Meet the Minimalist: Jenny MacLeod

Last September, Kat invited me to a trunk show and book release party. I looked up the book, How to Become Self-Employed in Seattle, and decided to check out the event. I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover. It’s like it was written for me. I immediately researched the author and saw that she offered consultations and I reached out right away.

We’ve been working together the last few months on how to organize my business, mainly the marketing ideas. Jenny was able to pick up very quickly my need to simplify not just in my work, but how I approached my business as well.

Through our conversations, I noticed that minimalism is a key theme in her work supporting others. I knew a little bit about her background from her website, but wanted to dig deeper.

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What sparked your interest in simplifying as it relates to your work and how your live your everyday life?


My parents divorced when I was seven and my mom moved once or twice a year. When you move that often, you tend not to collect as much stuff. I came to treasure my few belongings. Happily, she always made each place very homey with art and colorful items.

Meanwhile, my dad lived in the wilderness on the Yukon River in Alaska.  I spent the summers with him and a few winters too. We were 40 miles away from the nearest village. We had a dog team, melted snow for water, fished in the summers, no utilities. Four of us lived in a one-room cabin. My only space was four feet of storage under my bed.  It was a lovely and interesting time!

We were content in a contained space with very little stuff. It also taught me about our impact on the land. When we were done with any item, we would try to repurpose it, or we would burn it.  If we couldn’t do either, we’d have to put it in the dump on our land. This really makes a person think about what they’re using because putting something into the dump felt like a failure…because we were creating a scar on the land. Very little went to the dump.

 

These are two very different worlds, yet both had a theme of minimalism. What was that like as a kid growing up?

At first, I felt left out in many ways.  I always wished for a big, beautiful house with a yard and full pantry….and my own room with more clothes, toys.  But sometime in high school or college, that changed.

Since I was always moving, I was always adapting.  I became a people-watcher.  And in high school, I got to spend a lot of time with other families in big, beautiful homes.  I noticed some things.  First, I saw that most people spent all their time in one tiny part of the house! Second, I was amazed at all of the stuff that people owned. It was common for people to have garages so full, they couldn’t fit their cars in them.  That seemed funny to me, and like a burden (imagine having to move all of that!).  Most importantly, all of these families varied in happiness, some were, some were not. I saw that the idea that people with lots of stuff, in big, “wealthy” homes who had it all would be happy … well, it wasn’t actually true.

After college, I came across the book Material World. In it, families from around the world put everything they own out on their front yard. Americans had so much stuff!  And in other places, people had just a few items.  It was like looking in a mirror about what our culture does. It really impacted me to this day. I only want to take what I need and no more.

When I was a young mom, so many items came into our house for the kids - gifts, toys, hand-me-downs, supplies.  I made a regular practice of taking things to Goodwill.  I had this idea that whenever things came into the house, things needed to go out! I didn’t want my life to look like one of the homes in Material World.

Eventually, this taught me to restrict what comes in in the first place—to be more choosy about what we purchase and use.  I built this muscle as a mom early on.  I’m so happy that I did, because later, these same habits have helped me with managing email, social media and time.

 

You don’t have a cell phone - let’s talk about this! Has this always been the case, or what prompted this? 

I didn’t want to pay for a home phone and a cell phone. If I had a cell phone, I thought that at some point I would lose it or lose the charger so I made a choice to keep the home line.  I was fine with my choice.

But then, after cell phones started becoming more common, people started to put pressure on me to get one!  Whenever it came up, I’d think about it ... but then, I’d always have more reasons to not have a phone.   

They would say, “I wish I could call you to change plans or location.” I didn’t like the idea of having a cell phone just for this reason.  I liked sticking to a plan!  Out-of-town family would say, “Then I could call you to visit.”  Well, if I’m in a store with two kids, I couldn’t be visiting with them anyway!

Some would question my logic or sense of responsibility with “What if your kid is sick at school?” I would tell them “well, they would lay in the nurse’s office until I got home and got the message that they’re sick. That’s how it used to be when we were growing up.”

The pressure made me more thoughtful about phones, and again, I’d watch behaviors.  I noticed people would allow their phones to distract from our conversations.  Or be late.  Or check in with work more often.

I really like being present and more and more it felt like a cell phone would distract me. I started to see not having a phone as a tool to be present and really in conversations with people.

Over the years, reactions from others have changed from:  why not? ... to concern/worry … to awe/disbelief, and now, many say to me, “I wish I could do that.”  I thought I would need to get one when I went back to work, but haven’t so far!  Now it’s like a social experiment - how long can I go without a cell phone!

Both my kids have smartphones and my husband used to have one but downgraded to a dumbphone as an experiment.

 

Are there any best practices or family guidelines about the kids’ use of their phones?

The only rule is that there are no phones when we’re eating. I want to create some more rules (like maybe a parking lot for phones for bedtime).  But for now, I think it’s a start that we are role modeling having limits with technology and making choices around this.

In the future, I want to have some discussions around the risks of using their phone too much, not being too reliant on it, not while driving, etc.  And, the idea that they need to take breaks.

 

We had a conversation during a meeting recently about how people are expected to keep up with all the different technologies, learn every skillset, and also run their homes with ease / raise brilliant children. This just seems impossible! I thought it was very relevant and a great reason why people need to outsource certain things in order to be good at just one or two things.


It’s so true!  It’s like we have to be Supermom boosted!  And not just moms - women, men, everybody.  There are a variety of crazy pressures on us.

First, the internet, magazines, and culture tell us we need to be great in so many areas.  We need to be in shape, do yoga, marathons, cook everything, have a garden, be sexy, be financially stable, have children who are sporty, speak another language, test super high, etc. Facebook adds to this, where it’s a constant stream of people at their best. It makes the bar high in so many areas.

Next, because all the resources are available to do everything, we’re supposed to do everything ourselves.  Clean and decorate, find new recipes, download a workout schedule….and research everything!  The best trip to France, the best insurance plan, the best place to buy a car.

On top of that, technology is always changing.  There is a constant pressure to upgrade, or things won’t work.  This means we’re always having to relearn our tools.  It’s so disruptive.  As we get older and wiser, the idea is that we can get more efficient in our work. With tools changing all the time, it takes away because we have to stop and relearn the technology.

I have felt these pressures increasing over the last 15 years, and have been fighting them in my own ways, thanks to some amazing books!  

Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz was huge for me, and helped me instantly. He started with “is too much choice a bad thing?” He was at the forefront of the discussion around decision fatigue. He also explained how trying to maximize every decision actually created a lot of stress and unhappiness.  He encourages readers to look for the good enough.  This took a lot of pressure off me!

Another great book I read, advised readers to be pointy, not well-rounded … as in develop your strengths and outsource the rest.  This was Now, Discover Your Strengths, based on Gallup Research. You can’t be super strong in one area when you are trying to do a million other things.

Many other books inspired me to want space in my life, physically and mentally, for being present, for happiness, for peacefulness.  

To do this means embracing some limits.  

 
 

 

You’re in the business of helping others, in a way, simplify their business ideas / goals. If you weren’t doing this kind of work, what would you do?

I would probably be teaching art to preschoolers—I used to do that and loved it, or I’d thought about being a remodel consultant for moms. In an alternate universe, I’d have gone to grad school and would be doing social science research.

My next dream job is to be a professional critiquer (I don’t know if this exists.)  Where I would look for everything that is or isn’t working in a space or user experience.  I love making things work so the customer feels welcome and taken care of.

As an older lady, I’d love to create large, concept sculpture.  

Oh!  Or I would be a bartender. I love a Negroni served up and with an orange twist.

 

Why do you believe it’s such a struggle for people to get clarity on their own / why work with a business coach? What do you see as the biggest roadblocks for them?

I think this is related to the other questions - the biggest struggle is that there’s a lot of parts of the business to work on and so many options and/or tools to do it.  Self-employed folks feel the pressure to do it all and to do it all themselves. Just because you have a business doesn’t mean you need a website and Facebook and QuickBooks and to offer coupons. Every idea they have heard, people think that they have to do.

The other thing is that research can be overwhelming. It can be hard to find an answer and then you think you have to keep researching. You could look at how to market a small business for three weeks straight!  People will look at websites of others in their field and think “they are already doing it” or “they are doing it better than me.” It makes it hard to start because of that pressure.

The fun part for me is to ask clients what they want most and help them get that.  We focus in on what they really want (with work and life), who they want to work for, and what their style is.  We use those things to say yes to some strategies and tools and no to others.

A really big thing is to pick tools that you like.  For example, if you are on Facebook and love using it, then yes, use it for your business!  But if you hate Facebook, then don’t!  If you like QuickBooks, then great.  If you hate it, then use something else—Excel, a notebook, or hire a bookkeeper.  

People come in with a lot of “shoulds” around business. I ask what they WANT and LIKE and do these as much as possible. I help them limit the tools and plans so they can get some movement on their plans.  I suppose this is a more minimalist approach.

 

Do you consider a minimalist?

Hmm, at first I didn’t, but now I think I do! When I first heard this word, I kind of imagined someone who had an apartment with a white carpet, two pieces of furniture, very spare and spartan.

Then I realized, I like minimalism. It means having a few things that you love and that work for you, and blocking out the rest. I actually think this is the most important skill that the next generation needs - to learn how to block out the stuff they don’t want or need. There is always a flood of opportunities and pressures and things you “should” do.

Limiting what comes into my life saves me so much time and energy later, and creates more room for the simple pleasures and what makes life feel special.

 

What’s your advice to someone who’s feeling the overwhelm and wants to start simplifying their life?

Write out everything that is bothering you or is on your mind. Just get it all out so you can see it. We’re not allowed to “complain” in this culture. This is your chance. First, observe how much you were carrying around!

Then, find a way to work on one thing at a time. Perhaps, write each one on an index card and pick one to do at a time … perhaps randomly. Or pick the easiest thing to do on the list, get it done, then cross it off.

And/or, I suggest picking up a great book for inspiration and guidance.  Perhaps, Getting Things Done, by David Allen, or the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, of course.  Or The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

And, I really recommend getting a book vs. looking at the internet.  The book is limited and contained.  ☺

 

What else do you want people to know about the life of Jenny Girl Friday?

My son has a wrench for a doorknob, we have a dirt yard, I drive an old VW van and have to get in through the passenger side door … all of that is to say our life may look a little quirky or unfinished from the outside …  But, I’m very happy and love my life.  My teenagers are really funny and easy to spend time with, and my husband is constantly doing interesting things!  I love my friends and Seattle community. I'm doing my dream work (my clients are the best!).

Somewhere, I read or figured out … to identify the #1 thing you really want in your life and find a way to have it or work toward it … and then, it’s easy to give up other things and have less when you have that number one priority in your life. For me, I wanted to savor my life each day, which means loving my work, a peaceful home/family life and having a few simple pleasures.  

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I felt so energized after this interview. She had so many great bits of wisdom to share and quite a few book recommendations that I want to add to my reading list.

If you want to learn more about Jenny’s work as a new-fashioned Girl Friday, you can find her on her website. If you need a kickstart to tackling all your business to do’s or have just bouncing some ideas around self-employment, grab a copy of her book here. You’ll find everything from handy checklists to words of encouragement for working your dream job.