
But the truth that we realised and that most people ended up waking up and realise at one point in their life is that more stuff and certainly more crap in your life isn’t going to grant you security. And it’s certainly not going to grant you happiness.
In fact, we found the exact opposite to be true. As Courtney and I went to sell layers and layers of our stuff as we were planning to go on this trip, I’m often asked a common question. And that question is did you guys sell anything that you regret? Did you ever sell anything that you had to buy back or did you ever sell anything you just disappointed and you had to get back?
And every time I am asked this question when I get to share my story, I try to genuinely think about it. I’m even thinking about it right now. The answer is always the same. No, not a single item, not a single time did I sell something, I’d be like get mad and regret that decision. Not a single time did I sell an item and go, ‘oh, I feel so insecure right now’. It was the opposite.
As we sold layers of our crap, we realised we felt the weight being lifted off of us. We felt more flexible, more agile, easier to bounce back from anything that negative that was going to come into our life. And we were more free to capitalise on opportunity. We weren’t held back by our physical possessions any longer.
Not only that but we started to look at other people and realised that these people’s identity is not based on their stuff. Their identity should be based on their experiences. It’s not about collecting expensive stuff or nice stuff. It should be about collecting rich experiences. We should identify with people and identify with ourselves based on a series of experiences in our lives, not what we own.
But I want to talk to you a little bit more about the American Dream as well. We’re all familiar with the American Dream and it’s not even that American anymore, it’s all over the world. And there is this idea that if you work really hard, you’re able to buy into this fantastic lifestyle, right? And not much is still true.
And as much as I’ve outlined and suggested that consumerism is a problem for most of us and it is. If the equation stayed this linear, stayed this simple it would be easy to deal with, right? You want more money, what do you do? You buy less. You want to switch jobs or work less, you buy less. Sounds simple, almost too simple and it really is.
But over the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve played a little trick on ourselves. We’ve added in a piece to this puzzle that makes it much more vicious. We found a way that we no longer have to work hard before we buy, we no longer have to work for that lifestyle. We can just tap right into it. Of course, you know what I’m talking about. It’s debt. So we buy. In order to buy that fabulous lifestyle without working for it, we all go into debt. We do this at a young age, we do this at an old age, it’s the norm.
And debt has been around for thousands of years in some form or another. But we’ve perfected it in the last 20 or 30 years. We’ve perfected the daily use of it. We’ve perfected it for everyday activities. And what that does is we’re out to buy into that lifestyle and our justification for this is – and we’re good at justifying it is that we’re going to be going to work, so we’ll just buy into this lifestyle now and then we’ll pay off our debts as we work. So it keeps us going back to work. Well, that’d be great if we liked our jobs, right?
Most of us don’t like our jobs. In fact, most of us strongly dislike our jobs. And we don’t have the flexibility to switch, because we got into debt. Not only do we have to pay the bills now, now we have to pay our debt. So we go back to working longer and harder hours at jobs we already hate.
Is there a better equation for stress on the planet than spending the majority of your waking hours working at a job you hate in order to pay debt from a buying decision you made years ago? It’s no wonder we’re stressed out. No wonder we’re overworked.
And how do we deal with that stress? There are two ways. Most of us deal with that stress, we eat and we buy, right? We escape the daily grind by buying. We deserve it, we work hard. That’s how we justify it. And some of us buy clothes, some of us buy gadgets. Most of us buy vacations to warm places just to escape our jobs. But we didn’t have money in the first place. That’s why we’re in debt.
My message for you today is that your life is too important to stay trapped in this cycle. Nigel marsh had a TED talk in Sydney and he summed this up much better than I can. He said, ‘There are thousands and thousands of people living lives of quiet, screaming desperation, working long hard hours at jobs they hate, to buy stuff they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like’.
When I first heard him say this in his own TED talk, it almost knocked the wind out of me. It actually almost hurts to repeat this, because it’s so true. But I want you to imagine — imagine what your life would be like, how much more fulfilling your life would be if starting today you made a commitment to start collecting experiences and not things.
I want you to imagine how much more opportunity and flexibility would be in your life if you would remove the stress and the weight of your debt. And I want us all to sit here and imagine how much more an impactful world we would live in if each and every one of us got to wake up in the morning, not because our alarm clock went off, but because we were excited about dedicating ourselves to work we loved, to a job we actually enjoyed, to a business that was based on our passions.
The problem is complex but the solution is very simple. Remove the excess that is holding you back. Remove the crap from your life. Remove the daily reliance on debt from your life and you’ll be more free to start doing work that you actually care about. That’s the path to security. That’s the path to happiness.
One more observation I have for you. Do you realise that we are the freest people in the history of mankind? Do you realise that you walk amongst the freest human beings to ever walk the earth?
What are you doing with that freedom? How are you utilising this amazing gift that you’ve been given? It starts by answering one question: what does freedom look like to you? It’s the answer to this question – your own unique answer to this question that has the power to change your life. It’s your own unique answer to this very question that has the potential to change the world if you’ll step up and let it.
So my challenge for you today is to go out and find your answer to this question and when you do, that will be an idea worth sharing.
ps: the gist of the talk reminded me of the late comedian Bill Hicks. I could watch his DVDs time and time again and never get bored!
ps: more anti-consumerism inspiration here.