What I learned from getting rid of most of my possessions

I travel a lot for work. Last year I traveled in excess of 300 days. For all of that time I was renting a place in central London, and it was a pretty great place. It was a short walk from everything I like to do in London, and I shared it with one of my favourite people in the world. Still, I’m never there, and it’s a crazy waste of money, so I’m giving it all up in favour of less expensive accommodation and (in practice) living out of a single suitcase wherever work might take me.

This means getting rid of a lot of stuff, I’d say upwards of 90% of the stuff I have. I learned more about myself from doing this than maybe any other activity I’ve ever done. Here are some random thoughts and pains that came to me while I was doing it.

Also, I get this a pretty boujie exercise, more Edina Monsoon than enlightened ascetic. You can probably only do this safely if you have a pretty decent safety net of family, friends, and finances to fall back on. But it works for me right now.

Clothes are basically pathologies for me. Some of the hardest things to throw away were clothes, because they were go-to outfits for things I don’t really do anymore (oh hey university debating society hoodies), or because I had a really good night out in them once. Do I go to enough parties to warrant taking up space in my suitcase for five different sequin covered outfits? Nope. Am I likely to need to put on a three piece suit and a bow tie to teach kids again? Nope. Do I go to parties wearing black tie anymore? Nope. It’s hard to accept that I’m a different person who does different things now, but getting rid of an outfit belonging to a previous version of me is the final nail in the coffin of a lifestyle change, and makes me realise I don’t really have the self confidence to be certain I’ve made the right choices about how I want to spend my time in 2018.

Books are mysticism. I have this box of books which basically functions as a tabernacle. I carry it from new house to new house, never actually opening it to read the books inside, because I’ve already read them. But my head is filled with nonsensical ideas about books. I need physical books to belong to the club of intellectuals, they are also somehow sacred and can’t be subject to the insult of being damaged or recycled, and finally it’s hard to distinguish accepting that I no longer need the physical item from saying that I no longer need what’s written inside it. Like, how can I be a good software developer if I throw away the Gang of Four book? Am I really still an atheist if I throw away Bertrand Russel? There are a three or four books that have some other value to me, and I’ve kept those in a much smaller box, but the rest have been sold and recycled. I’ve also blown the dust off my Kindle, which I’ve grown to love again.

Things for entertaining guests that don’t exist at parties I don’t throw are also fairly hard to get rid of. Serving people is kind of second nature to me, growing up in a hotel, and I think I buy things as if I am going to be living in and running a hotel. I really don’t need enough martini glasses to throw a cocktail party, I’ve literally never thrown a cocktail party in my life. I don’t need cake tins, or muffin trays, or any of this stuff. Still, I feel like I should be entertaining guests, it feels like it’s the done thing. Getting rid of this stuff means that I can’t spring into action with a round of mimosas when the need arises, which is something I’d like to think I would do.

Gifts are also pretty hard, and they mostly cross categories. The majority of the things I own were gifts at some point or another. It’s hard to get rid of a gift without feeling like you’re getting rid of the person who gave it to you. My cupboards are full of gifts I’ve not used once. I really appreciated those gifts when they were given to me — or, more specifically, I appreciated the fact that someone would choose to give me a gift — but the gift itself rarely fits into my life. I’m lucky enough to have enough money to just buy something when I want it. Still, this is all obvious nonsense, and I should probably just be better at communicating what I do not need when birthdays and Christmases come around. These were actually the most liberating things to get rid of, because seeing them in the back of the cupboard made me feel guilty for not needing it every time I looked.

Lastly, I’m learning to deal with carrying digital copies of sentimental things. I have a box of thank you cards from my students back in Birmingham. I have taken photos, and I’m sure I’ll look at these way more often than the paper copies. I also now have no real fear about losing or damaging them.

Mostly I now feel like I have the things that fit the things I actually want to do in 2018. I want to build some tech, spend my free time going for walks and reading sci-fi, and I’m now more likely to be hanging out at a cabaret dive bar than the Savoy. It’s not quite ageing gracefully, but it’s probably as close as I’ll get.

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Tito Sarrionandia

Tito Sarrionandia

Head of frontend engineering at Babylon Health. Formerly ThoughtWorks, Made Tech, school teacher.