Simplify Your Life: Werner Tiki Küstenmacher

On America's National Simplicity Day, we're making things simple for ourselves. And take a look at the 2001 book "Simplify Your Life" - with theologian and successful author Werner Tiki Küstenmacher. The 69-year-old still believes that order makes people happy. However, he also suspects that most people have only read the first chapter of his bestseller.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Presse

You released Simplify Your Life, as the original German book is called, twenty-one years ago. Where did you get the idea?
I was in a bookstore in the U.S. back in 1998 and saw at least two books with that title. [laughs] I immediately knew it was a great idea. There was one book in particular that I really liked, by Elaine St. James, because it was so practical. It explains how to unclutter your car, how to go out without needing a handbag or purse, how to clean out your closet, and so on. It was about organizing everyday things, things you don’t learn about in school but that you should be able to do. And because I was a stay-at-home dad at the time trying to figure out how to manage my day-to-day life with two small children, the phrase “Simplify Your Life” really resonated with me. When I got back home to Germany, I gave a talk on the subject. That’s how it all started.

You really struck a chord with your book, even though at the time there still were no smartphones or social media. Do we yearn for a simple life with the promise of happiness even more so today?
I think people have always done that. We always think our world is particularly complicated and fast. Even Goethe wrote essays about the accelerated pace of the world. And that at a time when there weren’t even trains yet, just stagecoaches to travel from place to place. In this respect, I think it is a universal human feeling that everything is always changing so fast.

You’ve written over a hundred books, right?
Even more, and Simplify Your Life was something like the seventieth. So much for “How to write a bestseller.” [laughs] You just have to be patient.

"Simplify Your Life was something like the seventieth book. So much for “How to write a bestseller.”

Werner Tiki Küstenmacher

Let’s talk about luxury. Luxury is all about exceeding one’s own ideas of what is necessary. But Simplify Your Life was all about reducing those options, wasn’t it?
I’ve also written a book about luxury. It’s called JesusLuxus, and the idea was that Jesus lived a very luxurious life in his own way. He didn’t have a family, he withdrew to the desert for forty days to meditate – that’s luxurious in its own way. We don’t know what his standard of living was, but he most likely didn’t live in complete poverty. Getting back to the present, when we talk about luxury these days, it is usually about restraint. The great art of luxury marketing is that you get something you don’t usually get. It’s as simple as that.

It’s about exclusivity.
Exactly. Now, if I imagine myself in the position of a multimillionaire who owns ten Lamborghinis, that’s no longer luxurious. He needs something new. On the other hand, I still remember when we had small children. A good night’s sleep was an absolute luxury. That’s why it was always important to me to live simply and to be happy. Which doesn’t mean that I want to live in an unheated house with an open fire and fetch water from the well.

It’s about the essential things in life.
That’s right. Lothar Seiwert, my co-author on Simplify, also wrote a bestseller called Mehr Zeit für das Wesentliche [More Time for the Essentials]. We all long for the essential things in life, even if no one can really say what they are.

In your book, you outline eight steps for finding yourself, starting with the importance of tidiness and cleaning up your clutter.
I sometimes get the impression that people see Simplify Your Life as a humorous bestseller, and that most of them have only read the first chapter. Perhaps people were so inspired by the instructions for clearing and uncluttering that they didn’t read any further. In fact, the book is usually referred to as being about uncluttering. But I’ve also noticed that even great spiritual projects begin with very simple things. I was ordained as a Protestant pastor, and I spent a brief time working in a congregation. But I still remember thinking during sermons, “Man, here you are telling people about the kingdom of God, but the woman over there is wondering how to pay her bills. And the guy in the back is asking himself if he turned off the iron before leaving the house.” [laughs] Inevitably, we have to deal with very mundane things. That was the point at which I realized that dealing with these actually quite simple things is a spiritual task in itself.

" because I was a stay-at-home dad at the time trying to figure out how to manage my day-to-day life with two small children, the phrase “Simplify Your Life” really resonated with me. When I got back home to Germany, I gave a talk on the subject. That’s how it all started."

Werner Tiki Küstenmacher

So external organization leads to internal organization?
Exactly. Sebastian Kneipp, one of the forefathers of the naturopathic medicine movement, also followed this principle of organization. For him, illnesses arose due to a lack of organization in the body. They were the result of internal disorder. The Kneipp cures were very long procedures, and when people came back home six to eight weeks later, they would organize their household and their lives so that they could get well again.

And how do I recognize the goal of that organizing? How do I recognize what I need and what I don’t need?
I’ve always found that people know very well what bothers them. Some people make too many plans, others own too many things or have too many projects in their lives that aren’t moving forward. Then I always say: Start clearing out what annoys you the most. And very often that is simply your environment, the cluttered workplace, the messy bedroom. We have a daughter who is now turning twenty-four and lives in a shared apartment. That place is full of examples.

"I’ve always found that people know very well what bothers them. Some people make too many plans, others own too many things or have too many projects in their lives that aren’t moving forward."

Werner Tiki Küstenmacher

My daughter showed me one of her roommate’s rooms and said he wanted to become a diplomat. And I just said, “I can tell you right now that guy will never be a diplomat.” The room was a total mess. I can’t imagine someone like that learning in a structured way or dealing with other people in a structured way. An extreme method for uncluttering, by the way, and one that has proven its worth, is simply moving house. A lot of the problems just solve themselves. Our daughter gets tidier and more organized with every move.

When you advocate the simple life, does that mean you also question technological progress?
No, not at all. Our kids are fifteen years apart. The oldest still has a hard drive, our youngest just laughs and says, “What do you want with a hard drive? I have everything in the cloud.” The fact that everything is becoming more virtual, that you can scan everything and don’t need paper anymore, that’s actually a fantastic development.

On the other hand, there’s social media.
Yes, exactly. And digital garbage.

And how do you go about using that more mindfully?
You’ve got me there. I don’t have an answer for that yet. I deleted my own Facebook account because I realized it was making me unhappy.

"I deleted my own Facebook account because I realized it was making me unhappy."

Werner Tiki Küstenmacher

How so?
It wasn’t so much about me, but about other people who wrote to me on Facebook. And when I didn’t reply, they were unhappy. With my daughter, I noticed how Instagram made her unhappy because she was constantly comparing herself to other people who were more beautiful or did more amazing things. It’s impossible to avoid feeling embarrassed about yourself. In this respect, I’m actually very skeptical about social media, whether it really helps move us forward.

Last question. And a very simple one: Why is it so hard for us to get rid of clutter?
That has a lot to do with time. Many people – myself included – say they would like to have less clutter in their lives. But then we find we have so many other things to do. Both professionally as well as privately. On top of that, I don’t want to get bored, so I’m constantly doing something. And it’s the same with things. It’s difficult to find the right amount. Many things, specifically the books that I own, I don’t have just for myself. I have them to gain knowledge that I can pass on and that I can use to do something good for others. In that sense, I don’t have this ideal that I should own nothing or fewer things. I’m still too involved in society for that. I’m just not a monk. [laughs]

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