I used to keep stuff around in anticipation of future use--anything that still works and wasn't redundant. I had this mentality that stuff was an asset; throwing stuff meant throwing money away. I was a heavy saver, so I normally didn't buy new things and my possessions remain relatively small.
Over the years things kept accumulating, introducing mental and physical clutter. I have had belongings and clothing from fifteen years including college and childhood. I began to feel stressed and paralyzed as I felt a kind of information overload from all the clutter.
At first, I would purge things when I felt overloaded, usually expired or redundant junk. I later progressed to preemptive triages after lengthy time intervals--items that weren't used for such amount of time were discarded.
I moved last month from my previous home of seven years, and in the process discarded any possessions that I do not use regularly in order to reduce clutter, simplify my life and conserve my mental energy. I went real deep, including most of my clothes and books. I contacted Got Junk three times to magically remove items that I never wanted to see again.
Paul Graham wrote an essay on "Stuff" this past summer, which I connected with.
I have too much stuff. Most people in America do. In fact, the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have...
It wasn't always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable. You can still see evidence of that if you look for it. For example, in my house in Cambridge, which was built in 1876, the bedrooms don't have closets. In those days people's stuff fit in a chest of drawers. Even as recently as a few decades ago there was a lot less stuff. When I look back at photos from the 1970s, I'm surprised how empty houses look. As a kid I had what I thought was a huge fleet of toy cars, but they'd be dwarfed by the number of toys my nephews have. All together my Matchboxes and Corgis took up about a third of the surface of my bed. In my nephews' rooms the bed is the only clear space.
Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven't changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff.
Shortly before Paul's essay, the Onion, a satirical newspaper, published a disturbingly accurate article "Chinese Factory Worker Can't Believe the S--- He Makes for Americans," describing a Chinese worker's disbelief of Americans' need for the junk he assembles like cup holders, salad shooters, or plastic bag dispensers. The article ends with the kicker, "Somehow, the only thing more depressing than making plastic s--- for Americans is destroying the plastic s--- they send back." Funnier still, I felt the same disbelief as the fictional worker.
During my move, I walked through the aisles of Ace Hardware and noticed all sorts of convenient devices that automated simple tasks that were once done by hand. I know that if I purchase one of these conveniences that, more likely than not, it will remain unused and just occupy space.
We live in a society that encourages and rewards theses inventions. A few years ago, my uncle contacted me to see if his low-tech idea was patentable. In my business school, I gained some insight into the infomercial business through a case study in which a bad product was continually pushed to customers because revenues exceeded the costs of high returns until excessive chargebacks cause the bank to hold back payments; the company, one of the pioneers in the infomercial business, was almost done in by greed.
Just yesterday, I came across the "Story of Stuff" by Annie Leonard which looks at the production and consumption of stuff and describes the various harm socially and environmentally caused by our obsession with stuff.
Do you have one of these? [Annie holds up an iPod.] I got a little obsessed with mine; in fact, I got a little obsessed with all my stuff. Have you ever wondered where all this stuff comes from and where all this stuff goes when we throw it out? I couldn't stop wondering about that, so I looked it up in the textbook and the textbook says that stuff moves through a system.
Stuff goes from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to disposal. It's call the materials economy.
While there is a strong progressive agenda, it is still interesting to watch. I, for instance, find the environmental arguments more convincing than the social arguments.
Our way of life is maintained through the creation and movement of stuff. We are led to believe that "growing our economy" is good, and perhaps it is partly true. A larger economy brings in more tax dollars and jobs. A sad byproduct is our homes flowing with more questionable and unnecessary stuff over time. In concrete terms, a larger economy means more stuff--and also hidden tradeoffs with the environment from which we get the raw materials to make stuff.
We accumulate more stuff, because we can't throw away the old stuff because it still retains some value. We become like the textbook "economic" man, maximizing stuff, basing decisions on the expected value in stuff from performing different acts. Paul warns that all this stuff is a trap:
In fact, worse than worthless, because once you've accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around. I know of one couple who couldn't retire to the town they preferred because they couldn't afford a place there big enough for all their stuff. Their house isn't theirs; it's their stuff's.
Even in our own persons, we see the accumulation of stuff. Moms nationwide have been telling children to "finish your plate" because of starving kids in Africa, but then portion sizes got bigger in America over time as restaurants sought new ways to make money and now the smallest or children's portion sizes served in restaurants today were the only sizes offered fifty years ago. Likewise, American waistlines have grown exponentially larger over the course of a few decades.
Our bodies also gather stuff like trace amounts of industrial toxins and pollutants. The threat is not entirely unambiguous, as things like computer chips, for instance, rely on ever more exotic and rare toxic materials for faster performance.
I noticed that Scott Hanselman also made a significant move the same time as me--in the process, redesigning his home to accommodate his new telecommuting job at Microsoft such as separating his home office from household distractions. Where I tried to cull my belongings, Scott may be doing the opposite.
Scott Hanselman is the alpha geek, always needing to purchase the next big toy such as the iPhone, much like the iPod Annie was holding earlier. At a conference in May, he revealed all sorts of gadgets attached to his person. Later, he blogged about his new stuff--his new baby, the new high speed network at home, four monitors on main machine, and Windows Home Server. I was salivating at his new setup until I realized that I am already satisfied with what I have now.
Scott's new toys might all make sense as speaking points for his podcast gig, but I think they may eventually rule him. In his effort to create a dream home, Scott may be building a nightmarish house overflowing with stuff. He may never know though, because one can only visit experience a single future.
PS: I just found his comment about his financial relationship with his wife, Mo, admitting that "she keeps me grounded and she was right about the iPhone being a mistake."