Life Lessons I Learned from Marie Kondo (Hint: It’s not about clutter!)

I grew up with a declutter queen. She would purchase and read every new decluttering or organizational book and pass it on. We ran across Marie Kondo a long time ago. I “KonMarie’d” my house. But after watching all 8 episodes of her Netflix show this week, I took out 3 bags of trash and filled two boxes to go to the thrift store. More than that, she taught me some other things.

Treat people with grace. Marie walks into total messes on her show with pure joy and delight. I would judge someone for letting their home to reach that point of excess. But she never seems to judge anyone. She looks on them with grace, and kindness, and teaches them how to clean up their life… by making them do it. Which brings me to…

Show willing people how to fix their problems, then let them do it. Marie teaches people. How to sort their clothes. How to arrange books. How to decide. But ultimately, she lets them do it. That is why her method works. Why there’s no rebounding. Because the person doing it has to commit to it, has to want to do it, and has to do it. She does not force it upon them. They are making the choices of what to keep, and what to let go of, not being “told” what they OUGHT to keep or give away. She is not tidying for them. They are tidying. It’s hot. It’s long hours. It’s hard work. But at the end, they can say it is “all theirs.” Because THEY did all of it. At the end, they have something to be proud of, because they put in the hours.

I think there’s a lesson there for me, and not just about tidying. I have to learn to “teach” and not “do.” I try to teach and wind up doing. It’s easier for me to correct someone’s work than send it back and say, “Here’s what’s wrong with it. Please fix it.” They will never learn if I keep doing it for them. How you learn is by doing.

Marie Kondo photographed by Weston Wells for The Coveteur

Think of everything in terms of “going forward.” In one episode, I saw Marie handle a sentimental man with grace. He was trying to decide whether to keep the original post box on the house when they purchased it. It had sentimental value for him. Marie had a question for him: “Is this something you want to carry into your future with you?” And, instantly, he said no.

I am hard on other people. I am hard on myself. I forgive others, but not myself. Guilt can hound me for decades. Things I should have not said or said, things I have done or not done, relationships that have failed, mistakes I have made. That is no way to live. I do not want to carry those things forward with me. I have to let them go. Learn to say no, and “I forgive myself.” Because I am not perfect, I never will be, and that’s okay. I am learning. I am a better person today than ten years ago, so why should something from my past haunt me? It’s dead. Gone. No longer relevant.

I need not carry bad feelings, shame, guilt, or anything else with me into my future, any more than I need to hold on to physical things that no longer have value. So, I can let them go.

So, thank you, Marie. You taught me how to organize my drawer and throw out old makeup. You showed me how to fold shirts and arrange my closet. You allowed me to let go of old boxes of stuff I did not need to hold on to. And you taught me how to let go.

11 thoughts on “Life Lessons I Learned from Marie Kondo (Hint: It’s not about clutter!)

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  1. That’s a really good insight. ❤

    I was listening the musical Bandstand recently and it had the same idea: that carrying guilt and pain forward longer than you have to isn’t healthy. There’s one song called “Right This Way,” and it’s where the main character (a WW2 vet with PTSD who wants to be a musician) is imagining a future where he’s finally successful. So he pictures a porter at a fancy hotel saying, “let me take your bags, my friend, you’ve been carrying those far too long . . .” Which is a brilliant bit of wordplay, because it’s not just about his literal, physical luggage, but also about his EMOTIONAL baggage which he needs to let go of.

    1. I think some people struggle with forgiving others. And some people struggle with forgiving themselves.

      I suppose you could liken those lyrics to the part in Pilgrim’s Progress where they cannot carry their backpacks up the hill and must leave them behind. 😉

        1. I forgive too easily — because I’m an idealist. I don’t want to think that people are manipulative, selfish, deceitful, or intended to hurt me in some way, because I am not that way. My dad once said people assume others are the same way they are — and for me, that’s the truth. I always struggle much more with self-loathing and being too hard on myself (ironically, for judging other people, hahaha).

          I don’t know that I’ve read the adult version, but I had a children’s version when I was a kid.

  2. Laughing at your description of your Mom as a “declutter queen”. Mine’s the same, from the time I was a little she used to read books by Don Aslett, with the theme of “dejunking”.

    You know, I was thinking about it…and maybe some people feel they CAN’T refrain from being judgmental or critical whenever they are presented with a mistake or problem, because it might seem like they are endorsing and condoning it. Saying it’s OK if their relative has kids living in unsafe conditions, or if a friend is illegally high or drunk. No big deal, they won’t judge!

    But when you watch the series, Marie isn’t downplaying, much less encouraging, their messiness and bad habits. Granted, the people in question, despite their issues, WANT to change, otherwise they wouldn’t have agreed to do the show! Change has to come primarily from within, so long as the person wants to change, there’s hope, even if it’s hard, or they need a little help along the way.

    There’s been backlash recently, with people claiming the that the question of whether something “sparks joy” can’t be applied to books. ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/07/what-we-gain-from-keeping-books-and-why-it-doesnt-need-to-be-joy-marie-kondo ) But I think some of these folks must’ve missed the episode with the Akiyamas, where she told them that the record of their family’s internment in a camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII, was “very precious”. I don’t think “spark joy” necessarily implies a shallow, bubbly idea of happiness, but more a question of whether or not something enriches your life.

    1. Yeah, my mom read those books too. Can’t remember the name of them, but the illustrations were fun.

      In my mind, judgmental is looking at someone else and thinking, “I am a better person than they are, because I do not do that.” It can be looking at their mess and patting yourself on the back, because you have a tidy house; or looking at the romantic choices they make, and looking down on them because you would not make them. That’s the kind of judgment that is bad, because it’s really just your opinion, and in the process, you are bolstering your own pride.

      “The facts” is not a judgment. “You need to clean this up, or you will fall and hurt yourself in the middle of the night” is a fact. Kids’ safety is a fact. It’s not a case of “ha, ha, you suck and I’m better,” but actual factual reasons why someone needs to tidy their space. (Among them: fire hazard.)

      But yes, you cannot change someone else. They have to want to do it. Like the people resisting Marie helping them, because they wanted to hold onto their stuff. In one instance, a woman only started to let go when she realized her husband had about had it. Is this “stuff” worth losing your marriage over? No.

      In my opinion, the book issue is overblown. Keep them if you want them. Marie isn’t going to come to your house, dump them in your yard, and set fire to them. If having ten thousand books give you joy, that’s your business. If I haven’t read a book in a decade of owning it, I’m never going to – so away to the thrift store it goes where someone else can find and love it.

  3. I like the idea of “Is this something you want to carry into your future with you?” I totally see how it could be helpful with not simply stuff, but also ideas. Book ideas, projects, attitudes — all of them. I’m going to have to ponder this. Thanks!

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