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July 21, 2011

Kelly Sutton’s New Minimalism

For the founder of the Cult of Less, the road to happiness is paved with stuff he used to own.

Max Lakin

In many ways, Kelly Sutton is the media industry’s darkest night terror. He owns no books, no CDs, no DVDs. He buys no magazines. Save for a sketchpad, he in fact owns no paper products at all. He has three pieces of art, a Kindle, a MacBook, an iPad, some assorted peripherals, and a shallow wardrobe. He does not own a television, and isn’t really that beholden to the bed he sleeps on.

In the same way, Kelly Sutton is a conflagration of searing light— a walking Tomorrowland—fully living in the way most of us have just been hinting at, demonstrating that it is possible to completely digest one’s content online without combusting or succumbing to fascism.

Kelly Sutton
"I approached this as more as a full-blown switch to technology coupled with a paring down of physical possessions."

Kelly Sutton

It should be noted that Mr. Sutton, a 24-year old native of Everett, a suburb of Seattle, and a software programmer for blip.tv with degrees in film production and computer science, has no interest in such prognostication. That is not the intent, he says, of the way he has been living for the past two years: all his worldly goods inventoried and purged, condensed into the space of two suitcases and two small cardboard boxes. At any one time, Mr. Sutton can peer into the closet in his Williamsburg bedroom and survey his kingdom. Should he be travelling, the entirety of the Kelly Sutton estate catalog can be stowed safely in the overhead bin.

It should be further noted that Mr. Sutton’s spartan phase is neither some kind of meditation on the ill-gotten gains of capitalism, or a treatise on globalization, or performance piece on the modes of modern living. It isn’t even a start-up pitch. Really, he just finds it convenient.

What he has done, though, looks like Trappist monasticism to most twenty-somethings accustomed to a certain Western lifestyle of bountiful birthdays and Lego sets forgotten in their parents’ suburban garages. And yet Sutton is charmingly low on rhetoric, his origin story neither tragic nor exceptional. In August 2009. while traveling in Germany, Sutton left much of his belongings in the care of friends back in Los Angeles, where he was a student at Loyola Marymount University. Then he forgot about them.

And not being able to instantly call up his material footprint made him uncomfortable. “I guess you could say I felt burdened,” he says. ”Others prefer to own lots of stuff. My life is easier when I own less. If I could not remember owning it, I didn't need it.”
That particular bit of world-weariness upon him, perhaps imbued with the ferocious categorical acumen of the Germans he had been living among, Sutton went full tilt on his spring-cleaning. He itemized and inventoried everything he owned. Hundreds of tchotchkes, every article of clothing, every novelty chastity belt got a price tag in this yard sale of the soul—all purposely undervalued, he says, in hopes of jettisoning as much as possible, and quickly. He built a website and put the lot online and up for sale. He called it the “Cult of Less” project. Then he waited for the floodwaters to set him free.

By the following July, now light a Korean-English dictionary, copies of “Hustle and Flow” and “Unbreakable “ on DVD, a 2000 Acura TL, a hundred-odd t-shirts, a FujiTrack 2008 bicycle, and a copy of The Meaning of Sex, among much, much else, Sutton had reached his goal. He says he’s since purchased a desk (so austere he might have found it in a one room school house in Antebellum rural Virginia) and in February, a pair of jeans.

What is perhaps more striking is that Sutton did not limit the Cult of Less to practical goods and immediate space; he retains nothing in storage, a too easy cheat, but has also left no totems of childhood with his parents; no macaroni frames or outgrown clothes, no particularly successful book reports on Christopher Columbus completed in the 4th grade, nary an amputated action figure, its left-side appendages lost to a continuum rift that will never be understood.

“I find that digital things hold a certain sentimental value,” Sutton explains evenly, acknowledging that this is a difficult concept even for people in his generation, though he thinks people are warming to the idea.

Certainly as a cult, the interest is there. Like Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour Workweek, or Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge, but blessedly absent of a presumed easy-entry title numeral or companion book deal, Sutton’s Cult of Less chronicled his experience of sloughing off his life’s flotsam, and offered pointers for those finding virtue in his minimalism, via blog and Twitter hashtag.

“I approached this as more as a full-blown switch to technology coupled with a paring down of physical possessions—not just media,” he says. “I tend to not be much of a spiritual guy, so not much meditation was involved. I would say most of my decisions were conclusions I had reached based on personal experience. Only now am I getting to the existential questions.”

He says he received a “torrent of feedback,” ranging from the “I feel sorry for this guy that he has to do this to get attention” to the “You have changed my life.” “The more positive emails are the ones that continue pouring in at a constant rate. The negativity and knee-jerk criticism has subsided. I suppose the attention I received was a perfect example of ‘right place, right time.’"

The digitization of our lives is no longer a novelty, surely. But it is yet fait accompli; heaving everything you own onto the Internet or otherwise out the window is simply not a viable option for a concert tubist, say, or for a young family with an infant. Sutton concedes that the nominal success of the Cult of Less is, for a software engineer, something that “almost makes more sense than anything else.” As he says: “The code I write from a desk in New York looks about the same as the code I write from a cafe in Berlin.”

If the medium is the message, space is the mantra. “Many folks out there try to limit their belongings to a specific number,” Sutton has written on the Cult of Less site. “This is stupid. Some things take up a lot of space. Limiting yourself by a number will only make you unhappy. I prefer to limit my belongings by the amount of space required.”
It’s difficult to fault him on logic: Don’t try to wedge a lap pool into your railroad apartment. His thought process is true and unadorned, and the lifestyle it has led him to is not inaccessibly extreme. Certainly it is not in as advanced a stage as the unmoored hermitage of George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, or the odd, real-life hyper-asceticism of the “Mad Men” actor Vincent Kartheiser, apparently so wracked with capitalistic guilt that he lives in a single room in Los Angeles without a toilet. Sutton holds down a fully-equipped apartment, complete with tables, chairs, a few couches—all markers of permanence, yes, but belonging to his roommates.

“Embarking on the project has characteristically changed how I view owning things,” Sutton writes. “Sure, buying less is probably environmentally friendlier. Sure, my friends think I'm really weird. Sure, there might be things that could make my life a bit easier occasionally. But now everything thing I own serves a purpose and holds a certain beauty in its role. The idea is utilitarian and far-fetched, but it's a small price to pay for being happy.”

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.







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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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