September 9, 2010

Stuff is just stuff, and experiences are just experiences

September 9, 2010 - Categories: life

I was browsing the featured presentations on Slideshare for design and content inspiration, and I noticed that one of the presentations from IgniteToronto made it to the front page. The key message was: Spend on experiences, not on stuff. (Warning: language.)

This is a message I mostly agree with, and it’s good to remind people that stuff is just stuff. But I’m starting to be a little wary of how people are using this idea of spending on experiences to pack their lives, make themselves unhappy, and one-up each other.

Experiences have their dangers, too. You can get just as attached to experiences as you can to material things. You can get addicted to adrenaline rushes and bragging rights. You can plunge yourself into debt for a week or a year of bliss and still be paying for it when your tan has faded and your souvenirs are gone. You can chase after happiness in different countries and lose the ability to be who you are wherever you are. You can use your experiences to make other people feel worse about their own lives instead of inspiring them to find their own path.

I’ve played with the thought of making a “bucket list” – a list of things I want to do before I kick the bucket, a list of things I want to do before I die. I always find myself asking these questions: Is this really what I want, or am I listing this because I think I want it? Can my life still be rich and happy without this experience? I realized that experiences are just stuff, too. They may not take up space in your house, but they take up time and energy.

Take weddings, for example – one of the most emotionally-charged and heavily-marketed experiences one could have. W- and I are getting married in less than a month.  If I let myself be swayed by advertising, I might ask myself: Why not splurge on a grand hall, a limousine, the best restaurant for the reception, a luxurious honeymoon, a top-rated photographer? After all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Or twice-, in the case of W-.) Live it up. Go big or go home.

But an experience is just an experience. At the end of the day, we will be just as married in City Hall as in a cathedral, and simple wedding memories would be more in line with our values than lavish celebrations would be.

He who dies with the most experiences still dies. It’s not about quantity, or variety, or even quality—for who’s to say one experience is objectively better than another? Everything depends on what you take away from that experience, how that experience becomes part of you, how you use that experience to make people’s lives better.

It’s good to explore new experiences. You might discover lots of interesting things along the way. But be wary of the new materialism: the one that shuns stuff but adorns itself in anecdotes, always looking for happiness instead of recognizing it.

There is beauty and depth in everyday life as well. Savour the water you drink. Enjoy the work that you do. Live the life that you live.