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Transmogrification & The Collector’s Lair – 4 Lessons in Minimalism

The wizard's main study

Last month, my life was mystically transformed by a wizard I’ve never met. Life’s funny that way.

I still don’t know what the wizard looks like—and I should go ahead and add that he only exists in my imagination. For some reason, though, I felt compelled to devote two months of leisure time to crafting his lair. It was in this process that I also learned some of the most valuable lessons of my life.

A few of you might recall back in November, when I showcased some tabletop gaming terrain I had built for a craft exchange. The learning curve was steep, the path arduous, but I came out with some fun little pieces of story fodder for a total stranger’s adventures. This time around, my brain kept returning to the image of a pack rat’s lair and the fun little nicknacks that it could contain. I thought it’d be fun to put together, and this is how it all looked when all was said and done:

The Collector’s Lair:

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As the pictures might indicate, I had a whole lot of fun with this challenge. I tried out more great tutorials by my greatest crafting heroes DM Scotty, The DMG, Wyloch and Black Magic Craft. I ventured out even more this time to put my own spin on fantasy-style set pieces & monsters. My favorite creations were the “Porkins-Beans art gallery,” the from-scratch monodrone & a baby hippo named Gryff. It’s the simple things.

Like before, the whole process was a blast. But in the midst of the crafting process—while binging emotionally wrenching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—I also trudged through a metric ton of my own collected clutter, both tangible & of the mental variety. What follows is four vital life lessons I’ve unearthed in the midst of creating The Collector’s Lair.

Venture forth… if you dare!


At the beginning of this project, I decided on one thing: The Collector’s Lair would be unsettling because it was packed to the brim with weird items. In order to find the crafting materials I’d need, I had to sort through my own lair—a home office that also happened to be unsettling… because it was packed to the brim with weird items. The comparison was obvious, and it’s likely what inspired me one night—as I converted cardboard boxes into teeny-tiny spell books—to check out Minimalism: A Documentary on the Important Things. It’s free on Netflix, if you’ve got it.

That documentary provided a persuasive introduction to the minimalist lifestyle. I soon learned that many of the trends I’d admired (like tiny houses) were simply variations on the minimalist philosophy. From there, I began reading more works by the Stoic philosophers (the great-granddaddies of modern minimalists). I found Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life to be particularly helpful.

I also became more conscious of other friends who were bucking crumbling systems & thriving in their own corner of minimalism. One such friend, Mike Herndon, had been randomly hiking all over the globe as of late. Since random globe hiking is not common practice among my fellow South Georgia natives, I had to know what was up. Short answer: Minimalism.

Mike told me he had been “”embracing a minimalist lifestyle in terms not only of possessions, but also in regards to investment of [his] own finances and time.”

His core philosophy looks like this:

“If an activity or object does not add value to my life and serve me in terms of contribution and personal vision, then I do not have room for it. Also, if I do purchase anything, I give up a corresponding item or service whenever feasible.”

Mike Herndon 

Sounds easy, right? Not at first. He and I both have our own lists of resources that have helped us retrain our commercial-saturated brains toward minimalism. Mine are sprinkled throughout this post. His, I’ll share at the end.

Decluttering the Lair

If The Collector took a minimalist approach to the lair I crafted, he probably wouldn’t be such a scary guy. I’d venture to say, though, that he’d be more effective in his approach to global domination or unlocking portals… or whatever it is fantasy wizards do these days. All it would take for him is a little strategic daily sprucing with the right set of mini-goals in mind. Pretty soon, he’d find way more lembas bread than he could possibly eat, eliminating most of his space-wasting barrels.

If you’re anything like me, though, the thought of purging just made you hyperventilate. Fortunately, I stumbled across Francine Jay. Her book, The Joy of Less, is helping me keep the decluttering anxiety at bay while making incremental steps toward freedom. I highly recommend it for its methodical, simple approach to space reclamation.

This week, for example, I’m gutting & chunking my dresser, only keeping a handful of clothes that can fit in my closet. Thanks to Jay, the thought of that little slice of freedom actually makes me giddy. And my yard sale to end all yard sales at the end of the month will be an epic event worthy of song.

One thing that The Collector & recovering pack rat Mark have in common is the misconception that having everything stacked within one’s sight line will somehow improve one’s memory. I’m living proof that this strategy doesn’t make me any less scatterbrained. By minimizing the clutter of one’s living space, though, you can reclaim more than just real estate.

For every personal belonging The Collector chooses to toss, he performs that same decluttering act within. The physical act of purging assures his brain that it’s okay to clear out the corresponding mental space for more important things (like that shrinking solution he learned third year at Hogwarts). Rather than setting aside a single day to work his tidying magic, The Collector would do well to pick one drawer in one space to completely empty… and then slowly, over several days or months, transform his surroundings from there in a logical and meaningful manner.

Luckily for you—and for our hesitant Collector—not all minimalists find joy in two dark-gray t-shirts & one pair of khakis (though I certainly do). Globetrotting Mike puts it this way:

“I don’t think a rigid framework is necessary or even advisable. Minimalism means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean you spend your time cloistered in a hall closet staring into the vanilla walled abyss…but you could.”



Since September, my wife and I have been seriously revamping our diets. We cut out all of the “fun stuff” like sugars, breads & other starches. We both lost a lot of weight, but it was excruciating for me particularly at first. During the first two weeks, my body had to detox all the sugar-loving tag-along fauna, and the fauna raged, raged against the dying of the light. That’s because, a few years ago, I discovered within the depths of my bowels an incredibly inconvenient autoimmune disorder called ankylosing spondylitis. In wizarding terms, think of it as a powerful curse that turns you into the real-life equivalent of Logan’s post-apocalyptic, ever-aching Wolverine.

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Rather than wallow in the pain that only knows two settings (frustrating and really bad), I’ve learned that my body, too, is a promising landscape for minimization. Not only am I 35 pounds lighter than when I changed my diet, I’m actually enjoying filling up on the healthy foods we find. Since I began crafting the lair, I’ve also started exercising regularly with an intentional goal of building muscle mass the minimalist way. Turns out workout aches aren’t so bad when your joints were already on fire to begin with!

Resurrecting the Body

But why, you may ask, should a mysteriously absent Collector worry about his body when he has automaton statues & extraplanar modrons to do his bidding? Why should you make these inconvenient changes to your routine if your body isn’t yet falling apart? What’s the point of enslaving minions if you’re just going to put your body through the pains and frustrations of a conscious health plan anyway?

As you can guess from the Collector’s many hoarded items, his brain is full of knowledge. That knowledge has the power to affect creatures near and far, for as long as the synapses are firing. His efficacy as a wizard ties directly back to how he felt that day. Chances are if he’s constantly battling a cold or getting winded from shooting lightning bolts from his fingers, he won’t be able to affect the world with his knowledge for so long.

Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Body has been a vital resource for my own health improvement. Years before I knew I needed it, his book first introduced me to a slow-carb diet and a 30-minutes-a-week workout plan that’s bringing noticeable results to my once-blobfish physique. My family’s been using a variation of that diet, directly taken from the Trim Healthy Mama plan that my wife found. I’ve really grown to like THM, because where Ferriss’ diet encourages a one-day binge each week to reset your metabolism, THM offers tasty alternatives to the fat-storing foods. Since sugary, starchy treats wreak serious havoc on my joints & gut, I’m finding that, for my own inner ecology, cheat days just aren’t worth the pain anymore.

***Of course, you’ll want to really do your own research before diving into these or any other body-revamping strategy. Informed minimalists makes the best minimalists!

Back in February—between base coating a ton of mini set pieces & dry brushing stone textures—I finally accepted that my body could be my best, most lasting tool for overall success. Even in its geriatric creakiness, I’ve got to make its upkeep a priority. Like our junk-collecting mystery wiz, I’ve got important stuff to share with the world someday. You do too. When my body finally gives out, though, most of that impact will soon be forgotten. Streamline your body while it counts!


As I continued my crafting project, I found it more difficult to keep up with my self-imposed schedule. It seems when you give yourself specific deadlines, a disproportionate number of obstacles rise up in the most unfortunate of ways. It’s in this state that you find yourself faced with two choices:

A.) Spend much of your valuable time making countless (though often valid) excuses for why things aren’t happening the way you planned


B.) Adjust your plans strategically (despite valid excuses) and knock out the important goals, no matter what.

Which choice should our now trim and lair-pimped Collector pick?

If he’s serious about minimalism, I highly recommend that he apply a minimalist philosophy to his social calendar. This is a hard one for me. Up until now, I’ve made it my life’s goal to A.) have everyone like me and B.) treat everyone as more important than me. In theory, that’s nice. It’s given me warm-fuzzies on many occasions, and more people like me than don’t. (So far, so good.)

If, however, I hope to make any significant impact on the human species, I’ll eventually need to acknowledge that my potential impact is valid and worth sharing. I’ll also occasionally be at odds with the potential impacts of others, which means some of them won’t like me.

Put in story terms:

We’re all the heroes of our own stories. All heroes have obstacles. They have antagonists, and they have a limited number of allies to help them along their way. The other villagers who aren’t really active in the story—as kind or nonthreatening as they may be—don’t need to serve a greater role for the hero. Were the extras in your story to take a more prominent role, the story would immediately change. They’d instantly become obstacles, because their goals are not the same as your goals. As a result, their narratives would be at constant odds with your own.

Raising the Force Fields; Readying the Vials

If The Collector wants to optimize his life’s work, he really should cut down on minions. I mean, what kind of wizard can expect to get anything done when the baby hippo and giraffe-spider are constantly at each other’s throats? That kind of distraction is probably why he abandoned the lair in the first place! When applying minimalism to your life, you’ll want to consider which social interactions are vital to your success and which are merely distractions from your journey.

Some human distractions from a minimalist lifestyle aren’t antagonistic at all: a child who wants to play together during your designated work time, or a like-minded friend who wants to have coffee as often as possible. In many cases, these people are vital parts of your life, and it’s up to you to set the parameters of those relationships. Tim Ferriss is notoriously “anti-meeting,” because of the reclaimed time a thoughtfully worded email could provide in its place. I tend to agree.

Some relationships are just toxic, though. You may even uncover a twinge of toxicity in a person you love, given the right circumstance or raised stakes in your life. My friend, Mark McCullough, tackles these relationships quite nicely in this video. I’ve seen Mark’s acting career explode in T.V. & film, and one reason for this is his choice to revoke access to the naysayers in his life. This clip really brings home the need for strategy about our relationships. Check it out!

Okay. Back to The Collector.

Imagine he has an ancient tome on his shelf, and its pages are made from the faces of those he loves. Don’t judge! You knew he was a creepy collector from the start. Anyway, he calls this tome “The Face Book,” and as much as he should be finishing that scroll on dispelling Eldritch blasts… there are so many beloved faces to see in his Face Book. And he feels so good every time he spends surface-level time with them.

What the Collector doesn’t realize is that, for every warm-fuzzy he gets from his Face Book, there are at least ten pages that make him sad about a situation he can’t control, five that make him incensed about heartless oligarchs he’s never met, and five that simply relate to a subgroup of people to which he doesn’t belong.

I’ve done this research on my own Facebook, and these stats ring true. Cut back and limit your daily time on social media. It makes a tremendous impact on your quality of life. If you need a sacrificial hero to keep your social media going as you prioritize everything else, email me and I’ll be happy to help optimize your interactions. (Seriously. Social media management is a vital piece of the Holistic Storyteller brand.)

When you proactively choose & limit the ways you interact with others, you’ll find far more time & energy to crush those goals that are important to you.


Like many people gifted/cursed with overactive brains, I really have to fight to keep my attention on one thing. While crafting this lair, I was pleasantly surprised at how singular my attention could be when assembling tiny scrolls or aging a rusty cage. It’s no wonder that—for centuries—the same monks characterized by otherworldly wisdom were also known for performing an endless supply of repetitive tasks. Whether hand copying holy books or tending expansive gardens with primitive tools, they endured repetition, and ever-flowing wisdom seemed to result.

Soon after I mailed off The Collector’s Lair, I began having “zen withdrawals.” This led me to the Headspace app, which promised ten free daily meditations at the start. In the midst of some really stressful & unexpected hiccups in my life, the meditations helped keep me moving forward. Meditation was the perfect supplement for my distractible brain and the natural opponent of that ravenous succubus called Commercialism.

Headspace isn’t religion-specific with its content, but if you need a calming routine that more directly reinforces your worldview, those are out there, too.

Spinning the Plates

By this point in The Collector’s story, if he’s mastered lessons 1-3, he’s got to be at least Level 20 in skill. Adventurers who once shivered at the thought of entering his home now seek him out for great wisdom. Their jaws drop at the spryness with which he ascends spiral staircases, and he seems to be genuinely present when they share the needs of their quests. His mechanized death idol serves a legendary eye of newt stew to The Collector’s closest friends, and his office feels expansive & welcoming.

But how does a guy keep this sort of lifestyle going?

From a behavioral standpoint, The Collector’s brain—like our own—will not want to minimize his life as soon as it notices the change. That’s a survival mechanism hardwired into all living creatures. The old fight-or-flight. What sets you and The Collector apart from most other creatures, though, is two magical gifts: Logic & Habit.

If, like me, your brain warns of danger before you step onstage to inspire a roomful of school kids, take a moment. Think, “How many times have I heard of third-graders mauling the guest speaker whose presence means they get to miss math class?” If the hesitation isn’t logical, remind yourself of that, and move forward anyway.

Each time you follow through with a new healthy habit, it’s easier on your brain. This rewiring doesn’t happen overnight. Some habits take a lifetime to change, but if you’re planning to live a lifetime anyway, why not admit that the change will be worth it? Each time you pick up a new positive habit, the process of minimizing and changing becomes easier:

Clear the physical clutter, and you can reclaim the time you usually spend on hunting a sock or tax document. Maximize your muscle/fat ratio, and you’ll find yourself more confident to get in front of those third graders who scare you to death. Trim the naysayers from your life, and you’ll find your inner monologue is far less critical and your successes more frequent.

As you master these four lessons from a dusty spellbook in The Collector’s Lair, you’ll see yourself craving minimalism in other areas, too. Go after them. Streamline your schedule. Minimize your life. The best way to benefit from a minimalist lifestyle is to keep at it, in the face of anxiety, until it feels second nature. Then, continue building from there.

With a minimalist lifestyle, you’ll find plenty of time, space & mental bandwidth to enjoy little perks like tabletop gaming.

What’s that you say? You lack the terrain to make your tabletop gaming a truly epic experience? I know a guy who finds joy crafting in that sort of thing…

If you’re craving more on lifestyle revamping, I’d love for you to join my Living Heroically 5-Day Challenge.  For now, I’m accumulating a crowd of would-be heroes wanting to blaze past excuses and conquer the goals that they’ve always wanted. Once we’ve got the crowd together, I’ll set a date for us to go through the challenge together.

I’m also including Mike Herndon’s list of minimalist resources he recommended to me. Enjoy!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an ominous lair of my own to clear out.


Mike Herndon’s Suggested Resources on Minimalism:


Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists by Joshua Field Milburn & Ryan Nicodemus


Becoming Minimalist

Slow Your Home 

The Art of Simple

About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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