For the past couple of days, I have spent most of my time packing for our move to San Francisco. After 4 years of living in Beijing, I’m ready to be transplanted again – this time back to a place that I’m familiar with.
Even though I’ve done it three times, transcontinental moves are aways stressful – not because I’m sad to leave, but because it forced me to take a honest look at how much unneeded and unused stuff I have accumulated.
Take clothes for example. I have dozens of pieces of clothes that I’ve worn maybe twice and never again. Books are another nightmare. 80% of the books on my shelf have not been read past the first 10 pages.
I don’t even consider myself a wasteful person. I’m not rich so I try to never splurge on things I don’t need. But I’m still stunned at the degree of excess and waste that have inadvertently become a feature of my life.
To be fair, some of the stuff have become outdated because the times have changed.
I have about 20 pens and 30 notebooks, and I can’t even remember the last time I wrote on a piece of paper (I probably don’t even remember how to write many Chinese characters anymore).
I have around 10 earphones with wires, acquired before the age that “Airpods” have become synonymous with “earphones”.
CD player, thumb drives, wallets… These were all remnants of a former era as well as evidence of how fast technology has evolved within just a few years.
But most of the stuff got abandoned because I have changed.
For example, my interest in books had distinct phases.
During college I was into food writing and photography for a while and accumulated a bunch of food writing books, as well as a Nikon DSLR camera. The camera has remained untouched for the last 5 years.
Last year I got interested in art and bought quite a bunch of glossy and heavy art books. Quite a few of them have been sitting on the shelf and never seen the light of day.
Most recently, I have been spending more time in Japan, so I’ve been reading quite a lot of Japanese books.
My taste in fashion also changes, depending on where I live.
When I was a high school student in Singapore, I used to think H&M was the pinnacle of high fashion.
When I was at Harvard, I was very into bohemian stores like Anthropologie and Free People.
When I lived in San Francisco, I discovered California Chic (effortlessly dressy but casual). There were also enough networking events and special occasions to justify my investment in more dressy/formal clothes.
When I moved to Beijing (and started working at a tech company), I threw chic out of my dictionary. Athleisure became my uniform. I often wore workout clothes to work and spent entire weekends in Lululemon leggings. The only time I wore heels was during my own wedding.
Then there are those things that you buy because you’re in a certain mood. Not because you “need it”, but because you “feel like it”.
When I go to Yunnan, I feel exotic and buy ethnic clothes and earrings.
When I go to Page One or Tsutaya, I feel artsy and buy art/design books.
When I go to a sportswear store, I feel athletic and buy leggings.
Whims come and go. Interests change. Projects get abandoned.
I bought a foam roller following my fitness instructor’s suggestion; I’ve never used it even once.
There was a time when I appeared on camera a lot (to film videos or do live streams), and I had a makeup artist teach me how to do makeup, and bought a lot of cosmetics that he recommended. I’ve never put on makeup ever since because I never have time (I would be lucky if I have time to wash my hair before dashing for working meetings in the morning).
There was another time when I thought I should make short videos myself, so I bought everything from ring light to tripods to set up a little studio at home. I haven’t even finished unpacking the products before I got so busy with work that my little dream of becoming an influencer was abandoned.
I remember when I was younger, I used to be able to whole-heartedly immerse myself in something for an extended period of time.
If I set my mind to something, I saw it through. I played the violin for 1 hour every day for almost 20 years. I woke up 1 hour early every morning to learn English for a year. I sat in the study room preparing for tests for hours on end.
“Student me” was disciplined and focused.
“Adult me” is distracted and impulsive.
Where has that self-discipline gone? Where is the old me?
Somehow I have gotten into this constant state of distraction, clutter, and short-term thinking.
Even though I understand in principle that “less is more”, in practice, “more” is seductive and comforting. It gives you the illusion that you’re doing a lot, staying busy, commanding broad interests.
Beneath these symptoms, the root cause is the fact that “we don’t know what we want”. In high school, I just had a singular goal: getting good grades and getting into a good college. That was the North Star that guided all my efforts.
But once you enter college and then the workplace, you’re exposed to a plethora of new ideas, new people, and new projects. You also don’t have a singular metric to judge yourself by anymore. “Success” and “Happiness” mean very different things to different people, and you need to find your own definition.
As long as we’re still on this journey of self-discovery, we probably can’t completely prevent getting unnecessary things.
But we can at least become more aware of these things and periodically take stock to see if there are items that no longer serve us.
We are so good at acquiring things, and so bad at getting rid of them. We probably each have at least 5 shopping apps installed on our phones, and shop at least once a week. But we only get rid of stuff when we have to move houses and realize it’s impossible to bring everything. We “shop” as a leisurely activity to relax; nobody considers “throwing away stuff” their pastime. Everyday we are bombarded with commercials and social media posts that coax us into buying stuff; very few people (I can only think of Marie Kondo) plead us to do the opposite. As long as we live in this consumerist society, if we don’t make a conscious effort to get rid of stuff, we will inadvertently become a hoarder.
As I set out for this new phase of my life, I’m certain that I’ll be again acquiring a lot of things. But I’m also determined to become better at getting rid of things. Whether it means selling, donating, giving to friends, or even throwing away, I need to look at my possessions with critical eyes and get better at letting go.
Only when we get rid of the less important, can we surface what’s really important. That’s also part of self-discovery.