I recently had the opportunity to go see and hear Courtney Carver, of Be More With Less. Courtney is the creator of the minimalist fashion challenge, Project 333, launched in 2010. What started as a quest for her own goals has become a movement with tens of thousands of people in over 80 countries, people committed to the Project 333 principles. The challenge, simply speaking: Create and wear a wardrobe with only 33 items (clothes, accessories, jewelry, and shoes) for a 3-month period. This is called a “capsule wardrobe”. On an ongoing basis, revisit that wardrobe every 3 months, make any necessary changes to those 33 pieces, and repeat. Season after season.
I thought I was going to this event. to learn about clothes. I was totally wrong. I learned about myself. But the only way I can tell you that story is, well, if I first tell you about the clothes.
As an organizer, Project 333 has been on my radar, but I didn’t know anyone who has tried it (or, if I do, I didn’t know it). I saw Courtney featured in The Minimalism Film: A Documentary About the Important Things, and appreciated that the phenomenon came a little more to life for me when I saw her speak about her experience. So, when a colleague in my NAPO-New England chapter said she’d been able to arrange for Courtney to appear in Boston as part of her Tiny Wardrobe Tour, I knew it would be a great opportunity to learn even more. While I was skeptical about the concept of trying Project 333 myself, I knew I wanted to learn more, for me and for my clients. I’ve done a lot of simplifying my life and my stuff, and I bring this to my clients all the time, as they want to live a calmer, less stressful, more organized life. This was going to be one more strategy I knew I could talk to my clients about.
To keep myself honest and self-aware, before I left my home, I counted my clothes. The number surprised me a little; It wasn’t bad, but I’d done so much paring down of my wardrobe over the past three years, since leaving the corporate life, that I’d thought I’d done better. I’d gotten rid of the easy things; the harder decisions lingered. Going into the evening, I was already feeling ripe for a change, once I’d done the math. I knew I owned more than I need.
As I sat with the number, I listened to my mind make categories, as if to pre-emptively justify my wardrobe, and justify my resistance. I *need* to have these categories, even if there is a small volume in each. (I already know some of the volumes aren’t as small as they could be.)
That was followed by the feeling of “I wouldn’t like to be seen in the same thing all the time. I’d feel like people would think….. ” What? What exactly was I afraid people would think about me? I heard this voice in my head challenge me back, and I knew this was a start to unlock a bit about what the difference is going to be between where I am at, and where Courtney and her Project 333 followers are. So, into the room, I went.
Courtney began to tell us what she’d share with us: What her life was like before her “enough is enough” moment, what that moment was, meant and did, how she started and continued Project 333, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Then she’d get to her favorite part: The questions!
Courtney told her story of growing up, and becoming an adult, always with a focus on shopping and building her wardrobe. We all laughed when she told us a story of being a kid in the 80’s at Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston, the unique and defunct shopping experience like no other, that so many of us knew personally. She talked about identifying with Carrie from Sex and the City, and valuing shoes over rent. She talked about her life, shopping for every event and every emotion, believing that the clothes she wore would make her be perceived the way she wanted to be: Beautiful, Smart, Loved. She shopped and bought and bought some more. And she built a wardrobe that never brought her happiness, no matter how hard she tried, no matter how hard she believed that it someday would.
If you’ve read anything about Courtney, you’ll know her “enough is enough” moment was in 2006 when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. It launched for her a radical change throughout all aspects of her life — nutrition, fitness, work, home, debt, clutter, and, eventually, her wardrobe. She sought to reduce stress in her life everywhere she could, believing strongly this would be the key to her making a difference in her health, and her life with this diagnosis. (By the way. she firmly believes she has ten years of evidence now that this is true.)
It finally came time for her to face her wardrobe, this collection of things that did not make her happy or healthy, that only brought stress and a slew of negative feelings and voices in her head: the debt she’d gotten in, the clothes with tags never worn, the ones that didn’t fit and may never fit again, the clothes she just hated, the ones that just didn’t make her feel what she wanted to feel when she bought it. Her closet, her clothes, made her feel bad about herself. (I know I can relate to that; can you?) Every day she looked into it to decide what to wear, she was stressed, she was hammered by those voices. She knew she needed a drastic move to make change happen. The idea for this challenge to herself: eliminate the stress that the wardrobe brought into her life by simplifying, in every way possible, the choices she had to make each day about what to wear. Eliminate the things that don’t work, that she didn’t love, that didn’t fit her lifestyle and focus purely on need. Minimal need.
She gathered EVERYTHING she owned in all the categories, and looked at it in one big pile, so she could appreciate what she’d done to herself, to her life, with this unending, unsatisfying road of acquisition. She quickly began to eliminate items permanently to donation, selected items she loved, had a holding pile of some maybes, and started creating her rules, the boundaries she needed to move forward and stay honest:
What goes into the capsule wardrobe; clothes, including outer wear, jewelry, accessories (including purses and sunglasses), and shoes.
What doesn’t: Underwear, sleep wear, lounge wear that you shouldn’t wear out of the house, and workout wear, if you’re genuinely wearing them to work out.
She created her number of 33, which she admits has no magic to it; she knew the right number was somewhere between 25 and 42, and 33 was as good a number as any, and could be catchy enough as “Project 333”. And she built her first capsule, and put the rest of her maybes in totes and carted them away, not to be looked at again for 3 months. She shared it took about 3 years to truly eliminate all the maybes into yeses and nos, She also explained that a lot of her 33 is shared in multiple seasons; 20 of the items in her summer capsule were also in her Spring one, as the weather at the beginning and end of each season in Salt Lake City share similar very highs and very lows in climate.
She shared it publicly on her blog — a great way to keep her accountable — and immediately, 100 people raised their hands and said, “Me, too! I’m in!”. After two weeks, she truly felt her morning routine was easier and less stressful. A month in, a reporter from The Associated Press reached out and wanted to do a story on her. When the story came out, it went everywhere… and that is when she learned that even her colleagues truly *hadn’t* noticed that she was wearing the same things all the time. The rest, as they say, is history.
As she wrapped up her talk about her journey, she told us the lessons she’s learned as a result of going on this journey, this experiment:
- I need way less than I think I do to be happy
- Nobody cares what I’m wearing. They care what THEY are wearing. Even if they notice, they don’t care.
- Deciding what to wear each day requires mental energy that can be better spent on other things
- A simple closet is the gateway to a simple life. You get a real curiosity to see what else you do to make life easier, better, happier once you start this temporary experiment.
- Simplicity is the way back to love — love of people, of work, of life. I had to get rid of the things I don’t love, to get back to, and to make the space for, the things that I do. Letting go isn’t hard. It’s the Holding On that takes time, energy and money, every day.
- You will never find something that makes you feel beautiful, smart, and loved. until you believe you are all of those things.
- A simple life isn’t the end goal. It is to live a life of passion and purpose. Simple life just helps us get there.
These were heavy concepts, big picture statements. I wanted to think about them more, but she was ready now to dive into questions from the audience, her favorite part of the Tour. In an hour, she answered dozens. Some of them are ones I expect she gets all the time:
- How often do you do laundry? Do your clothes wear out?
- Do you go shopping? When do you replace things? How has shopping changed?
- How about weight fluctuations?
- What do you think about convertible clothes or clothing rental services?
- How do you think about uniforms or very specific work clothes (like if you paint in them for a living)?
- What if… I love my jewelry? I love my purses? I don’t have enough choices? It’s hot AND cold in the same 3 months? and so on…
It was this last set of questions that started to shout in my head, these “what if” questions… the ones that all seem to say, “What if I can’t, because that part is too hard?” Hearing all these questions in different forms, and hearing her answers, delicate but clear, all added up. Right in front of me, the whole evening blew open wide for me. Until now, I’d thought it was about how to wear only 33 things for 3 months. It’s not. It’s not that at all.
It’s SUPPOSED to be hard. It’s about doing something HARD because you believe there is value in what you experience, what you learn, what you shift for yourself as a result of doing it. If you’re just doing the parts that are easy, it isn’t a CHALLENGE. If you’re just doing the parts that are easy, you won’t change your life. If you’re just doing the parts that are easy, the things that cause stress, distraction, anxiety, aggravation with yourself, are all still there. Oh, and by the way, it’s JUST THREE MONTHS. You don’t have to throw your other clothes away; just store them out of sight. It is an experiment. Aren’t you strong enough to try an experiment for just three months, even if it is hard, if it could help you live a better, happier, easier life?
As other questions came her way, I started connecting huge pieces to that big answer. She talked about her process of decluttering her home, and really thinking critically about what she owned and why. “Why do we have this dining room set, the one I *had* to have, and *never* use? Why do we have seating in this house for 27, when we are a family of 3? Why do we have a living room AND a family room, and why do we need to furnish both? We make this huge investment in real estate because we think it’s the right thing to pursue, and every day, we increase our investment, in money, in time, in energy. (Those of you who know me and my philosophy know that the money, time and energy buckets are my big “thing”) We lose our free time to take care of the lawn. We spend money on repairs and replacements. This investment costs more and more from us… and why?”
She and her husband began a process called “Simplicity Summits”, where they could talk about those big questions about their lives, and how they are spending them, and give these important topics the right attention and frame of mind, so they can discuss them in times of quiet, not of stress and exhaustion. It is out of these talks where they’ve made the life changes they now embrace as the key to their health and happiness, including selling that home and downsizing. (It reminds me of how my husband and I spend our time talking on our long drives in the car each month, though Courtney and her husband apparently have cocktails. That’s a better way to go.)
Courtney also spoke about her morning routine, now a ritual of 2-3 hours, meditation, yoga, writing, walking, and eating for her nourishment. The decluttering in her life, across all aspects of it, helps to reduce the distraction that causes the need for calming her mind, as well. And she doesn’t stress about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) because she embraces that, when she says no to something, she’s saying yes to something more important to her. As she talked about the ways her life had become simpler, it reminded me of a point she’d made earlier when she explained that her friends and family were worried about how she’d cope once she started Project 333:
They asked, “But, what if you lose something or something breaks? What will you do?“
Her answer was simple, and struck straight to the core of all of this: “I refuse to live in fear of not having enough.”
I’d come to hear about a woman who got rid of all her clothes and wore the same outfit all the time, and made it work for her.
Instead, I heard the story about a woman who valued her health, her sanity, her relationships, and the things she wanted to consciously fill her life with, so much so that she was willing to try the hardest things she’d ever done: faced her demons and the criticizing voices in her head with every piece of clothing went on the “good-bye” pile, in order to make that happen. She unlocked the key to thinking how to live more purposefully, to question her assumptions of what she bought and owned and why, and bravely marched forward to live a different life, and inspire thousands of others to experiment with the same. I heard the story of a woman who cast aside her beloved shoes, and gained a life she’d coveted, but could never buy for herself. I heard the story of a woman who embraced minimalism and found a way to share it with others, so that they, too, could turn off the noise and find what really matters to them, and build a life of purpose and passion.
As the evening wrapped up, I found myself a bit shell-shocked. Could I try Project 333? Of course, I could. But I’d long since forgotten about the clothes and the capsule wardrobe. My mind was swimming with reflecting on the last three years of my life. This chapter of my life started with really hard work, saying goodbye to the lucrative corporate HR career I’d built, and leaped forward to becoming an organizer and a coach, giving up that financially comforting path, and starting my own business. The call was too loud for me to ignore, and I’ve never regretted it. It’s reinforced every time I work with an organizing client or a coaching client, and they tell me their life is better because I came into it. You’ve heard people say, “When you find what you’re meant to do, you won’t be able to settle for anything else?” I know that my hard work had helped me bring purpose and passion to my life. But… had I stopped? Did I think I was done? Is this where the path was supposed to end?
I began thinking of all the conversations my husband and I have about our life and our home, about how our next home and chapter in our life will be simplified. We’ve accomplished much, but often seem like there is more to do, further to go. We do create our time to make sure we’re filling it with important things that make us happy, but are we doing it enough? As much as we could? As often as we could? This presentation, Courtney’s words, were all really loud in my head. I was hearing some of those negative voices I hear in my head when I look at my own clothes, or the pangs I feel when I think about letting go of things I really don’t need but just haven’t said goodbye to yet, trying to balance what “enough” looks like. About how I spend way too much time on social media or watching media coverage of the election these days. About how I’m not happy with my weight, and don’t seem to be doing much about that. I’ve done the easy things, because they were easy to do. I’m not doing the HARD THINGS that I know will help stifle the negative voices in my head. The HARD things are where meaningful change occurs. I know it because I’m already living proof that this is true. I just, well, I had set it on cruise control.
I stood up and went to my friend who arranged the event. I hugged her and said, choking back some tears, “Thank you for this gift.” I turned and walked away, not really sure why I was about to cry. I’m still not so sure. Writing this helped, though.
What do I know for sure? This is example number 4,012 of “It’s not about the stuff. It’s NEVER about the stuff.”
I’m grateful to Courtney for sharing her story. If anything in here intrigued you, please do spend some time with her blog, and even try to see her on her speaking tour. You won’t be disappointed.
And, if you decide to try Project 333, let me know. I just might do it with you. I could use a spark of change, to see where it takes me.