Stuff is just stuff, and experiences are just experiences

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.

  • Great post, point well taken. Many friends ask me if I don’t miss all the cool travel and events from my prior gig. Sometimes it’s hard to explain that being home every day and going through the small life events can be even more rewarding than being in Zermatt or Stonehenge or having an “experience”. No actual difference in accumulating shiny stuff or accumulating shiny experiences.

  • <laugh> All the “cool” travel and events you had to do helped me realize I want to have very little or no travel built into my role. I’m sorry you had to go through that! Thanks for sharing. =)

  • Paul

    You may be interested in the while I don’t see myself in a 200 to 300 sq ft home, there are plenty of ideas for minimizing the “clutter” or stuff in your life.

    You might also be interested in this study from the University of Colorado: “People who pursue happiness through material possessions are liked less by their peers than people who pursue happiness through life experiences, according to a new study led by University of Colorado at Boulder psychology Professor Leaf Van Boven.”
    More at:

    Quite frankly I think this is more of a balance issue. Moving to either extreme is not necessarily healthy. Yes, I have stuff and I enjoy taking experience based vacations. However, I don’t need a storage building to store stuff I never use, nor do I go into debt to go on vacation.

    Can I get rid of some stuff? Probably. Could I take less expensive vacations and experience things locally. Probably yes again. No one has the perfect life and no one can dictate what is the perfect life. We are all different and need different things in our life.

  • Paul: Absolutely. =) As in all things, you’ve got to find what works for you, instead of just following what other people tell you. (Both ways!)

    I wonder what peers think of people who don’t pursue happiness at all – people who just have it. =) I’ve been thinking about unconditional serenity (which is probably a better term than happy-do), and it seems like a different and more useful way to look at this.

  • Oh my gosh… I am speechless! Summed up with precision, clarity and incredible insight…

  • Gavin: It took me a while to get to the point of having opinions and the experiences to back them up. =) I think you might have the advantage there. Keep writing and speaking!

  • Grrr… I hate to be a contrarian – especially to such a well thought out and overall great post. But Experiences are not always stuff – because they can be shared not in a boastful sense, but in a way that draws out the dreams of the sharee.

    So here’s my take. There are those who use experiences as a way to one-up another. Such experiences are stuff. However when I use experiences to CONNECT to people in ways that I otherwise cannot… For instance: When talking to people who’ve been to, say, the blowhole by Hanauma bay – and the experience of having jumped in it and the timing required to safely exit – that connects me with the people who’ve experienced the same. It’s not stuff. And if it means I pay for it for however long I choose – that choice is mine to make. Tans and souvenirs do not an experience make. (I’m trying to keep with the theme of experiences in far-away places)

    One line in your post resonates: “Everything depends on what you take away from that experience…” It reminds me of a saying…

    “Find something outside yourself that IS yourself. Then pour all your passion into chasing it.” – something like that. I’m certain it’s not verbatim.

    SO… while I’m not advocating that you SPLURGE for the wedding, be certain that you (and by transitivity W) deserve the BEST.

    Don’t you just get a kick out of making people THINK?

  • There’s a kinship in shared experiences, like the way in-jokes build connections between people by distinguishing themselves from others. I appreciate the unexpected commonalities – someone sharing the same interests or with memories of the same place.

    Where I’ll still differ with you, l think, is on this idea of “deserving the best.” It is too often used by advertisers to shape what we think of as “best.” We always choose what we think is best for us, although we might use different factors for our decisions than other people do. The idea of “deserving”, though, is odd, and people use it to talk themselves into all sorts of stuff, playing around with the factors they’re considering.

    I don’t deserve – I choose. I choose a level of consumption that builds both short-term and long-term happiness and keeps life simple. I don’t necessarily deserve respect from everyone, but I choose to spend my limited time and energy with people who respect people. I don’t deserve happiness, not in the entitled sense – life is life, there’s no guarantee it will work your way – but I choose happiness through serenity. Other paths might fit other people, but it’s useful to know that this path exists.


  • Tom

    A very thoughtful piece. Now that there seems to be a backlash building against stuff. I think the next marketing craze will be the packaging and peddling of experiences. I think a big problem with our society is our tendency to overly commoditize everything and our consumer mentality. E.g., If you want to be an artist buy your way into the best art school (despite the fact that’s not way creativity works). I also think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy going on between the Stuff and Experiences debate. If you buy a boat to go on family trips in was the money spent on a thing or an experience?

  • The best way to buy a thing is to buy it in order to enable experiences. The interesting part is that the amount of money you spend isn’t necessarily related to the richness of your experience, which is useful to remember when you’re bombarded with advertising.

  • Excellent post and very good point. This has always been my philosophy as well and explains why I like to travel so much.

    This topic always reminds me of George Carlin’s classic and hilarious “stuff” routine:

    Like the slideshow above, there is rough language involved.

    I have been reading your blog in my rss feed for…years. But have never posted here. So, Hi!

    BTW: How’s that emacs book coming along? ;)

  • “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Totally agree, going into debt for experiences you don’t enjoy would be silly.

    It isn’t about ‘collecting’ pricey experiences – it’s about making priceless memories. Wherever I go I try and do (or eat) at least one thing that will be memorable fo rme. It may not be expensive or popular, but it’s often something that stretches my comfort zone.

    I’ll never get to everything on my bucket list — 911 UNESCO World Heritage sites, anyone? – so missing some doesn’t make me less happy. What I enjoy is anticipating, doing, and recollecting the fun experiences I do get to try.

    Make your bucket list. :) Don’t judge yourself about what you put on it. Just go and have fun. :)

  • Adam

    Came to this late but will leave comment anyway.

    Totally agree with Tom that the line between “things” and “experiences” is blurred. Further, both of them are consumed by some people as status symbols, rather than for their own sake.

    Also there is a question of greater social responsibility to be brought into this discussion. How much is it right for me to spend on “experiences” while people are homeless and starving? How much do I have to consider the impacts of my experiences on the planet – for example the environmental impact of “low impact” tourism on formerly virgin areas, plus the greenhouse impacts of an ever-growing fleet of tourism airplanes?