Tor Myhren makes his living persuading people to acquire things. And he’s good at it. You don’t get to be President and Chief Creative Officer of Grey New York without knowing how to make people want to stock up. (Or, at least, without inventing an ad with a talking baby who trades stocks.) But recently, Myhren has adopted a radical divestiture policy. He’s giving away one thing he owns a day, every day for a year.
Obviously, the mind behind those “Don’t-have-a-grandson-with-a-dog-collar” DirecTV ads is not just going to fill a bunch of old shopping bags with stuff he hasn’t worn in ages and schlep it down to the Salvation Army. Where’s the fun in that? Myhren’s paring down methodically and creatively—or as the leadership types he mixes with might call it —intentionally. For a start, he’s a minimalist. His living room has no chairs, just one couch and a table. So for him, it’s less about throwing out junk or de-cluttering and more about hardcore pruning, or lifestyle topiary. In fact, his process has a name: The Purge Project.
“This is not a commentary on consumerism,” he says. “The Purge Project was just for me. To see what I really wanted, and really needed.” Nor, he acknowledges, is there anything particularly noble about the rich minimalist giving away the $300 Theory sweater or $250 limited edition green Jawbone Jambox that he doesn’t use much, but could probably replace tomorrow. “Frankly it has been a very selfish experiment.”
In return for 365 of his worldly goods, Myhren claims he gets clarity of mind. “When there’s a lot of stuff around it’s very hard for me to think,” he says. “When I’m concepting [an advertising word for coming up with ideas] and writing, it feels like I can think more clearly with this stuff gone.”
There may have been some business benefit too. Myhren says he can observe close up not what makes people want to buy something, but what makes us want to own something. “Part of this for me is almost research,” he says “You realize what are those trigger points of things that are truly important to you, and what are the things that are just stuff. If nothing else this is great research into the human psyche and need states.”
He may be on to something. Recent reports have found that Americans are staggering under the weight of their stuff. There are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage in America , even as houses become ever larger and take up more of the land they’re situated on. A recent UCLA study found, among other things, that “cars have been moved out of 75% of garages to make way for furniture or boxes of household goods.” Is being able to give away 365 mostly perfectly usable items a new form of luxury? Is there such a thing as conspicuous monasticism ?
Here’s how The Purge Project works: Each Sunday, Myhrven posts seven things he owns on Facebook. (It has to be on social media, he says, so he can’t back out.) Some of his giveaways are freebie swag; some of them are more luxurious. Week 14, the high end whiskey purge, was a particularly good week for his single-malt-loving friends. “All five bottles were claimed in minutes,” he says. He arrays the goods and photographs them, wallpaper* style, from above, usually on the white rubber jigsaw mats he and his wife Tomoko put down because they have a young child.
He’s not allowed to give away anything belonging to his wife (a rule he has broken more than once). He’s not allowed to give away anything belonging to his kid, since Tomoko maintains a 100-baby-possessions-only regimen. He’s not allowed to buy anything new except non-tangible, perishable at least goods like new songs or movies or food (a rule he’s broken at least three times: two pairs of shoes and a Bustin longboard.)
A lot of his giveaways are clothes, cheapies from Uniqlo or fancy ones from y-3. Most of them are tasteful, although not always—he got some friendly mocking for what was named “the Pastel Purge” of early September. “To show some of that stuff to your friends is probably way too illuminating into my personality,” he says. “I think about that when I take the picture. I look at it and I say ‘God, I would really question anybody who owned that.” His most expensive giveaways are worth about $300.
His friends comment or text or email him if they want something. He gives it to the first person who asks. If they live outside New York City, he mails them the stuff on his dime.
Myhren, who’s no stranger to giveaways—he was the maniac behind the great Oprah car handout of 2004—got the idea from a friend who had been divorced twice and needed a fresh start in his suburban home. But Myhren lives in the city with his wife and child. Their 2-bedroom apartment is sparse and white: “Tor doesn’t like any clutter in the house,” says Tomoko. Her family owns a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) near Hiroshima where the furnishings are monastically sparse and where he has had some of his best ideas. And like many a 40-something executive, he remembers his days backpacking through developing countries carrying everything he owned as halcyon times. “I did my best thinking in those days.” he says. “All I had was a pen and a paper.”
Only one item he discarded—an old style Nordic ski-sweater that was his dad’s—has he later reclaimed. Apart from that, unlike the unlucky character in the ads his firm created for Ally Bank, he has regretted nothing. And he’s discovering stuff too, like that he has a LOT of scarves. “Who would have known I was a scarf guy?”
Now might be the time to think about friending Myhren. He’s 250 or so days in and he’s given away most of the low-hanging fruit. “I’m not sure I have 100 things left,” he says. “I’m beginning to worry.” His wife Tomoko has so far really enjoyed the Purge Project. “I own about a third as many shoes as Tor does,” she says. Nevertheless she recently found him standing at the kitchen drawer asking if she really needed three whisks. He doesn’t cook. “I told him, ‘You can’t touch that drawer.’ ”
Myhren, who loves shoes, still has 50 pairs left. They can’t last.