I love the awesome stuff you can get these days. I was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up before the internet, before cell phones, before the smart-everything, connected-everything, disposable-everything era. Don't even get me started about groceries. My second favorite thing about the United States is Costco and their cheap five-pound strawberry crates, giant cheese wedges, and more.
Ownership Is a Drag
But as much I love stuff, I hate owning things. Ownership is a drag. As soon as I acquire anything, it begins to decay, get outdated, and lose its relevance to me. Every single possession is a liability and a responsibility.
I got a two-pound bag of Costco frozen shrimp the other day, and when I went to put it in my freezer, I couldn't fit it because I forgot that I got the same thing a few weeks ago. I had to defrost and eat that shrimp ASAP even though I was looking forward to burgers that night. I know, first world problems.
Ownership is a drag on your physical, mental, and financial freedom.
Ownership is a drag on your physical, mental, and financial freedom. I thought I lost my camera tripod and started shopping around for another one—until I found my old one in the closet. I have at least five things of superglue in the house. According to professional organizer Regina Lark, there are 300,000 items in the average American home. We've had to triple the size of the average American home over the last 50 years, and many of us still have to rent offsite storage.
Nothing Is Forever
The cost of a thing goes far beyond the sticker price. You must allocate physical space to store it and mental space to keep track of it. Then there is the constant mental cost of worrying about it. Nothing lasts forever, and things start to decay as soon as you acquire them—both literally and in your mind. My "indestructible" tungsten-carbide wedding band suddenly shattered after nine years. I thought it would be my only possession to outlast me. Buddhists saw "suffering due to constant change" as one of the three kinds of suffering and advocated the renouncement of all desire as the solution.
Such is the age of mass production, when products and tastes change constantly, unpredictably, forever.
Besides physical rot, there is comparative rot when possessions become outdated compared to new versions today or irrelevant to the you that is now and not the you of 10 years ago. Such is the age of mass production, when products and tastes change constantly, unpredictably, forever.
Value Experiences, Not Things
I don't advocate renouncing all material things, just renouncing attachment to material things. To get the most out of the modern world, you must learn to value experiences, not things. I love driving my little turbocharged Honda Civic. I hate owning a car. Vehicle registration only costs $20 in Georgia, but I start worrying about it months before my birthday (all vehicle registrations expire on your birthday here).
I love the look and feel of my anodized aluminum MacBook Pro. I love how my iPhone is an ever-present connection to all of human knowledge and that my Apple Watch tracks my every move and gives me little daily activity and meditation goals. I like having a cozy apartment right next to my office, with its grill, pool, and punching bag.
Own as Little as Possible
What I value is the experience of using the product. It’s intangible, but it's the thing that actually adds value to my life.
I try to own all these things as little as possible. I rent, I finance my Civic, my computer was provided by my company, and my iPhone is financed by Apple and my Apple Watch through my health insurance. Modern society forces me to own all these things to an extent, but I eagerly give up the privilege when I can. What I value is the experience of using the product. It’s intangible, but it's the thing that actually adds value to my life. If my iPhone screen ever cracked, it would annoy the heck out of me, and I would immediately change it out for an identical new model with zero regrets or pain. Such is the wonder of mass production. Every year, Apple gives me a new iPhone and Aetna gives me a new Apple Watch. It's the ownership experience that I value, not the thing.
Welcome to the Experience Economy
Welcome to the experience economy, where each individual is free to focus their time and energy on their area of comparative advantage.
One day soon, owning things will be a hobby while everyone else will pay for ready-made experiences. We are getting there. For example, a middle-class millennial with a fully stocked kitchen is likely to enjoy cooking as an end in itself, while most of her peers go out or buy meal kits. Having a home library is a hobby—for everyone else, there are Kindles and YouTube tutorials. A home with a meticulous formal dining room and stocked bar is a hobby, while everyone else goes out to Ted's Montana Grill (or maybe that's just me). When self-driving cars take off, car ownership will be a hobby for auto enthusiasts, while everyone else will take a self-driving Uber, or Waymo, or whatever wins out. Welcome to the experience economy, where each individual is free to focus their time and energy on their area of comparative advantage.
In the old days, before the industrial era, we lived in a commodity economy: you bought hay to feed your horse to ride into town for a hoedown. The Industrial Revolution brought the product economy: you could buy a nice car and roll to the club in style.
In the post-industrial era, the post-ownership service economy, you take an Uber. We are now entering the experience economy, where your Uber, or airline seat, or AirBnB is expected to offer an integrated, immersive experience, not just get you from A to B or a bed for the night.
How Can I Minimize My Cost of Ownership?
1. Become financially secure:
In Neal Stephenson's book The Diamond Age, the poor have access to a faucet that provides an endless stream of 3D-printed stuff which can be recycled for any other item while only the wealthy have access to handmade goods. We're not there yet. Today, people hoard stuff because it takes money to acquire things. Because people live paycheck to paycheck, they can't count on access to money when they need it, so they hoard possessions. Become financially secure so you can rest assured that you will be able to get a thing when you truly need it and let someone else value it in the meantime. Strive to own things just-in-time rather than just-in-case.
2. Develop an abundance mentality:
Let go of the idea that possessions will bring happiness or that they are irreplaceable. Don't make your home a spaceship—a self-contained ecosystem that is expected to provide for all your needs. The world is full of places, experiences, and things you can enjoy without the burden of owning them.
3. Embrace the entrepreneurial spirit:
One day, we'll print anything we want in a Star Trek-style replicator, but today, to embrace the sharing economy, you must become entrepreneurial. Master selling your old stuff on eBay so you can get rid of it as soon as you no longer need it. Rent out your car on Turo so it generates income when you're not using it. Borrow rather than buy, rent rather than own. Look for opportunities to monetize your idle assets and hobbies.
Above all, don't judge your success at life by how much you own. When I moved to China, I sold or gave away all my books and got a Kindle. My wife sent all her rare and out-of-print Montessori books to a service that digitized them to put on the iPad. We forever eliminated the anchor of hundreds of books from our life and freed ourselves to move anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. The experience of living in a variety of places around the country and the world is far more valuable than a house filled with stuff.
Things are a chain that sucks away your money and your life force. Experiences are valuable. Relationships are valuable. Owning stuff is a drag.