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How Holding On Was Holding Me Back: What I Learned by Letting Go of 6 Boxes in my Attic

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I felt only one thing when I looked at those boxes… dread.

I knew I’d have to open them someday, but I’d put it off so long already… maybe I could wait a few more years?

No. I had to. My future depended on it.

Let’s back up about seven years from this dramatic moment…

I’m a middle school teacher with 2-year-old triplets. Short on free time and flush with stuff, I get introduced to this crazy idea called “minimalism,” which results in me donating over half my stuff in less than a year. Like all people who believe that whatever they’re doing personally should be shared publicly, I start a blog about this. Eventually, that blog turns into a business and I leave teaching to inspire others to live a less-is-more life.

Welcome to today.

That little baby business has proved it can stand on its own legs. I’ve written a book, given a TEDx talk, and even been on TV a few times. I don’t say this to brag. I say it because people now look at me as a pillar of decluttering success. But I have a secret…

I always say I decluttered my entire house in eight months, but that isn’t technically true. I decluttered everything… except my teaching stuff.

It has lived in my attic for five years, neatly stacked against the wall. I step around it to get the Christmas ornaments and Easter baskets and off-season clothing. And each time I feel the same thing… dread. Because here’s the deal…

I have enough room to store these boxes. They aren’t physically getting in the way of me living my life. But they are blocking me in a much more insidious way: my mind.

When I started my business, I thought of it as a lightly-paid hobby, something I’d do until my kids were in school full-time and I could return to teaching. I never thought it would be successful. But more importantly, I never thought I’d love it.

And now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve talked to Josh several times about returning to teaching and each time I involuntarily start crying. Clearly, teaching is not my path, but for some reason, I haven’t let go of the stuff associated with it. I thought of those boxes as my safety net, my prudent backup plan if–God forbid–something happened to Josh and I had to provide the health insurance and the mortgage payment and put food on the table.

This seemed logical at first, but lately, I’ve seen it for what it really is: FEAR.

Fear that my business will never be successful enough.

Fear that my dreams are nothing more than a fantasy.  

Fear that I’m just not good enough.

And you know what?

As my Grandpa Orlando used to say: That’s bullshit.

Because my business IS successful enough.

My dreams are my dreams because they are MEANT FOR ME.

And I’m good enough for anything this life has to offer.

Which is why, last weekend, I let all my teaching stuff go.

It wasn’t because I didn’t have space in my attic. It was because I didn’t have space in my life for the fear they represented.

Because here’s what I’ve learned… you will succeed exactly as much as you believe you’re capable. Or as the wise Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” My teaching supplies were basically a billboard in my attic saying, “You’re not good enough to have a successful business. You need us because you’ll probably fail.”

Wow, what a great message to get every time I dug out the tree topper! No wonder I felt such dread each time I stepped past those boxes. They were a visual reminder of all my self-doubt.

In other words, what I was holding onto was actually holding me back.

And in order to achieve my goals in my life and my business, I HAD to let go of those boxes. I had to know that there was no safety net, no turning back.

I had to burn the ships.

Now, unlike Cortes (the guy credited with that famous phrase), I’m not out to destroy civilizations or burn any villages. I don’t want to claim any land for Spain. I actually want to help people. But I can’t do that if I’m constantly waiting to fail.  

Welcome to Last Weekend

I woke up early on Sunday and got the boxes out of the attic. I took them downstairs, where my boys were already up trading Pokemon cards on the couch.

This is about half my original stock of teaching stuff. I’ve picked away at it over the years, first letting go of the consumables (all those extra glue sticks and Sharpies), then the classroom library, then the professional texts.

I was left with this. The core of my teaching practice. The lessons, examples, and unit plans I’d personally crafted over the course of seven years. These were the irreplaceables. The things I could not get back once they were gone. These were the things that had to go.

I took a deep breath, opened the first binder, and began carefully extracting paper–piece by piece–from plastic sheet protectors. My son Orlando asked what I was doing. I told him, and he responded with surprising 9-year-old insight:

“Wow, Mom. This is a big step for you.”


I felt a bit nauseous. Especially as I saw the units I was most proud of: poetry, multi-genre research, and persuasive speeches. These were the things I’d had the most fun teaching, the units where my students excelled. Even typing this, it hurts to think of all that work put into the trash.

But I had to. I was Cortes, burning the ships so that I could not turn back to the familiar, but was forced to venture into the possibility of the unknown.

It took less than an hour.

It’s kind of funny to look at it like this. Seven years of my life sorted into a few neat piles:

  • Recycle
  • Trash
  • Donate
  • Keep (Yes, I kept a few favorite young adult novels for my own kids. Don’t judge!)

My friend Karen asked if I was going to literally burn these papers, a ritual cleansing of my past life so I could rise like a phoenix from the ashes. I briefly entertained thoughts of blazing up a big bonfire in my backyard, blasting some AC/DC and doing a little air guitar.  

But then it snowed on Sunday. So I kept it low key. I took out the trash, put the donations in my car, and set the few novels I kept on a shelf upstairs. Then I went to yoga.

This was such a small and simple act. But it changes so much about me. About my future. About my path. It says a clear NO to returning to my former life and a YES to living my future bravely, with confidence in myself and my abilities.

It’s literally a life-changing act.

A few months ago I came up with this definition of minimalism:

Minimalism is getting very clear about what you want. And having the guts to let go of everything else.

I like this definition because it gets to the point of what minimalism really is… a way to gain clarity about our life and values.

We let go of things not because we don’t want them anymore, but because we want something else more.

And when that something else is big enough and important enough–like a personal calling or a passion project or financial freedom or peace of mind–we will find the courage to let go of whatever it is that is keeping us from it.

For me, that was 6 boxes of stuff in my attic.

What is it for you?

Today I’m leaving you with two questions:

  1. What do you really want?
  2. What do you need to let go of in order to get it?

I promise, when you’re ready, you will find the courage to do it.

Let’s burn the ships, my friends. Great things await.

To your goals… and letting go in order to get them, 

PS Inspired to get started on your own minimalist journey? Grab my FREE minimalist starter guide to get you on your way!


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