Thanks to the folks at OrgTheory, I came across start-up guru Paul Graham’s essay Stuff. Rather than talk about the damage to the environment or the way our work lives become a treadmill to pay for the stuff, he tackles the question head on: What is all this stuff worth to us? His answer? Less than we think – perhaps nothing at all. And this is a new thing:
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 stuff has become cheaper, we have not adjusted our attitudes. We still assign it a high value, but now we have so much more of it. In his witty descriptions, some of our most common ideas about possession are revealed for the peculiarities they really are:
- The Good Deal – so called because we paid less for it (or found it for free) than some idea of its market value. Unless we actually plan to take up selling items on eBay or having a constant garage sale, this extra value contributes nothing to our lives. It’s real value is measured in its usefulness. No matter how little I paid, if I don’t have a use for something, it has no value.
- The Good Stuff – the items that we carefully pack away because they are too good to actually use. We move them from house to house, packing and unpacking them, getting them out only for very special occasions. By the time they break or we die, these things will have used us more than we will have used them.
- The Old Stuff – most of the stuff in our homes is stuff that we thought would be useful or interesting some time ago, but it is no longer so interesting or useful. But it’s not used up. It accumulates until we need bigger and bigger homes just to store the stuff for which we have no use.
Paul Graham doesn’t offer a huge solution – just the information that, once he discovered the dynamics of stuff, he slowly stopped accumulating it. Rather than asking if something is a good deal or desirable, he asks if this is one of the things that he will be using “all the time.” If not – he can see it for what it is: next year’s old stuff.