Zenmanship: Covetous minimalism

Vienna BW2

“Zenmanship” is my zen penmanship.  

I am going to occasionally add to a collection I’m calling “Zenmanship” where I will experiment with writing about the angles of this lifestyle that interest me more than miles & points.  Minimalism, mindfulness, the human experience, etc.

For other Zenmanship articles, follow this link

We just got to Budapest a day or so ago and I spent a shameful lot of my time people-watching with the sole purpose of comparing their haircuts to mine. See, I just got a haircut in Ukraine and I don’t love it. And everyone is just so darn trendy in bigger cities that I find myself treating these cities like a giant Pinterest board full of styles that I want for myself.

But even in the smaller cities throughout Bosnia and Croatia I found myself getting distracted by people’s backpacks. The other week Drew and I went to a thrift store (we do all of our shopping very intentionally at thrift stores) and got a little backpack that we can use to take our computer gear into a coffee shop for a day of work if we want. It was the perfect little backpack but the straps are so thin that by the third day of hauling around heavy computers they started to tear. So now the backpack we bought for computer transport can only be used for grocery transport. Thus, I found myself backpack-watching.

The thing I hate to admit but the thing that is true unfortunately often, is that I am a bit of a covetous minimalist. I really really don’t like that about myself.

Minimalism and the Macombers

I would say I was pretty minimalistic before Drew came around. But I tended to buy the things I wanted- they just never were very opulent things. My material interests were conveniently simple and cheap. I have never in my life gotten a manicure for instance, and couldn’t tell you most of the popular name brands in fashion if my life depended on it. But, if I wanted those tall boots everyone was wearing that one winter, I would swing by the local thrift store and get a used pair for $3. And I just never found myself wanting anything much fancier than that.

I spent my early twenties sharing a room and not having my own closet. Minimalist, right?

But I didn’t often practice not having the material things I wanted, even if those things were small and cheap. I didn’t need to practice that until Drew and I started traveling.

And that was a crash course in actual, disciplinary minimalism.

Remember, we have this funny little discipline where we buy everything used, (unless used wouldn’t make sense for hygiene and health reasons). So our first time traveling throughout Asia was a serious crash course in practicing the discipline of minimalism even when it wasn’t convenient- something I had never really done.

Two things about travel really increased the level of intentionality and discipline required to live minimally.

1. We didn’t have much space in our backpacks.

We were traveling lighter than light, with school backpacks while everyone around us had those giant backpacking backpacks.

2. Asia does not really have thrift stores for the most part. You can find them in the wealthier places like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, or you can find them rather spontaneously in the sidewalk markets in Bangkok, but they are by no means the kind of store you can count on finding as you backpack your way through SouthEast Asia.

In SriLanka my sandal broke. So I rather begrudgingly fastened it to my foot with a hair-tie. I used my sandals that way for at least a week or two until we met up with a friend who was able to bring me a pair of old sandals she wasn’t using anymore.

Like I said, it was a crash course in being minimalist even when it wasn’t convenient.


Being a better minimalist- a less covetous one

Minimalism is truly important to us, but honestly so is contentment. That’s the part I’m always failing at and that’s basically the part that differentiates between covetous minimalism and non-covetous minimalism.

It’s a challenge for me. But it’s also really important to me so I’ve figured out a few things that make it easier.


1. This is almost like cheating, but if I pack at least one or two articles of clothing that make me feel really confident, like things I would wear on a date, then I find myself people-watching less jealously.

I say that’s cheating because that’s like saying the key to contentment is to have what you want. But I guess in this case what I mean is, the key to contentment can be packing only 90% practically, and letting yourself be impractical with the last 10%.


2. Nature and culture are strong interests of mine. It’s part of why I travel. So if I focus on those elements around me, it’s easier to be content. Getting out of the capital city can be a really great way to forget about anything material. Bali is a place, for instance, where the local culture is so fascinating that I rarely find myself struggling with a covetous or discontent attitude.


3. Make something.

Many recreations are consumption recreations. When you shop for souvenirs or check out the local cuisine, you are being a consumer and your participation depends on your ability to provide funds and highlights your desire for something you don’t already have. Not a bad thing. But since we’re talking about practicing contentment, there are other recreations that are more supportive of the practice of contentment AND more empowering in that they are free. Those are the recreations I like to seek out. Hiking and site-seeing are great examples of non-consuming recreations. Even simply having my camera with me and focusing on photographing the city around me can be a really effective way to take my attention off of a desire to consume and invest it instead in a desire to create.

While there may be factors limiting what or how I can recreationally consume, there’s nothing stopping me from photography, writing, or sketching. Those recreations are empowering in a way that consumption recreations are not.


4. The travel we did for my sister’s adoption was so powerful that if I even think about it, it seems to ground me. It reminds me how unimportant stuff is compared to the things that really matter. And honestly, being with family is always at the top of my interest pyramid, so that joy and interest will trump any other distraction.

Even when I’m traveling and can’t be with my family, remembering anecdotes from my time with them can be helpful.

For instance yesterday when I found myself doing that covetous version of people-watching I do, I redirected my thoughts to my nephew. I started thinking about what I’d say in my next postcard to him.



Living simply is the first step of this discipline. That’s the part that, for a variety of reasons, came pretty easily to me. 

The next step of the discipline was to live simply even when it wasn’t convenient. After 3 years of nomadic life, I feel I’ve learned to do that pretty well too.

But this last, most important step is a challenge. Practicing an attitude of contentment for the times you choose simplicity over convenience.

Because being a covetous minimalist is nothing to be proud of.


How about you?

Now I’m curious. Are there disciplines that you try to keep throughout your everyday life? And does travel assist or complicate those disciplines? And are there others out there experimenting with minimalism?




10 Comments on “Zenmanship: Covetous minimalism

  1. Carrie,
    I just wanted to tell you that I loved this post! I love the terms you coined – zenmanship and covetous minimalism – to express your ideas.

    What I like best about seeking used items above new ones is that it saves precious resources. According to the National Geographic Water Footprint Calculator:
    “It takes around 700 gallons of water to make a cotton shirt, and 2,600 gallons to make a pair of jeans — most of them to grow the cotton. On average, every dollar you spend on clothes and shoes costs about 23 gallons of water!”

    So while your minimalist lifestyle allows you to stay on budget, it also is good for the planet!

    I am at a very different stage of life, and I can buy exclusively new tee-shirts and jeans if I chose to do so – and still travel. But my Nordstrom credit card gets no use; my favorite stores are thrift stores because re-use is better than recycle!

    I look forward to more zenmanship!

    • Thanks so much for your feedback and thoughts!
      You’re right, there are SO many reasons to buy used.
      It makes sense on a budget level, a resource level, and in some ways a humanitarian level (when you consider sweatshops and unfair labor conditions caused in part by the demand for more cheap goods).

      So many reasons to buy thrift!

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Indeed. It is very hard to buy new, manufactured goods that aren’t created without poor and/or unfair treatment of a few, some, or all of the workers involved, and buying used items helps us decrease that just a tiny bit.

        Thinking this weekend of last year’s A2DO when we chatted a bit in person. I’m not in A2 this year either and kinda wishing I was….Good luck as Drew continues work on his new project. I hope it doesn’t get too stressful for either of you!

        • haha ya I am kinda wishing I was at A2DO too! I love those! And if I recall, we talked a bit about shopping thrift then too! 😀
          Also thanks for your well-wishes! So for it’s going well. Not too stressful, though a lot of work!

  2. Yes, we try to practice minimalism and I think being nomadic really helps with that. It puts a natural limit on our stockpiling of stuff – and sometimes it’s a good excuse when people try to give you stuff you don’t want (“Sorry, I can’t take that poster/t-shirt/etc because I literally have nowhere to keep it.”)
    I think- like all things- we need balance. In some cases, when adhering to strict minimalism makes life more complicated rather than more simple, we have to give ourselves some grace.

    • Great point.
      Thanks so much for the comment Michelle. Excited to continue reading about your continued nomadic life over at intentionaltravelers!

  3. Carrie – this is a very interesting post. I am feeling your almost physical struggle as I read it. Knowing you the little bit that I do from meeting you in Ann Arbor, (and more so from reading yours and Drew’s blogs) I wonder if you might be struggling too much. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with some desire for “stuff” or wanting “things”. A lot of times we will say, people are more important than things, or that experiences are more important than objects. But it’s not always such a clear line. I’m re-reading a great book right now called Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, and she does a lot of thinking and research about our relationship with possessions in one of her chapters. It seems that there is something hard wired in humans to desire and collect things. And also that the objects that are most important to us, are those that somehow connect us to other people or to experiences we would like to remember. Being disconnected from all possessions also seems to have the consequence of disconnecting us from other people. Of course, there are practical considerations when it comes to possessions, namely the questionable ethics of the way in which many are manufactured and the fact that even if you wanted lots of stuff, you couldn’t carry it around with you. I’m not trying to argue against your minimalist lifestyle and philosophy AT ALL. But perhaps a different way of thinking about coveting those hairstyles is desire for a connection to those people and that community, rather than shallow desire to be better or more cool than someone.
    The backpack watching seems to me to be perfectly practical. Your backpack isn’t a vain possession, it is a very useful tool which makes your life easier and more enjoyable.
    I wonder if your covetous minimalism on the road is more about homesickness (like how you sometimes miss cooking) rather than a shallow desire to accumulate material goods. While you love your lifestyle of traveling, you’ve said before (I believe) that what you miss most is being able to have a group of friends and family that you see regularly when you live in a single place. Perhaps a lot of your covetousness is an expression of the part of you that misses that kind of connection. Stick with those minimalist principals that guide you, but maybe think about your covetousness as an expression of your humanity and what you are really missing or wanting at that moment. (Like when you’re craving a starburst, what your body really needs is an orange)
    I think that your last three strategies (focus on the world around you, make something, contemplate family) really speak to this idea of craving connectedness. And I think the first one (bringing a couple of outfits that you feel great in) is a nod to eliminating meaningly possessions, but not necessarily all.
    Again – loved this post!!!

    • Thanks so much for engaging this conversation! I really appreciate what you’re saying and I think you definitely have appropriately pinpointed the need for community and connection to people.

      There is something about self-expression that we engage via the clothes we wear and the haircuts we get, but self-expression is less fun when you’re just an anonymous person that passes someone on the sidewalk for a second. So in that way, I do think that some part of my coveting links a little bit to missing the experience of expressing myself in a community.

      But I also have to admit that I have a tendency to always want the next thing or the next step. Contentedness is not a strength of mine and I wish it to be, even if just a little bit more.

      I really do resonate with your thoughts on connectedness to people and experiences and I’ll be thinking more about how that relates to this “covetous minimalism.”

      Thanks so much for the comment!

      • I can definitely relate to that tendency to want the next thing. There has to be a state or range of having enough that is just right for a particular person and their particular situation. This is such an interesting concept to contemplate. When we are coveting something or contemplating needing that next level… what is our motivation.. is it going to enhance our lives by facilitating our connection to those we love or an activity we enjoy … will it make our lives easier … or is there some other motivation like a desire for status.
        I must say I am sitting smugly (that can’t be much better than covetously, though) with my almost 4 year old iPhone 4s. Those new ones look cool, but, happily, my old one is chugging along just fine.
        For me the one I think about the most is housing. Since it takes so much effort to change that situation, it lends itself to lots of sitting and thinking. We live in a house that is well described as “modest”. It’s not big and not small. There are tons of houses that seem giant to me, and I’m always wondering when is enough enough. But I also am often daydreaming about how we could add on a 4th bedroom to our house. After that would I then be thinking… if we just had a nicer deck … or a sun room, office, pool… I don’t know.
        (love your zenmanship posts!)

        • thanks so much for another thoughtful comment. I can definitely relate with housing being at the forefront of the things I find myself looking ahead for. I think you’ve pointed out a really good thought process for approaching/handling these kinds of thoughts- analyze those longings and consider if the forward-looking attitude is motivated out of something positive or something more petty.

          Definitely something interesting to think about. Thanks so much for adding to the dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *