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Update

Above is an excerpt from the audiobook version of my new book, Considerations. That’s me doing the narration.

The text version can be found here.

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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, but now costs several.

But this is mostly a slow-burn perspective; 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, for instance, 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 core 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 — 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.

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Subtlety

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 probably 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: honing 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.