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When less is more: the not-so-big life

Sarah Susanka
Photo by Cheryl Muhr
Ten years after writing “The Not So Big House,” Sarah Susanka remains big on the wisdom of thinking small. She is in St. Paul on Thursday to speak to the College of St. Catherine Women in Leadership Forum.


In a culture that worships bigger and better, Sarah Susanka found the nerve to disagree.

A spacious home isn’t the ultimate, she wrote in “The Not So Big House.” Better is a scaled-back but carefully planned space that works effectively for you. The concept made the then-Twin Cities-based architect a best-selling author, drew widespread attention and won her recognition as an innovator in American culture.

Ten years and several related books later, Susanka remains big on the wisdom of thinking small. She’ll be back in town Thursday to talk about her new book, “The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters.” Rather than focusing on houses, this book coaches readers in downsizing their lives. Much like the four walls we live in, the author says, life becomes more fulfilling when we strip away the excess and make choices about what’s satisfying to keep.

Space versus time
We’re all looking for satisfaction, but she doesn’t see it in the super-sized, super-speed messages our culture delivers. “What we’re looking for is quality, not size,” says Susanka, now of Raleigh, N.C. That goes for both houses and lives. Though the two may seem distinctly different, streamlining what we put into each is a surprisingly similar process. The difference, she says, is that when planning a house, size means space, and when planning how to live life, that translates to time.

“It’s about the quality of the space,” she says. “Quantity has almost nothing to do with how you feel. It’s the same with time. You can be doing 5,000 things a day, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is how you engage in what you do. That’s where quantity and quality are exactly the same – in houses and lives.”

The Not So Big Life

Living her passion
Her new book tells readers the first step in creating lives they really want is to make the time for what engages them (and offers many questions and some rituals to help). Making time can mean giving up activities that aren’t so compelling. Or frittering less time away. Both take conviction, but she’ll vouch it can be done. Before she started writing her first book a decade ago, she was ignoring a passion that had tugged at her since she was a girl. She wanted to write. She knew there was only one way to live her passion. She had to make time to do it. “I was the only one who could do that. But how could I?” she said. “I was already way, way, way too busy.”

Sound familiar? She gave up some things she believed were getting in her way, and it worked. “When I made that small shift,” she says, “everything in my life changed.”

Small changes, she says, can make a big difference. “You just listen to what your heart longs to do and then make a tiny shift, and it’s like learning to walk. That first step is all you need, and everything else starts to move.”

Susanka will speak to a full house Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel in St. Paul. Registration is closed. The program is part of the College of St. Catherine Women in Leadership Forum.

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