The Cost of Things

It’s amazing what we can get for twenty dollars these days. Sure, it sometimes seems like inflation just won’t quit, and the costs of living add up to a frightening sum, and a pack of gum could once be had for less than a dollar now costs several.

But this is mostly a slow-burn perspective that’s difficult to see clearly because it moves so steadily.

Our buying power for most things (in the developed and developing worlds) has been on an upward trend for generations, and our lack of appreciation for this fact stems not from a dearth of wielded purchasing power, but from the lack of synchronicity between that power and our expectations of how much power we should possess, as explained and reinforced by marketing messages. Demand isn’t created for a product or service unless you keep people aspirational, so it’s in the best interest of many to keep us wanting more than we have.

Beyond this dollars-and-cents cost for things, there are other, less obvious expenses. Price tags that we don’t tend to see unless we look closely, but which are worth acknowledging nonetheless.

Opportunity cost, for example, is what we give up in favor of what we choose to buy/consume/spend our time with. When I purchase a phone, the opportunity cost is every other phone on the market, and the possibility of not having a phone, and the software/networks/brand associations of those other phones and lifestyles. The cost of my phone, then, is not just the number on the click-to-buy button.

There’s also long-term monetary cost, which includes things like recurring payments and debt; not just for the item in question, but for interest accrued on other debt that you could have paid off instead of making your purchase (if I buy a phone instead of paying off debt, the cost of that phone goes up because of the extra debt accrued through my non-payment).

Or how about the resource and sustainability cost of our purchases? Smartphones are the end-result of a massive supply chain connecting all the components of the device, allowing them to be constructed by machines and people who must be paid and fed and housed and (in the case of the machines) maintained. These supply chains stretch far and wide, encompassing mines and roads and caravans of trucks and back-channel deals with politicians. This includes the technologies required to work with the materials and mold them into useful shapes, which makes use of scientific knowledge that’s been conceived and refined over many centuries, with the most fundamental knowledge tracing back to the beginning of humankind, and the most small and specific going back only years or months. This all coalesces into something incredibly intuitive and valuable (aided by the millions of manpower hours that have gone into developing the software) and yet so common as to be barely noticeable.

Every single thing we buy has a price, and that price is typically far larger than we think while swiping our cards at the checkout terminal or one-click shopping online. This doesn’t make our purchases inherently harmful or wrong: if anything, it makes them all the more impressive for the chain of people and events and resources that have been linked up to make the end product available for common consumption!

But it’s valuable to understand that the simple act of buying a phone, or anything else, has repercussions beyond the passive ‘buy and move on’ mentality we often adopt when procuring a new possession.

We consider how something will improve our lives, make us feel, improve the perception others have of us (and the perception we have of ourselves), and myriad other variables associated with the capitalistic exchange of value. It only seems prudent that we consider the bigger picture, the true cost of things, as well.

Update: April 20, 2017

The true cost, and the number of people involved with producing anything at all in the modern age is staggering. It’s a positive consequence of globalization that we can benefit from this and not even notice it. Although there are downsides to our increased, always-on interconnectivity, this is one of the major upsides.



It’s human nature to be reductionist.

By simplifying complex concepts, we’re more able to consider them quickly, share them with others, and move forward into a state of understanding from a state of ignorance. Our instincts are wired for this so that we might quickly assess which aspects of our environment could be dangerous or beneficial. The other parts of our brains aim for similar, metaphor-based comprehension. Symbolic grokking.

Unfortunately, when we lose details we also lose subtlety, and it’s within nuance that valuable fuzziness can be found. Lacking this fuzziness — this unclear, indistinct collection of ‘maybes’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘almosts’ — we’re forced to be more concrete in our thinking, more absolute. We’re more prone to deciding that things are absolutely a certain way, ignoring inconvenient grays in between the black and white.

I’m interviewed a fair bit these days, which is a lot of fun: I truly enjoy discussing travel and my work, and other topics that interest me. But the more I think about all the subtleties of my work, and of life as a whole, the more I find myself affixing addendums to my answers, distorting the clarity that one might expect to find when an ‘expert’ talks about their field.

No longer do I feel comfortable being prescriptive in an absolute sense. For every bit of advice I give, I find myself saying things like “Well, that’s how I do it,” and “At least, that’s what works for me and what I’m hoping to achieve.” A simple question about social media usage can spiral into a complex answer about personal preferences, professional background, intentions and goals, how habits might fit into your life (and ideal lifestyle), and myriad other facets that seem necessary to bring up if I’m to give a complete answer.

Of course, in many cases the interviewers are just looking for some basic tips, not a philosophical rumination. But such tips, lacking context, seem to be the root of a problem that you find throughout prescriptive works these days. It’s all about pro-tip lists and one-size-fits-all strategies that, if you think about it, couldn’t possibly work for every single person who thinks to give them a shot. If we’re all approaching social media marketing the same way, does anyone really benefit? Aren’t we diluting the pool while also making use of tactics that lead us all down the same path, toward the same (undifferentiated, non-personalized) goals?

My struggle of late has been reaching a balance between these two extremes: explaining in detail every last facet of a concept, and being so reductionist as to be delivering little more than words without merit. Not just in interviews and the professional realm, but across the board. In lifestyle, relationships, work, and play.

That’s what clear communication is, at its most essential: homing in on the core of complex concepts, and conveying them in an accessible way that doesn’t water down their message, meaning, or profundity. And it’s no surprise, then, that the vast majority of people are absolutely terrible at this. It’s far easier to just speak or write some impressive-sounding words and be done with it. To regurgitate phrases that we associate with meaning, and arrange them in such a way that they appear to be relevant.

That’s the easier path, but I’m going to keep working hard to express the details.

Because for me the most meaningful bits have also been the most subtle. The most valuable concepts I’ve been exposed to are the ones that I first encountered as tiny, barely recognizable seeds, but which have since bloomed into the most vital aspects of my life.

Update: April 20, 2017

This increasingly applies to everything, not just marketing tips and opinions about travel. At the moment, I’m in the process of weeding through what I want my next steps to look like, taking the time to accomplish a few things that haven’t made sense as part of my usual path forward, because they are fuzzy and potentially valuable things that are difficult to justify as more concrete, goal-oriented projects.

Which is to say that I’m enjoying the hell out of this process, but it’s also blurred my idea of what I’m aiming at, and how to achieve more of what I’m enjoying and find to be valuable. It’s one thing to say, “I want to publish valuable things,” but another entirely to say, “I want to raise the level of public discourse,” while recognizing that simply publishing valuable things may not get you where you want to be.

Blog, Book


The following is an excerpted chapter from my book, Considerations.

We all serve as ambassadors for something, and in most cases we don’t even realize it.

“Why do you use that brand of computer?” someone might ask. Or, “What’s your city like?”

Whether you want the responsibility or not, you’re an ambassador for everything you do, have done, and believe. This may not be your perception of yourself and your relationship to these things, but to someone who is not you, the specifics matter very little. As someone who knows more than they do about a particular topic, belief, place, or whatever else, you’re the go-to person for expert information.

Remember that you needn’t share anything with people who ask about your choices or history or anything else. You aren’t a missionary, and if you opt out of proselytizing for whatever reason, you’re still in the right. If you carry a set of moral beliefs and don’t share them with others, you’re not doing an injustice to those moral beliefs. If you use a certain brand of phone and fail to tell those who use a different brand about why they’ve chosen an inferior path, you’re not failing to live up to the standards of your chosen brand.

But if you do choose to share, be careful how you approach it. To be an ambassador is to be a representative for this thing you’re championing, and that means your lifestyle, your actions, the words you use to describe it, all impact how everyone else sees this faith, product, or idea. If it’s a religion you’re sharing, you become an example of what people who follow this religion are like. If it’s a brand of clothing you wear, you are now the type of person who wears that type of clothing — at least to the people who see you wearing it.

I feel this ambassadorship weighing on my shoulders when I travel outside the US, because I know anything I do may be interpreted as ‘something an American did.’ Not just an action that I took as an individual, but an example of some greater cultural trait; some ‘American thing’ that expresses a more expansive norm.

Consequently, I go out of my way even more than usual to be kind and help people and be a good visitor wherever I end up. I like the idea that people might encounter me and extrapolate a larger impression — of my culture, my system of beliefs, of the brands I choose to associate myself with — in a good way. I hope people are better off for having met me, and as a result, might be more open to the things and people and ideas that I think are important.

This is not always possible, of course, but it’s an excellent course of action for someone who takes their ambassadorship seriously, whatever they might be representing, consciously or otherwise.

It’s important to note, too, especially if you walk an unconventional trail, or have blazed your own, people will sometimes want to have you as a guide. They’ll hope that, beyond just representing something, you might point them in the right direction, and help them navigate a trail you’ve created, or guide them down a path you’ve already walked.

Again, you don’t have to share anything. You can live your life and allow others to live theirs, unencumbered by active ambassadorship.

But if you do choose to help others along the way when they ask for such help, it can be immensely valuable for everyone involved. The interaction will be valuable for you, because you’ll live in a world in which more people understand your perspective, and it will be valuable for them because they may be able to go further, faster, as a result of your assistance.

Update: April 20, 2017

Older books almost always have an advantage over newer ones, at least when it comes to the backlist. There are more links pointing toward them, there are more reviews; things that shouldn’t be as important as the quality of the book, but because of the way our commercial platforms are structured, very much are.

Considerations still doesn’t have as many reviews as my older essay collection, Act Accordingly, but it’s a far better example of what I was attempting with that earlier book. There’s still value to be gleaned from the older collection, but it’s heartening to see, with time, that the newer one is gaining ground.