Some Reflections on the 100 Thing Challenge

Dave Bruno is an author and advocate of simple living, though he sometimes describes himself as ‘a restless wanderer on the way home’. Through his book, The 100 Thing Challenge, he gave rise to a movement focussed on breaking free from consumerism and materialism – breaking free from the sense of being stuck in stuff.

In the guest post below Dave reflects on the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge, just over a year ago, and the lessons learnt.

Readers of my The 100 Thing Challenge book have had at least one positive reaction, I think. Many readers have commented online or contacted me directly thanking me for my honesty. In the book and on my blog and as often as my courage does not fail me in person, I attempt to be honest about my experiences with stuff. It has not been only a story of victory over consumerism and rallying the world to a simpler way of life. We all are a work in progress and I insist on making that point in my writing and in my advocacy for simple living. Simple living is not a way of life that leads to perfection. Simple living is a way of life because we are not perfect and never will be this side of eternity.

I hope my short introduction is not just justification for any complaining I might do while reflecting on the 100 Thing Challenge experience. I do not intend to complain only. The one-year anniversary of the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge is drawing near. That prompted me to write about it. Maybe this will be interesting to those who have followed my journey. Maybe it will be interesting for those who want to publish a book about their experiences.

The truth is that I did not want to write about the 100 Thing Challenge, at least not in a book. I have mentioned this before. The oddity of the worldwide interest in my 100 Thing Challenge has never normalized in my mind. Why is an exceedingly average middle-aged man who is living a comfortable life in the earthly paradise of San Diego but without much stuff interesting to so many people? The fear I had about writing a book detailing the 100 Thing Challenge was that it seemed almost impossible to avoid patronizing my readers. People are fascinated by living with less. Why? I believe it is not because they are interested in what things I kept and what things I got rid of. Sure, there is some curiosity about that. But the real reason, I think, so many people were drawn to the 100 Thing Challenge was because they were hurting after years and years, even generations of being let down by consumerism. I hurt. And I was frustrated nearly to tears about being stuck in the cycle of endless consumerism. And I do not cry much. (Though as an aside, now that my daughters are growing older I find myself tearing up more often. And my hair is thinning. But I digress.) So I took this stand to live simply, and people paid attention to it. I agreed to write a book about it.

The moment my squiggly signature raced across the dotted line of the very long book contract, a new challenge began. As I tried to reach below what appeared to some to be the shallow gimmick of the 100 Thing Challenge and unearth my readers’ grief over bad consumer choices, my hands were switched by the editorial ruler.

Hold on. I want to make something exceedingly clear. Editors are absolutely necessary. Not just to find all the typos and misplaced punctuation and sentence fragments and the overuse of polysyndeton. Editors help shape a book. Writers should have editors. I truly believe my book was better because of my editors.

The challenge I had with the editorial ruler was not that my editors were bad editors. Hardly. It was that they had a different vision for the book. So my hands got slapped each time I reached below the surface of the 100 Thing Challenge. In the end my knuckles were bruised and probably the book was a little beaten up, too.

Now this does not mean that I would have succeeded in writing a book about simplicity on a deeper level than the spectacle of the 100 Thing Challenge, if I had no editorial intervention. Personally, I feel satisfied that I came near the goal of avoiding fluff in chapters like “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” and “Imprecise Goods.” Both are better for the work of my editors. Yet both of those chapters and a few others were not really what my editors wanted. And we only worked through them while misunderstanding each other. At one point as we refined “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” I felt stuck, going back and forth with an editor.

I asked, “What do you think this chapter is about?”

“You got rid of the trains you liked,” was her answer.

The chapter is about faith. It is about what we put our faith in. My publisher wanted a book about what I got rid of. The life I am wholly committed to is about what we all put our faith in. We just cannot keep putting our faith in stuff. It is killing us to do so. It has ruined the American economy and damaged America culturally. It will make the entire world miserable, if American-style consumerism makes its way across the Pacific, as is already happening. We must have faith and we must put our faith in the right things. God rest his soul, but we should never have put our faith in Steve Jobs and the hope that a more colorful iPod would be available for purchase each year. Of course not everyone did that. But too many people did that.

In the end, I suppose it is my fault. The name for my personal living project was thought up on the spur of the moment. I am responsible for that. The “100 Thing Challenge” does not sound very intellectual. It sounds kind of like reality TV. And once I started accepting calls from media, it began to kind of become reality TV.

Leanne and I made a decision a couple weeks back. No more camera crews in our house. A news station wanted to come by to interview me and film our closets. (Our house, by the way, does not look anything like the way TV reporters think the “100 Thing Challenge” looks, which is why Inside Edition never aired the segment they filmed. He says with a hint of bitterness.) But we are done with the looky-loos. The 100 Thing Challenge was never about the stuff.

I would like to invite people into our home over the years. People who want a safe place to talk about what they have been putting their faith in. People who want to talk about not being stuck in stuff – who want to break free from consumerism. We will not spend our time looking at all the things I own, less than most Americans though far more than most people on earth. But we will look honestly at our hearts. That is where the best stuff can be found.


Photo by Puuikibeach via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers, Clearing Out My Closet, 10 Ways to Simplify Your Life 

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