Things vs. experiences: two sides of the same coin

Why both are valuable

Sunday, March 29, 2015

I’ve had an peculiar experience with minimalism. I’ve spent most of my (short) adult life living out of a suitcase or a backpack, always ready to pack, zip, lock to go to the next destination, whether that was a city or a stage in life. After doing long-term travel for nearly a year, I recently came back to New York, signed a lease, and started accumulating stuff. Stuff, like headphones, blenders, sofas, laundry hampers, flatware, and coffee tables.

Part of me isn’t used to this and—despite the rather liquid furniture market on Craigslist—wants to not be burdened by all this stuff. But while my stint with minimalism was mostly freeing, it was limiting in a different way: I didn’t have access to the stuff that seems superflouous—like a blender—that actually can end up increasing my quality of life.

A common blog post title that I see in the subculture of minimalism goes along the lines of “my experience with minimalism: less stuff equals more experiences.” And this makes a lot of sense: by cutting out a lot of the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years, we can be more free, and focus our spending on experiences, not things.

Yet things and experiences aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, they seem to me like both sides of the same coin. Stuff isn’t bought to lay around and exist. It’s meant to enable experiences. It doesn’t always get in the way of experiences, but instead it can enable experiences or make them more accessible.

A blender is probably the quintessential “I’m settled down and enjoying the domestic life” thing. But it enables the ability to use it to make, for example, healthy food. Having a blender now means that I can start my day with a kale–raspberry shake, making me eat more greens—something that I couldn’t really do while traveling or avoiding owning things—and makes eating healthier more accessible.

Sometimes, certain things can be more experience-rich than individual experiences. Individual experiences, like travel, happen once, and you gain some benefit from them once. (However, these benefits could be huge, and could multiply over time if your experiences from travel cross-pollinates into, say, gratitude, or other parts of your life.) Things, on the other hand, can enable experiences over and over, like a blender making healthier eating easier day after day. Certain things can pay dividends over time in a way that some experiences can’t. (This is rare, though, and generally experiences matter more.)

So the question shouldn’t be a rejection of things, nor should it be saying that all things are useful. The consumerism that has driven a lot of people to think about minimalism is unhealthy—but the answer seems to be not a rejection of things, but rather a stronger awareness in considering what kind of experiences something is enabling or making more accessible, and gauging whether those experiences are beneficial or not.

Three caveats. — Certain things run a larger gamut in terms of what kind of beneficial experiences they can enable. It’s unlikely that a blender might enable unproductive experiences. But a TV can either make watching interesting movies and TED talks more accessible, or it can be a black hole of Breaking Bad. It would be useful to point to past evidence on how the thing in question was actually used, and either make your decision on that evidence, or resolve to use it in a more productive way.

Further, it’s easier to have a clearer view on what things are necessary when you’re starting out with less and accumulating, than starting out with a lot and needing to cut down. The experience of deciding which apps to delete and thinking “well, it could come in handy one day” is a perfect analogue to our rationalizations to physical items. In these cases, it makes sense to, again, look at historical evidence: have you been regularly using it for its purpose, or just waiting for the day you get around to it? Owning a juicer enables useful experiences, yes, but have you actually used it? If not, then it’s not only taking physical space, but also the mental space of the burden of needing to find the time to use it one day.

Finally, certain things can have strong benefits but are also a huge burden to maintain, like owning a car in a city. It’s important, then, that things don’t just enable beneficial experiences, but do so commensurate to its cost.

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.