Curating Life: Refreshing our environment to reflect our values

Tim Farrand
Vincent van Gogh, The Pink Peach Tree, 1888

Spring cleaning... As the air warms and fills with the scents of budding flowers we begin to feel the need to freshen up our own spaces. After the hibernation of winter, the places we inhabit tend to call for straightening up and cleaning out to match the transformation of renewal happening outside our windows.

In the natural world, springtime is a period for wiping away the old, removing the vestiges of last year, to make way for new growth. There is a renewed energy, a freshness that pervades the world around us with little chance that we are not also pulled in its direction.

For many, this is a time to get things in order. Put the books back on the shelf, clear the kitchen counters, organize the messy cabinets, and remove the layer of dust that has formed during the dark winter months now starkly apparent in the brightness of spring. But the reviving of our spaces should be more than just polishing the surface and returning objects that have been used next to what hasn't been noticed for years. Spring should be an opportunity for us to follow nature's lead and freshen our environments by clearing away what no longer has a purpose to make room for the things that truly matter.

Our Spaces Dictate Our Actions

Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…

Henry David Thoreau

The spaces we inhabit have a direct impact on how we feel, live, and act.

Our movements are dictated by the accessibility of our space. Over the last three months, I have completely ignored my favorite reading nook—a tiny square space adjoining the corner of my office with a small window whose real purpose is utterly unknown yet perfect for isolating oneself in a book—because there was a keyboard case laying on the ground at its entrance. The case was thrown there haphazardly as I was running out the door one afternoon only 30 feet from its unobtrusive hiding place.

In the 48 hours since I moved the case, I have felt a renewed sense of peace during the several hours spent reading in my nook. It had been hard to focus on reading these past few months but now, magically, I feel calm and completely entranced when in the nook. That one obstacle had a profound impact on one of the most valued aspects of my time.

After returning from a trip at the end of February I piled the books I brought with me, as well as the half dozen or so that I bought, upon my desk. Instead of clearing them up, I chose to avoid the desk and write on the couch instead. The result: I haven't been able to enter into my usual state of flow. Every moment spent typing has been a slog making my efforts slow-moving and inconsistent.

After ten minutes spent putting the books away, my desk is cleared and my writing has regained its normal rhythm.

Our spaces are not just containers for our things; they dictate the way we act. Our habits are often tied to specific locations: I write at the desk, I read in the nook, and I use the counter to prepare food. When these spaces are cluttered those habits get disturbed.

While this seems obvious now I didn't realize it at the time. It is only through reflection that I notice the ways, positive or negative, that the environments I spend my time in impact the actions I take.

The spaces we choose to inhabit should reflect who we are, what we value, and how we use them. Our environment should empower us instead of becoming a collection of stuff pushed into corners or drawers without any sense of curation.

Curating Our Environment

An artist creates a painting layer by layer, element by element, with deep consideration as to what to add in order to enhance the beauty, emotional depth, or impact of the work. This collection of carefully curated elements works together to create a unique and powerful effect on the viewer.

Watch this time-lapse of an oil painting, titled "A Lasting Impact," as this artist aims to capture the feelings felt one morning at the incredible Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park:

A painter often creates by addition while a sculpture that uses a block of marble takes away elements in order to expose the possibilities contained within. These two elements—addition and subtraction—are at the base of curating the artistic design of our own spaces to illuminate their beauty and purpose.

An active curation of space

When taking a look at how to curate our spaces most of us are not starting from a blank canvas. We live in environments filled with years of accumulated stuff. As we advance through life the objects that we value change. What was needed ten years ago is probably different than what we need today but we often hold on to the old.

Holding on to what no longer serves a purpose decreases the utility of everything else.

In order to find the renewal of space that nature inspires or to curate our lives like an artist, we need to be able to strip away what was perhaps once useful in order to allow the essential to shine through. Just as nature clears a way for new life to emerge each spring, we need to do the same as the seasons of our own lives change.

Over time we become desensitized to the accumulation that adds up around us. As we begin to curate our own spaces we need to become more sensitized to what has inhabited our environment.

The act of clearing away what no longer serves a purpose, what perhaps unknowingly preys upon us and holds us back, will allow an infusion of fresh energy and comfort into our spaces. The amount of joy, comfort, happiness, and effectiveness created by our environment is in direct proportion to the purpose of the objects within it. Anything without a reason for being there will only diminish the possibilities of the space.

Minimalist Challenge

For the past two years, my fiancée and I have used the month of March as a time to free ourselves from the things which we have been living with but that haven't been enhancing our lives. We do this through the 30-Day Minimalism Game created by The Minimalists.

The goal of the challenge is to take a look at the objects you are living with and consider what value they add to your life. On the first day of the month, you find one item to get rid of, an item that either has no value or takes away from the value of something else. On day 2, you get rid of two items. Day 3, three items, etc. By the time you get to the last day, you are getting rid of 30 items but over the course of a month you are freeing up around 465 items. We play in March so we go to the 31st and get rid of just shy of 500 things.

500 seems like a lot but in reality, we have thousands of items in our homes, offices, cars, bags, etc. Many of these items no longer—or perhaps never did—serve a purpose. It could be something big like a piece of furniture or as small as a chopstick that no longer has a mate. All it takes is opening up the drawers, going through the cabinets, or looking at what is hiding in plain sight to begin to see things that you have been carrying around but don't actually provide any value.

…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Henry David Thoreau

Through the Minimalist Challenge, we have gotten rid of a lot of clothes that were not worn for years, kitchen gadgets that were accumulated but never really useful, books that we no longer feel connected to, old electronics that no longer work, and much more. Freeing up this space has allowed what is truly meaningful to illuminate our lives.

Curating your space is not just about getting rid of things but making space for that which will add value instead of clutter. The goal is to make everything you own your favorite or most useful thing. Every piece of clothing you wear is your favorite clothing. Every item in your kitchen is the most useful and enjoyable. Every book you keep is truly meaningful to you.

We need to become more sensitized to our space, not less. Through active curation of our environment, we are able to create the experience we wish to have when being within our home, office, car, or anywhere that we spend a large portion of our time.

In the end, your spaces become transformed. You look around and see everything that brings meaning and positive emotions into your life. You design the spaces to be efficient for what they are used for and you go from one space to the next finding joy in them all.

This brings to mind an old George Carlin sketch that highlights our human evolution to accumulate more and more stuff.

Essential, not minimal

Many have misconceptions of the word "minimalism" thinking that it means getting rid of all your stuff for the sake of having next to nothing. In reality, it is a process of highlighting what is most meaningful to you by getting rid of that which adds nothing. In essence: maximizing utility through minimizing the superfluous.

Perhaps a more useful term would be "essentialism" and Greg McKeown's book on the subject gives a great definition of the act of curating your life: [1]

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have a clear, smooth passage.

Artful curation should be an ongoing process as we change over time. What is meaningful to us this year might not be next. Atrophy can set in and things can build up, taking away from those essential elements in our lives. Becoming sensitized to our environments will enhance the quality of our lives as we actively curate spaces filled with value and meaning.

We are all artists given the task of designing our lives.

April 13, 2022

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1. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less (London: Virgin Books, 2014), 7.