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Mindful Acquisition: David Bruno's The 100 Thing Challenge

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Be prepared to hike off the beaten path if you read this book. In the summer of 2007, David Bruno decided to see if he could take a step away from overconsumption by limiting the amount of personal items that he owned to 100. Bearing in mind that some things (such as socks), needed to be counted in groups and other things (his half of the bed) couldn't be counted at all since he shared them with other members of his family, Bruno came up with some simple guidelines for his experiment:

First of all, he decided that it was his experiment. His family was not required to participate unless they wanted to. "My 100 Thing Challenge wasn't about purging [my] daughters' toys", he declared. "Likewise, my efforts to live without an abundance of things wasn't meant to infringe on [my wife's] desire to live with whatever was hers or whatever she saw fit to own for our household."

Second, he had to come up with a working definition of "personal possession". To make the task easier, he decided to only count "whole things", which eliminated most of his furniture and any other item he shared regularly with his family, and to accept that a few things had to be counted in groups: "The idea of trying to do laundry with only a few pairs of skivvies and socks", he noted, "Was both unrealistic and gross."

The rest of the rules had to govern such items as household tools and appliances, gifts and the all-important question of what to do if he had to buy anything new. In the end, Bruno decided that if anyone gave him anything new, he had seven days to figure out if he wanted to keep it or not. If he did, he had to lose something else out of his 100 things. If he didn't, then the gift could be donated or re-purposed. If he bought anything new, it had to replace the original item.

Three months into the challenge, he noted that his finances were in better shape and he really didn’t miss going to the mall. As the challenge went on, he observed, "We paid off debt, saved, and invested, not loads of money, but a respectable amount." By the end, his number of personal items had fallen even further and he found that giving up the frantic pursuit of bigger and better stuff meant--ironically-- he was able to become an even better consumer then he had been before, because he had to think about every purchase he made. Buying was no longer a drug.

The reader has a challenge of his own to face if he wants to discover what Bruno learned from his venture into the principle of reduction. He writes like a blogger rather than a storyteller, and while it makes for an easy, conversational style, it also means that he wanders off into personal stories that sometimes advance his theme but just as often do not. He also occasionally wanders off into the wilds in his choice of words: “The crux of American-style consumerism is that our common lives lack provision”. Does he mean provisions? “I knew Leanne’s gift was as thoughtful as it was precautionary”; does he mean cautionary? He was talking about his wife’s gift of a set of windshield wipers, so it seems likely.

However, In spite of Bruno’s frequent digressions and his fondness for le mauvais mot, he makes a very valid point: rampant consumerism isn't the way to happiness. In fact, the whole system is geared towards making us discontented. “American-style consumerism”, says Bruno, “encourages us to go to the store and pick out the best, but it also plants a seed of doubt in our minds. The disappointment is built in." Since opting out is not feasible most of the time, the next best thing is to be aware of what we buy and how much use we get out of our possessions. When can only have 100 things, you have to be mindful. You have to think about not only whether or not you really need an item, but why you wanted it in the first place.

Bruno includes an index with some notes on how to do a 100-thing challenge in case his readers want to try it for themselves, but he warns that flexibility is key: "If you live in a house that's twice the size of mine and have twice as much stuff as I used to have, then a 200 Thing Challenge is proportionally just as difficult...As far as challenges go, one size does not fit all." The index also includes tips on how to deal tactfully with friends and loved ones who insist on giving lots of gifts and the warning that once you stop the pursuit of happiness through shopping, you need to have a plan for what to do with all the time you've freed up, because you'll have lots of it.

The 100 Thing Challenge is not as in-depth or insightful as it could be. Bruno's tendency to ramble weakens the impact of his message, but it's still a fun book to read and provides plenty of food for thought.

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