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How Holding On to Stuff Holds You Back in Life

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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.

This dramatic moment was the climax of a journey that started 7 years earlier. Back then, I was middle school teacher with 2-year-old triplets. Short on free time and flush with stuff, I got introduced to this idea called “minimalism.” I donated over half my stuff in less than a year. I started a blog. It eventually turned into business and I left my teaching job.

After a few years, my business stood on its own legs. I wrote a book, gave a TEDx talk, went on TV a few times.

People looked at me as a pillar of decluttering success. But I had a secret…

I had decluttered everything… except my teaching stuff.

The boxes lived in my attic, stacked against a wall. I stepped around them to get the Christmas ornaments and the Easter baskets and the off-season clothing.

And each time I felt the same thing… dread.

Because you see, I had enough room to store the boxes. They weren’t physically getting in the way of me living my life.

But those boxes were blocking me in a much more insidious way: my mind.

When I started my business, I considered it 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. I never thought I’d love it.

But after a few years, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’d talked to my husband several times about returning to teaching and each time I began to cry.  Teaching was not my path, yet I couldn’t let go of the stuff associated with it. Those boxes were my safety net, my backup plan if I had to provide the health insurance.

This seemed logical at first, but eventually, I saw it for what was: FEAR.

Fear that my business would never be successful enough.

Fear that my dreams were nothing more than a fantasy.  

Fear that I was 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, one 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 a billboard in my attic that read, “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 not-so-great guy credited with that famous phrase), I’m not out to destroy civilizations. I don’t want to claim any land for Spain. I actually want to help people. And I can’t do that if I’m waiting to fail.  

So…. I woke up one Sunday morning and got the boxes out of the attic. I took them downstairs, where my boys were up trading Pokemon cards.

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

I was left with this. The core of my teaching practice. The lessons, examples, and units I’d crafted over the course of a seven-year career. The irreplaceables. The things I could not get back once they were gone. 

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

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

Indeed.

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

But I had to burn 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 see seven years of my life sorted into a few piles:

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

One of my entrepreneur friends asked if I was going to burn these papers, a ritual cleansing of my past life so I could rise like a phoenix from the ashes. I entertained thoughts of a bonfire in my backyard, complete with dramatic orchestra music. 

But it snowed that morning. So I kept it low key. Took out the trash. Put the donations in my car. Set the few novels I kept on a shelf upstairs. Went to yoga.

This was such a simple act. But it changed so much about me. About my future. About my path. It said a clear NO to returning to my former life and a YES to living my future bravely.

It was life-changing.

This is my definition of simplicity:

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

In other words, simplicity 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 passion project 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 letting go, 

PS Ready to start your own simplicity journey but need help getting started? Grab my FREE Simplicity Starter Guide and let’s get going!

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