Every man rebels against the idea that this is it. Fights windmills, saves damsels all in search of greater purpose…You have no greater purpose, because it is enough. -Kevin Garvey Sr
This is the single quote I return to most. In a modern existence teeming with temptation, it’s the task of a lifetime avoiding perpetual dissatisfaction with the present when compared to alt-presents just barely out of reach: If only I had a coffee… If only I had a better job … If only I had planned a nice vacation … If only I had a better lover … If only I had new golf clubs… Beyond the immediate downsides of this “grass is always greener” thinking – namely, that your attention is sucked away from the here and now making full appreciation of the here and now impossible – giving in sends you on a path with no limiting principle; satisfying one desire provides (maybe) brief relief before being replaced by a new one. The promised fulfillment’s emptiness is undeniably revealed, and yet you are no less likely to be duped again in the future.
But of course sometimes the grass is indeed greener. Sometimes, “when I think I’m being self-sufficient, I’m really just learning to live without the things that I need.” Need. Such a weak word, at least to me. I need nothing! Can survive, nay thrive, in any situation! This is a true part of my identity, but is it actually TRUE? There’s no scarier question. Each of us crafts an identity as a refuge in a complicated, capricious world. It’s comforting to know who you are. Unfortunately, comfort is the area least likely probed for holes, which means your agreeable identity may be working against your long-term self-interest.
I like having shitty stuff. I like finding deals. I like living so well below my means a bystander, upon seeing my car and my clothes and my $5 sunglasses, may assume I’m poor. I do this because:
(a) I really do subscribe to the first paragraph and think materialism is damaging to one’s tranquility.
(b) I am strongly persuaded by this thought experiment from Peter Singer:
Imagine you’re walking across a park. Somewhere in that park there’s a pond. You know the pond is quite shallow, but you see something splashing in the pond. When you look closer, you’re shocked to find that it’s a small child who seems to have fallen into the pond and is flailing around because it’s too deep for this small child to stand. So, you look around for the parents or the babysitter, but there’s nobody. There seems to be only you and the child. Your next thought is, I better run down to the pond, jump into the pond, and grab the child. Not hard to do. No risk to me because the pond is shallow.
But then it does occur to you that [saving the child] is going to ruin your most expensive shoes. You’ll be up for some hundreds of dollars to replace them and other clothes you might ruin. So, you think, why shouldn’t I just walk away and not have to go to the expense of replacing my shoes? Now the question for everybody is: If somebody did that, would you think that was really the wrong thing to do? Would you think that you had done something seriously wrong in leaving the child very probably to drown? Most of the people who I ask this of say that would be an awful thing to do — it would be terrible to allow a child to drown because you didn’t want to go to the expense of buying new shoes, even if they were expensive ones.
The point of the thought experiment is to then switch to the situation that we really are in. We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provision for the future. We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable causes and there are effective organizations that would gladly accept a donation from you that would increase their ability to save some of these children. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?
So, I give 10% of my pre-tax income to efficacious charities. I have somewhat honestly pondered giving away everything beyond $35k per year.
(c) Since being a teenager, I’ve prioritized flexibility. With flexibility, I assumed I would be best positioned to take advantage of the coolest opportunities. Since I’m also guided by the philosophy of do-cool-stuff-with-cool-people, being able to seize opportunities is of utmost importance.
There is an inverse relationship between nice things and flexibility. If this is not prima facie obvious, consider how many people stay in bad jobs, cities, and relationships because of debt. Then consider how much of that debt (or that living paycheck-to-paycheck) is the result of fairly useless stuff. And by useless, I mean the person is no longer deriving detectable pleasure from the stuff. The stuff is all but irrelevant, except for its role as a massive anchor that won’t release.
(d) Convenience kills creativity. I view it as significant societal progress that we’ve collectively moved away from Maslov’s lower levels and associated desperations. Materialism may corrupt tranquility … just not nearly as much our ancestors’ real fears of starving, or freezing, or contracting a ubiquitous infection that equaled death.
Still, never having to leave your house (because everything can be delivered), never having to do hard labor (because you can hire a contractor or mechanic), never having to fix things (because you can buy new ones) makes one too soft. We are all so, so far from our limits and being tested is an invigorating reminder of this chasm. You can figure out, say, a flat tire in western Iowa with no cell service only if you must. These doses of desperation, doses that are dramatically reduced by overbearing convenience, are powerful in expanding your mind: in future binds you have a reservoir of successes to help prevent capitulation. I can do this. I’ve done this before.
#1: Fuck you and your quite convenient life talking about “doses of desperation.” Your life is insanely comfortable by any sensible standard. If convenience is so damaging, why in the hell are you still living in America? Why in the hell do you have ANY money in the bank?
Fair, fair. Though I did acknowledge that too much desperation is suboptimal. The line I’m drawing is murkily centered around the percentage of convenience absorbed. One-hundred-percent and 0% are both terrible. Convenience entirely divorced from gratitude is terrible. Convenience regularly employed so you can do banal things – say, watching Netflix – is to be closely monitored. My most reliable guidepost is the principle that one must regularly (>0 times per day) defeat weakness:
Weakness is the inner voice urging you to be less than. To varying degrees, everyone will give in from time to time. But make no mistake, this act is never one to be encouraged since surrender increases the voice’s potency. If you capitulate too often, weakness’ power climaxes through silence; the once associated shame, guilt, and negotiations are no longer there to remind you that another way exists.
The other way is strength. It rarely offers superior hedonistic rewards, but in matters people claim to value most in life, strength is undefeated. Omnipotent it is not, though, for weakness never completely disappears. The best one can do is repeatedly win the daily battles by charging into challenge (a.k.a. the stuff weakness tells you not to do) and away from guilt (a.k.a. the stuff weakness tells you to do).
#2 If it’s reasonable to think the world will keep getting better, aren’t you just clinging to superfluous skills by eschewing convenience? Like, why memorize phone numbers when you have a smartphone?
Another strong counter. The point is not that you need these skills for survival but that you need them for meaning. Creativity/figuring stuff out/exploring infuses life with purpose that convenience does not.
(e) I like being different. This desire can lead to unique perspectives and unorthodox pleasures. It can also, however, lead to a reflexive contrarianism that’s just as unthinking as the mainstream, à la the sneering Hot Topic high schoolers being similarly conformist as their Abercrombie and Fitch classmates. You cannot conflate the mainstream being generally incorrect with always. Furthermore, uniqueness in any meaningful sense has little to do with opinions one holds and products one buys. I don’t always avoid these pitfalls.
(f) I like to outperform, and it’s easier to do that with low bars. Much is expected of the man with a Ferrari. Not so for the man with a Miata. There is cowardice here, no doubt. But there’s also a proper disdain for braggarts. Additionally, it’s natural to feel you are superior to others when you have expensive things. I’d like to avoid this feeling, even though it does feel good, because kinship and connection are more valuable than my ego. That is, the potential for connection, both with blue- and white-collar people, is reduced when I’m walking around thinking I’m better than everyone. Given my incorrigible competitiveness, I do already frequently think this way. I bet I’d think it even more in a $5K suit.
Just as I believe your ability to push yourself should be tested time and again, so too should the philosophies and identities that shape your life. Being wrong about yourself is surely painful, but it’s a pain worth enduring ASAP. There generally isn’t regret for me in these moments of revelation, just an acceptance that obviously I will always have some things wrong and Great news! I’m now less wrong than I was yesterday.
If there was any pain in this golf club exercise, it was questioning if I’m really using my flexibility all that well. In friendships, the answer is a resounding “yes.” I have a rich cadre of friends for which I’m truly grateful, and this cadre would be smaller without my high levels of flexibility. It was also the plan, though, that through exploration powered by flexibility – the saying “yes” to whatever – I would find answers that enabled me to “do something important.” There I have failed. And unlike most who can come up with plausible rationalizations about not having enough time or freedom to figure it out, I have no excuses. I’m good-not-great, and I no longer have untried strategies for how to change that.
As for the golf clubs, I’m pleased that I’ve mostly inured myself to material temptation. I think this is an ability that serves me well. But this wellness is not absolute, and I now have a better understanding of its shortcomings. While everyone is at risk of going from sober to drug addict – don’t think you are special – I know myself well enough to view such a transformation as extra unlikely given my supreme discipline. So yes, it’s possible that buying one nice thing could lead me to covet ever more nice things, but more likely I’ll just really appreciate the single nice thing and leave it at that. I’ve had nice things before and a monomaniacal buybuybuy ethic didn’t suddenly engulf me. Furthermore, I did like those nice things more than my not nice things. For instance, I found $400 headphones months ago, and I still reflect on their dopeness once a week.
Yet this fortuitous discovery, like past brushes with opulence, did not shift my general approach. Part of the dopeness in the headphones or other situations comes from rarity. If all my stuff is nice, my baseline just shifts up and it becomes harder to gain the genuine pleasure derived from positive departures from the norm. The person who only eats canned sardines will be delighted at 99% of restaurants; the $200 steaks 3x weekly guy is only juiced at 1% of restaurants. This doesn’t have to be true, but given the power of acclimation to what becomes normalized, it’s generally true. In its worst form, acclimation to an extremely high standard leaves one fragile such that the tiniest inconveniences become anxiety-inducing. If this feels like a reach, see modern America with its awful combination of both unprecedented wealth AND alarming rates of anxiety, depression, and malaise. How many of our current stressors would have counted as luxuries a mere generation ago? The number is not low.
A reasonable counter: Fine, what’s the point of all this progress and prosperity, of accumulating resources on the individual level if one avoids tasting the fruit? I’d proffer (c) as the individual answer. Even if you don’t care about the ability to do random stuff, the flexibility to handle life’s unforeseen trials should be cherished. You do know that you’re just one phone call away, right? That you will die a tragic death in “youth” or you’ll have to withstand terrible things happening to those you love? And that when that phone rings and your world changes, there will be real regret that you wasted so much time, energy, and money on frivolity? Best to get ahead of it. More concretely, counterattacks in these trials often (always?) require time and money. Here, the grass is absolutely greener: If only I could be by your bedside at the hospital, but, alas, I have to work, and my god! have you seen airfare these days?!?!? Biden Inflation like nothing else. Srry. Maybe next time you are hospitalized DeSantis will have gotten these airlines in check.
But that doesn’t fully answer the counter. One could surely accept some dollar number to hit for “security” and only then start buying fat steaks. Why not? I think because it’s hard to get into the material possession game and not have that become one’s life purpose. There will always be a better thing to own, a higher level to achieve. This is bad in that you’ll never be satisfied, and you’ll likely be distracted from what really matters. Yet, a goal to EXPAND MATERIAL PROWESS is also not bad since it offers a real reason to climb out of bed. Without such a reason, boredom and listlessness can be overwhelming. Additionally, while you may never be fulfilled by chasing the latest and greatest, you’ll also never achieve it completely and have to deal with the hollowness that comes when all your dreams are realized. You get the benefit of many well-defined victories along the way without the game ever having to end.
Then again, accepting the whole tasting the fruit concept leaves one quite vulnerable to doing for other things instead of simply doing. Something, something it’s the journey not the destination. But seriously. However successful you become, more time will be spent in the day-to-day grind than on vacation. And when too much focus is placed on tasting the fruit, you can find yourself killing time in your mind if not also in your behavioral passivity, which renders the majority of your life mere endurance until the next pineapple slice.
Lots of competing forces that make no single path obviously correct, especially when accounting for the individual differences of the trekkers. In this moment, I, thanks to you two, conclude that I should expand the place I currently spend money. Buy experiences is henceforth amended to Buy experiences. Don’t forget that “experiences” may include physical things, especially when the physical thing improves one’s performance in an underlying activity.
A few of my new, improved, and always-open-to-amendment-when-great-friends-correctly-point-out-my-idiocy guidelines:
- Remember diminishing marginal returns: There is (sometimes) a noticeable difference between cheap and expensive. There is (usually) less of a difference between expensive and very expensive. In many cases, it requires true expertise to notice those tiny differences. Go from $200 clubs to a $1000 set and even I’ll detect the change. But unless you are Ricky Barnes, don’t go from $1000 to $5000. If I, a non-expert, make this additional leap, it’s likely about filling some psychic need to “show off” and “be better than other people.” I probably want to work on eliminating such petty needs.
- Occasionally reexamine my initial purchase reasoning: I convince myself to buy a deck because I want to host people. This is about the experience of making it easier to be with friends! Just be sure to check in six months to see if friend hangouts have, indeed, increased.
- Be honest about the expected performance improvements: Apple wants me to believe that the new iPhone will change my life, that its newest features deeply matter to my well-being. But did I even consider 11hrs of battery life a problem before Apple told me that, no, 12hrs is what allows someone to be productive?
- Try to want whatever I already have: Remember that in some prior state, my current possession was an object of desire. Remember that in some prior state, I convinced myself that if I got what I now have it would be enough. It is enough.
Thanks for spurring on a thought exercise more valuable than those dopeasfuck PXG irons.
 From “Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson.
 Your truth is true but not necessarily TRUE. If you had a particularly unlucky run of events, you “overlearned” about risk and probably hold a personal truth that limits downside at the expense of upside. Think of an online shopper who bought five straight fraudulent products and declares he’ll never shop online again. On the other hand, if you had an extremely lucky run, you have “underlearned” about risk and probably hold a personal truth that maximizes upside by being completely exposed to downside. Think of a person who has never been ripped off or robbed and so stops locking his doors. One should want his truth to correctly map onto TRUTH. Determining if you are remotely close to meeting this standard is not easy.
 Check givewell.org. And nope, none of the causes that attract mainstream attention in America matter much at all.
 Though just because something has been attempted doesn’t mean it’s destined to fail again in the future.
 Some of this is overstated for political reasons. Some of this has always been there but is only now being documented because of advances in medicine and empathy. Still, for example, 62% of kids (from 2-17) are on ADHD meds. That can’t be a good sign of what we have going on here.
 People want to have loving relationships. People want to be good people. People want to be present. Not complicated or really debated.
 The BE IN THE MOMENT gospel misses how terribly dull so many moments are and how much genuine joy comes from checklists and daydreams.