Courtney Carver of Be More with Less and Project 333 is an internationally recognized expert in practicing simplicity in your life. Courtney currently is travelling with her Tiny Wardrobe Tour to discuss the ins and outs of Project 333, her minimalist fashion challenge that has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, on the Today Show website, and elsewhere around the world. Courtney and her new Tiny Wardrobe Tour are coming to Minneapolis on June 29.
Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Courtney in a phone interview about her “Be More with Less” philosophy and Project 333. She is truly delightful – down to earth and passionate about her work. The Tiny Wardrobe Tour promises to be an informative, engaging, and inspiring event!
Read on for our conversation and details for attending the Tiny Wardrobe Tour.
ndwc: What led you to the Be More with Less philosophy and Project 333?
It really all started for me in 2006 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. It was this big wakeup call for me – I was working all the time, always very busy, in a lot of debt – my life was very stressful. And I realized that while all of that stress didn’t cause my MS, it definitely exacerbated the symptoms and made me feel bad – I didn’t feel well a lot. I think a lot of us can relate to that – where we’re overworked, overcommitted and just really burning the candle at both ends and not feeling well as a result.
So I really set out to eliminate stress from my life. While that started with something as simple as changing the food in my diet, the next change had to do with debt and stuff, and then busyness, and then work. And I realized there was this common thread throughout all of the changes, and that was simplicity. That’s really where my Be More with Less philosophy developed.
ndwc: Tell us about Project 333.
In 2010, in the midst of decluttering and letting go, I realized that one source of stress I had been ignoring for a long time was my closet, and it was always just full of clothes, a place where I was constantly shopping – I was just adding, adding, adding and never subtracting. I had no idea what I really enjoyed wearing, because I was always just shopping for events and emotions – I wasn’t really shopping for what I needed.
Again, it just builds up, and I realized every time I opened my closet, which was often several times a day, I was faced with the reality of my debt and discontent, my bad purchase decisions, and clothes that didn’t fit me – things that didn’t support a good day, let alone a good life. So I decided to challenge myself to dress with 33 items or less for three months to see if I could define what “enough” really meant. I didn’t know what to expect – I just knew there was something to be learned there, and the way things were going in my closet right now, it wasn’t working.
ndwc: One of the things I uphold in my work in wardrobe consulting is being “true to you” – specifically, expressing your authentic self with the clothes you wear. How does Project 333 help you feel true to yourself?
Interestingly enough, it allowed me to begin to figure out who I was so that I could be true to myself. I went through this period of time where I was just accumulating, accumulating – whether it be clothes, or stuff, or obligations, and I was just on auto-pilot, taking things in. And especially in my closet – I was wearing things that didn’t represent who I was at all, but it was because I didn’t really know who I was.
It wasn’t, “Gee, I know I’m lost.” I didn’t know. I was doing work that I didn’t really enjoy, but dressing to fit the part. I was caught up in a very stressful, busy lifestyle, and again, dressing to fit that part and to fit my role in all of these different things in my life, but they weren’t things I had purposely chosen. They were things I just let happen by default. So by beginning to dress in clothes that actually fit my body and my lifestyle – not the life that I aspired to have, or I thought people wanted me to have, or that I should have, or the life I thought I was supposed to live – but the life I really wanted to live. I was so much happier.
I’m not really a fashionista in the sense that I make good decisions for other people in terms of style – that’s not my specialty – but I started choosing clothes that fit where I was, right now, instead of this made-up version of myself.
ndwc: Practicing sustainable consumerism and the Be More With Less philosophy share commonalities. With clothing in particular, making your existing wardrobe more functional addresses both of these ideals. How does Project 333 make your wardrobe more functional?
For starters, I’m wearing my favorite things everyday. In any given season, I only have 33 items including clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories. So they are items that I have hand-selected that go well with each other – most everything you can mix and match.
In the beginning, because I was working with what I had, that was a little messier, to be honest, than it is now. It took some time – years actually – to distill down to a wardrobe that worked really well together. But I didn’t want to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe or buy a capsule collection for each season, because that really defeated the purpose of both being more with less and making sustainable fashion choices.
I didn’t want to become even more consumeristic in my fashion choices, so I let it evolve over time and now, many years into this project, I don’t have to give a lot thought to what I’m wearing when I pick something out in the morning, and I get ready in a lot less time. I have more mental bandwidth to make decisions all day long because I’m not stressing out over what to wear every day.
“I have more mental bandwidth to make decisions all day long because I’m not stressing out over what to wear every day.”
ndwc: You alluded to it feeling a little messy when first starting this project. Have you ever felt confined by practicing Project 333? What advice do you give others if they do?
I haven’t felt confined. In fact, the more boundaries that I’ve set, whether they be in my closet, my kitchen, relationships, or work, I find that my energy levels and interest and capacity for learning and growing and thriving become boundless. It’s creating boundaries around the things that have been holding you back to make room for the places that you want to move forward. That has been my experience and the general feedback from other people.
It’s typically the fear that it will feel confining, or the fear that it won’t be enough, or the fear that people will get bored. For the people who genuinely do get bored within the challenge because they’re bored with their wardrobe, in many cases it’s because people are so used to being hyper-focused on having the right accessories and the right jewelry and the right clothing that they’ve been dedicating a lot of time and energy to that. You take that away and they’ve now got this newfound time and space, and they don’t know how to direct that energy.
So I always encourage people, for at least those three months that they’re challenging themselves, to shift focus to something else – something new, something that you’re curious about, something that may benefit other people. Get your focus off the clothes for those three months to give yourself the time to discover what you may enjoy more than shopping and fashion and clothes.
“The more boundaries that I’ve set, whether they be in my closet, my kitchen, relationships, or work, I find that my energy levels and interest and capacity for learning and growing and thriving become boundless.”
ndwc: What are the three most surprising things you’ve learned from Project 333?
I knew I would save money, and I knew I would save time. I think it was surprising to me that no one noticed that I was doing the challenge. I started it while I was working full-time in advertising sales so I was meeting with clients and colleagues and going to business lunches and community events. And for three months, I was wearing 33 items – which with shoes, clothing and accessories resulted in about 20 pieces of actual clothing including outerwear/coats – so from October through December in 2010, nobody noticed I was wearing the same items.
It was surprising to me because I really thought people cared more about what I was wearing! But it turns out they just don’t – people care more about what they’re wearing or doing than what you’re wearing or doing. That was a great lesson to learn.
Another surprising benefit would be that I really did develop a personal style. It happened organically as I let things go that didn’t really resonate with me and that I didn’t want, and that I had only purchased because it looked good on someone else in a magazine or because I was feeling down and went shopping. So when I was really choosing items that fit me – and I don’t just mean my body – but fit ME, I found a personal style that works well for me. I didn’t expect that to happen.
“When I was really choosing items that fit me – and I don’t just mean my body – but fit ME, I found a personal style that works well for me.”
Another surprising benefit is that it contributed to improving my health and relationships, as did my entire decluttering and simplicity process. I was able to let go of more stress so that it impacted my body in a healthy way and my relationships in a very loving way. I had more time to really pay attention to conversations instead of always thinking about something else, always trying to be five steps ahead. Instead I could really be present.
Of course those surprising lessons unfolded over time. There were many more immediate benefits that I could pinpoint within a couple of weeks, but now that I’ve had many years to reflect on it I can see that it really was and continues to be a powerful experiment for me.
ndwc: It’s a significant shift in your approach to life – obviously that is the Be More with Less philosophy. But it’s really cool to see these small actions that you take – as you do that it becomes easier and easier to do them, and the snowball effect that it has is really amazing.
And interestingly enough, the biggest surprise was in hearing from other people that the challenge isn’t that challenging. Most people thought about it for a year before jumping in because it sounded so scary, and then once they started, most people say, “I can’t believe I didn’t start earlier – this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. This is actually making my life easier!”
ndwc: Tell us about the Tiny Wardrobe Tour.
The Tiny Wardrobe Tour started this year. I’m visiting 33 cities to share my tiny wardrobe and the lessons that I’ve learned along the way. And to answer questions from people who are either considering the project or want to simplify their lives in some way, or are in that place where they know things are overwhelming and not working, but they don’t know what the next step is.
It’s been really exciting – we’ve been to New York and London – and Salt Lake City, where I live. Next up is the Midwest Tour – Kansas City, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. I’m trying to do 2-3 cities a month, so it’s not a non-stop 33-city tour. I find that if I’m away for more than a week, I start to miss my husband, my routine, and my work. So this has been really a great way to do it for me.
ndwc: Can you give a taste of what the workshop will be like?
It’s about 90 minutes. I chat for about a half-hour, and then we open it up for Q&A, so then we get into the really good stuff and have a great conversation around simplicity, capsule collections, and whatever everybody wants to talk about.
ndwc: Thank you so much for talking with me today! Please share any final thoughts with us about your passion for this work.
Simplicity has completely transformed my life. There’s no other way to say that, and that is what makes me crazy to talk about it. I get so excited to have conversations with people who have either simplified their lives or are considering simplicity as an option to improve their health, their relationships, their work. Because, as I’ll mention at the event, we don’t simplify the closet or declutter our homes or reject stress and busyness to have a simple life – we do it to have a life. That’s what really makes me excited for this.
“We don’t simplify the closet or declutter our homes or reject stress and busyness to have a simple life – we do it to have a life.”
Courtney Carver’s Tiny Wardrobe Tour
514 Studios – 514 North 3rd Street #101, Minneapolis, MN 55401
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Images courtesy of Courtney Carver