I’ve written about the benefits of eliminating clutter before. I’ve made a conscious effort to only buy stuff I actually need and am going to use. I’ve gone through several rounds of getting rid of stuff I own. That said, I’m not exactly a minimalist. I’ve still got what I consider to be too much stuff. But I’m also at the point where it’s getting more difficult to throw things away. Most of the stuff on my shelves has either some use, or some meaning to me. But, there remains stuff that I keep, not because it’s meaningful or useful, but because it has some other value.
Paul Graham disagrees. He thinks stuff, even intrinsically valuable stuff, isn’t valuable:
What I didn’t understand was that the value of some new acquisition wasn’t the difference between its retail price and what I paid for it. It was the value I derived from it. Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.
Well, when you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree. Paul points out three more drawbacks to owning lots of stuff:
- Stuff costs money. This is money that could be productive elsewhere.
- Your stuff starts to own you. The more stuff you have, the more to think about, the more to worry about, the harder it is to travel, or move, or in some cases, just live. If you’re stuff is too good, you can’t even use for fear of breaking it (think nice china).
- Clutter saps energy. Paul thinks that humans create mental models of their surroundings; the more clutter you have, the more brain power required to build that model. More brain power spent on that means less left for meaningful things.
Great thoughts. You don’t have to be a minimalist or a devout unclutterer, or anything of the sort to adopt this sort of philosophy. From now on, before you buy something, ask yourself “Am I going to use this all the time?” If not, it’s probably better to pass. Most of us are already stuffed:
In industrialized countries the same thing happened with food in the middle of the twentieth century. As food got cheaper (or we got richer; they’re indistinguishable), eating too much started to be a bigger danger than eating too little. We’ve now reached that point with stuff. For most people, rich or poor, stuff has become a burden.