:: Interview conducted by Dan Lampert of the Orlando Stoics ::
In this issue of Indifferents Quarterly, I interviewed Nick Guggenbuehl, a Minnesota-based tech entrepreneur and co-founder of the The Stoic Fellowship.
DL: Tell us about the Minnesota Stoics group, which you founded, and what aspects your members like the most. [examples: readings, discussions, field trips, etc.]
NG: I moved to Minneapolis in late 2014 after having taken time off work to travel in Europe for about half a year. In my travels, topics of conversation often centered on history, politics, architecture, technology, beer, and of course, Stoicism. I learned from this experience that Stoicism was starting to gain traction in Europe with small groups of people meeting to discuss how to apply its principles to their lives. When I moved to Minnesota, I decided to start a Stoic community with the same aspiration.
Minnesotans are often characterized as friendly, hard-working, and resilient people. I think the long, bitterly cold winters and relatively isolated nature of the state have bred us for this. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Stoicism gained a solid footing here with over 600 members having joined since the group’s founding.
We typically meet once or twice a month in a library and discuss a specific Stoic topic in depth. We’ve yet to branch outside of this tradition, but I’m starting to explore opportunities for weekend retreats and more interactive activities that include doing something productive for our community.
DL: How did you find Minimalism and what part of this worldview resonates with you?
NG: I’m not sure that I ever really found Minimalism so much as I came to acknowledge that the way I live my life is minimalist. I’ve always been drawn to the beauty in simple things.
For me, minimalism isn’t so much about reducing one’s earthly possessions as it is about maximizing one’s capacity to experience the fullest life. When my physical world is cluttered, it’s often an indication that my mind is chaotic and not at ease. Thus I try to keep fairly minimal decor, though that’s not the goal of my practice.
I tend to live a large part of my life in my head, so the way I perceive the world around me is very important. When it comes to physical possessions, certain things may appear mundane to others but to me may elicit a spectacular mental image that gives me great joy. So my filter really becomes, “Does this physical thing provide discrete utility or meaning to me or another in my life?” If the answer is no, I donate it immediately.
I’ve come across plenty of blogs about people reducing their possessions to 100 items or selling hundreds of books in favor of purchasing a Kindle. But I often wonder if their Kindle now holds hundreds of half-read ebooks or their phone, dozens of applications that may lead to hours of wasted time scrolling through social media. I think the modern Minimalism movement has focused too heavily on decluttering the physical word while ignoring the need to simplify our digital lives, where I think there’s a significant opportunity for improvement.
DL: I heard that you hiked through Costa Rica and Patagonia. What did you learn of self reliance on those trips (an important aspect for both Stoicism and Minimalism)?
NG: Interestingly enough, I think that these trips taught me more about our intrinsic and unavoidable reliance on others. And I mean that in a good way. One might say that they survived in the remote wilderness all by themselvesand lived to tell the story. But it doesn’t take much questioning to find that they relied on skills they learned from others, food they harvested from other living things, and water they drank from an ecosystem that exists completely independent of their involvement. Too often the perceived goal of self-reliance borders dangerously close to an ego-driven pride that I think reduces one’s ability to practice what I see as the finer parts of Stoicism — gratitude, humility, and fellowship with one’s community.
Hiking through Costa Rica and Patagonia helped me to see the world as a smaller, more connected network of living things. During difficult and at times dangerous treks, one must rely on his or her knowledge of survival in extreme circumstances without failing to acknowledge the trail blazers that came before them.
DL: When I talk to people about Stoicism and Minimalism, the conversation usually includes that society is moving fast (too fast), causing people to react more and think less. What would you say?
NG: I’m not sure I can make such a sweeping comment on society at large, but I do personally try to slow down and be deliberate in the way that I respond to the world around me… But just like many others, there are days where I feel rushed and imperfectly reactive. I always seek to be more aware and intentional in all that I do while humbly accepting that I’ll never achieve the perfection of my character. That said, in times where I am rushed and reactive, I hope to subconsciously draw on my Stoic exercises to align my reflexive reactions with how I would have wanted to react if I had time to do so rationally.
DL: The Minimalists (Joshua and Ryan) tell us money is not bad in general, but similar to the Stoics, they say money is bad when “all you want is more of it”. How would you express the need for and burden of money?
NG: To me, money is simply an object that represents value in the exchange of goods or services. Thus one’s need for money increases proportionately with his need for goods or services. As I Stoic, I often review my needs in terms of those I can control and those I cannot. When viewed through this lens, money represents certain freedoms to and freedoms from at varying amounts.
With just enough money, I have my base needs met with freedom from poverty, homelessness, hunger, etc.
With a bit more than enough, I have the freedom to become educated, learn new skills, donate to worthy causes, and travel the world.
These freedoms to and freedoms from depend largely on where, how, and who is involved — each of which affords some degree of control. This is just one reason why I choose to live in a lower cost of living area in the United States; my freedoms from and freedoms to become more attainable.
On a more micro level, I think peoples’ relationship with money often unveils their priorities and societal awareness. With each purchase, I ask myself to whom I am trading my time and fortunes (who is the benefactor and recipient of my money), for what do I hope to receive in return (will this purchase meet my needs or bring joy to my life or to those around me), and what impact will this exchange have on the world (what negative consequences might come about as a result of this transaction).
If people are interested in this topic, I’d encourage them to explore alternatives to our current monetary system like time banking and gift economies.
DL: Do you think parts of Minimalism can well express Ancient Stoic values for the modern world?
NG: Yes. I’d say a mantra for the Stoic Minimalist would be to consume less, live more, and practice virtue. That includes consuming less energy, food, and information while living according to Nature as the early Stoics intended.
DL: What figure in history do you regard as both Stoic and/or Minimalist, and why? [some examples: Thoreau and Gandhi]
NG: Well, I think the most obvious answer that comes to mind is Epictetus. As a freed slave who lived with very few possessions, his mind produced some of the most foundational Stoic thought. To me, he’s a perfect example of how one can live an extraordinary life despite the circumstances into which he was born and the limits of his earthly possessions.