This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Every day, I stand in front of a closet that’s bursting at the seams and have this thought: “I have nothing to wear.”
Of course, our closets are just one of the areas in which our stuff can overwhelm us. It’s believed that most of us wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time. We live in a time where, with the click of a button, you can order something online and have it arrived at your doorstep without even leaving the couch.
But while we have no problem with gathering stuff, many of us have a problem with using it.
Let me ask you a series of questions.
- Do you have clothes in your closet with the tags still on?
- Do you have clothes in your closet that you haven’t worn in a year?
- Do you have a candle in your house that has never been lit?
- Do you have alcohol that you’re saving for a special occasion?
- Do you have dinnerware or china that you’re saving for a special occasion?
Chances are, you answered “yes” to at least one of these.
A few years ago, I returned from a family vacation in Mexico, where I’d bought myself a beautiful blue ornate candle. I was so excited to light it. But when I got home and unpacked it, I thought, “Today is not the day. I’m going to save it for the right occasion.” So I tucked it in my closet and forgot about it.
Two years passed, I remembered my candle and I thought, “Today is the day. I’m going to light it.” So I went to the closet and opened up the box — and my beautiful blue candle had turned into a big puddle of wax. Now what struck me as really strange about this is my candle did exactly what it’s designed to do — melt — but it did it without me.
That’s the day I learned this lesson: “Don’t let your candle melt in the closet.”
All of these things we hold onto have one thing in common — we think they’re special.
After all, we have no problem with cutting the tags off sweatpants or putting out the IKEA cutlery and dinnerware. It’s the good china, the expensive Scotch, the fancy suit that stays locked in the cupboard.
I want you to reflect on that special item in your life. When you think about it, what feeling does it evoke in you? Is it a feeling of specialness, of importance?
I’ve learned that when I don’t wear something, it’s usually because I’ve decided it’s too nice. I was given a necklace that was a bit nicer than the kind I normally wear. I put it on, showed it to my sister and asked, “Is this too nice to wear every day?”
She looked at me and she said, “It is really nice. But isn’t your thing ‘don’t let the candle melt in the closet’?” (Yes, she was using my quote against me!)
As soon as I elevated this necklace into one that was too nice for every day, it got moved into my jewelry box and forgotten about, waiting for that special day to come. This made me really curious, and I realized our tendency as humans to stockpile stuff is based on two mindsets: “I am not enough” and “I don’t have enough.”
I’ll begin with “I don’t have enough.” This mindset came in with the Great Depression, when many people believed that if they gathered enough things around them, they could protect themselves against hard times. But this mentality has since trickled into all parts of our lives.
Author Lynne Twist summarizes this scarcity mindset: “For me and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is: ‘I didn’t get enough sleep’. This is quickly followed by the thought ‘I don’t have enough time’. Whether true or not, these thoughts occur to us automatically, before we even think to pause or examine them.”
This “I don’t have enough” mindset means some of us live in houses that are three times bigger than 50 years ago, and yet our garages are so filled with stuff we can’t park our cars in them.
The second mindset is “I am not enough”. Humans are excellent at gathering stuff and shopping. When we shop, we’re often looking for those things missing in our lives. We stand in the store and we convince ourselves: “I could become enough if I have these items.” But then something happens between the cash register and our closets.
Whatever convinced us in the store disappears. We make room in our closet or garage, and we forget about them.
What if I told you that these items aren’t just items? These items are all promises of “someday when”. We think to ourselves, “I’ll wear it when …” or “I’ll use it when …”.
What if I told you that “someday when” wasn’t coming? I work as a registered nurse in an emergency department. I can tell you that nobody plans to come to the emergency room. You don’t put it on your schedule and think 3PM coffee, 4PM emergency, 6PM dinner.
When people come, they don’t bring their special Scotch or wear their finest suit. They come as they are, and everybody gets the same blue cotton gown that looks terrible on everybody.
In the emergency department, change is our currency. Sometimes it’s a good change. Bones get put back into place. Pain disappears with a powerful drug. Answers are given to questions.
On the hard days, I’m reminded that life can change in an instant — heart attack, stroke, car crash ….
From my vantage point beside the hospital bed, what’s important becomes very clear and those excuses for why you didn’t light the candle or drink that Scotch become very small.
People ask me, “Your takeaway from working with life and death is to use all your stuff?”
My takeaway from working with life and death is this: “Life is what you make it, so make it one that you enjoy.”
I want to be really clear: I’m suggesting a mindset shift of seeing yourself as enough to have and use your things. I also want you to remember that you’re in control of your life, so why not make it one that counts?
This is not an excuse to blow your bank account, go on a luxury vacation on credit, or buy that convertible you’ve been eyeing. Instead, it’s about looking around your house and using the things you already have.
That candle that melted triggered something in me. I told the story to friends and family. The next time I was over at one friend’s house, she took me on a tour and she showed me that all of her candles had been lit. She told me, “Gillian, I had waited a year to light those candles. You told me the story, and I lit them all the next day.”
When I went to another friend’s house, she pointed at a beautiful pair of shoes on her shelf and said, “I’m saving those beautiful buggers for when I book my first speaking event.” She texted me later that week and she said “I’m wearing the shoes. No more melting.”
I started to see candles in my friends’ lives, but they were in the shape of dresses that never seem to make it out of the closet. So I decided to throw a party with the rule that you have to wear the dress you have nowhere to wear.
Every woman has a dress like this. It’s a dress that whenever you go to get dressed up, it never makes the cut. It’s too tight, it’s too bright, it’s too long, it’s too short, it’s too something.
My favorite part was we went to a restaurant and you could tell the patrons kept trying to figure out the theme of our party. Was it a terribly uncoordinated wedding party, or Halloween come early?
What stood out the most to me was how much fun we had. When you put all those old excuses on hold, on the other side of it is joy, confidence and freedom. All of those things came out when we finally said, “No more excuses, today’s the day.”
You might be reading this and thinking that there’s more to life than wearing the clothes in our closets, popping open the champagne or pulling out the good china.
I believe, however, that those small actions send a big message and show you’re no longer letting life slip — or melt — by.
Here’s my challenge to you: Whatever object you answered “yes” to earlier, please use it within the next week. Pull out your china for a random Tuesday night, open the Scotch, cut the tags off that jacket. And don’t let your candle melt in the closet.
This article was adapted from a TEDxWhiteRock Talk.
Watch it here: