Nov 30, 2021
11 mins read
Originally posted on ScrewDownCrown here.
I watched two seemingly unrelated TED talks, but I thought they were interestingly connected; One tackles how to get rid of things you already have, and the other offers advice around minimising the acquisition of new things. As watch collectors, this seems to summarise a conundrum we face daily!
Matt Paxton is a former extreme cleaning expert on the hit television show Hoarders. In his TEDxBethesda talk he says “I’ve seen everything from 300 cats to actually finding Babe Ruth’s baseball bats … I’ve spent almost 20 years helping people deal with their stuff at a very personal level in their offices, in their homes, going through their closets, going through their memories.”
A few years ago, Lucía González Schuett embarked on a “personal rollercoaster journey,” as she puts it in her TEDxHHL Talk. It all started when she looked at something that most of us have: a junk drawer.
I’ll go into each talk separately, then share some concluding thoughts at the end.
Matt Paxton’s Perspective
In short, Paxton has found that the feelings behind the accumulation of all things are the same:
“We buy stuff because it brings us happiness, or we think it’s gonna bring us happiness”
He talked about one woman who had 8,000 skeins of yarn. “She did because she made blankets for babies. She’d give them away, and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re the best, thanks!’, they’d give her hugs, and they’d say ‘I love you.’ So she started buying more yarn ‘cause the more yarn she bought, the more blankets she made, the more love she received.” Eventually realised that any affection she gained was short lived, and she was never able to make blankets fast enough to use up all the yarn she’d amassed.
Paxton also observed that sometimes people acquired things because they believed these items would eventually bring happiness to others. In particular, with regards to senior citizens, he says, “Their stuff represents decades and decades of hard work, and their self-worth and happiness comes from passing it back down to the next generation.”They perhaps take pride in the “good” crystal, the best china and in the cabinet that displays these pieces… but the key issue, is that they fail to realise these things have almost no value or meaning to people today. Paxton says, “My mom and my aunt fought over who got the china cabinet — [with] the grandkids, we’re fighting over who has to take it.”
“We’ve spent a long time trying to buy everything for our kids. We work so hard to provide … for [them] — cars, schools, toys, clothes, books.” This strategy backfires… “It becomes a bad cycle because I work hard, I buy things, I miss [doing] things with my kids, and I feel bad for not being there, so what do I have to do? I gotta buy more stuff.”
So, you might be wondering… if things don’t bring us happiness, what does? Paxton says that real contentment comes from the time we spend with other people and the relationships we build with them. Turns out, there is research which supports this – this is another interesting TED talk sharing lessons from the world’s longest study on happiness. Tangentially, I have also written about watch collecting and happiness; You can read that post here.
In terms of specific advice, he has a few points to share:
DON’T acquire things just because they spark joy. Although the KonMari method works for many people, Paxton says it isn’t appropriate for people who have a hoarder inside themselves: “The problem is all of it sparks joy — that’s why I bought it!”
DON’T attempt to jettison all your belongings overnight. It might be tempting to think that if you simply dumped all your stuff you might transform your home into a blank slate. As Paxton says, “that’s not realistic.”
DO use it, or lose it. “If you actually use [the item], keep it. Because if you don’t … use it, you’re gonna lose it.” He says “lose” in the literal sense: He has seen people lose “time, money, space, relationships and opportunities every day because they’re holding onto their stuff.”
DO get started today. He suggests you clean out your possessions in short bursts, and don’t try to do it all in one day or a weekend. To begin, he says, “you can go for 10 minutes every night, 5 nights a week,” and he suggests focusing on a one-foot-by-one-foot area. As you progress, you can increase the time and square footage. “Be brutally honest with yourself,” advises Paxton. If you haven’t used the object in the last year and you have no definite plans to use it again, discard it.
Paxton talks about some other details such as how to treat photographs and behaving with compassion etc – probably not even relevant for this post, so I’ll skip it.
Lucía González Schuett’s Perspective
Schuett observed in her junk drawer, that most of the things were broken, incomplete or imperfect, but she felt compelled to hold onto them. She questioned every item, asking questions like: “Do I really need this? Does it add value? Is it worth the space that it takes up or the care it requires?” Then she made a radical decision: She vowed to go for a year without buying anything except for food.
Schuett had initially made a career in fast fashion, where her salary was partly based on commission i.e. the more she got people to spend, the more she earned. One of her responsibilities was to rotate the store’s contents so the merchandise would appear new to shoppers and they’d discover something they overlooked on a previous trip.
Then, in 2018, she left the industry to go to business school and she chose to make it her no-buying year (which is what she discusses in a different TEDxHECParis talk). Her experiences caused her to rethink consumption and become aware of the invasive, ongoing pressures to acquire new stuff.
“The app I use to measure my performance when I go jogging is trying to tell me when it’s time for me to throw away the sneakers I’m wearing and buy a new pair, the pillow I sleep on I recently found out has an expiration date. We collectively need to pause for a moment and wonder: Are we losing – or at least outsourcing – our very basic common sense to decide our needs by ourselves when it comes to consumption?”
Lucía González Schuett
Schuett realises it isn’t realistic or feasible for most people to swear off shopping as she once did. She says, “It is possible for us to rethink our day-to-day behavior towards consumption, exercise the ability to appreciate things again, and eliminate that link between easy access and taking things for granted.”
She encourages people to engage in what describes as a “scary yet extremely insightful exercise”: “getting over the want and becoming honest about the need” i.e to take an honest look at the things we want and we need – then question whether we actually do. Coincidentally, I have written about something like this too – and you can read my post here.
Schuett shares a few specific pieces of advice, and I picked a few which might be relevant here:
Let yourself run out of something before you re-buy or re-order. “Spend some time without it; in other words, try to miss it” … “Because there’s so much to be learned from missing things. Plus, you’ll exponentially increase your short-term happiness once you get it again.”
Keep an item in your online shopping cart for a few days — or weeks — before buying it. Your odds of regret with an impulsive purchase are greatly reduced when you find something better later on, or realise you don’t actually need it at all.
Choose quality over quantity. Try to pick things that are built to last, and when you are done, consider selling, donating or swapping them, instead of throwing them away.
Share what you have, and find others who will. Rather than buying a tool or special device for a one-off project, “knock on your neighbour’s door when you need a screwdriver” … “What a burden for both of you to each own both things and how enriching to go back to knowing your neighbours.”
Shift your mindset about stuff. “Consider yourself a custodian of things, rather than an owner.” When you think about it, you’ll realize that there are ways to enjoy things without owning them.
Many collectors I know don’t ever sell watches, they just keep buying them – I have discussed this several times, and I favour the consolidation approach to collecting – in the absence of limitless wealth – selling-to-buy is logical… as opposed to simply keeping everything, and then saving up until you can afford the next one. To me, ‘sacrificing’ three watches you love, for a single watch you love even more, feels like a positive move if you can’t afford to keep them all. The three you sacrifice, will inevitably live on within the new piece, and if anything, might even lead to loving the new one even more, knowing what you had to give up to obtain it.
Other collectors simply buy more watches as they become available, and they happen to be fortunate enough to be able to afford them all. Now of course there is no ‘right answer’ and they might be totally content with wearing a particular watch a few times a year as they try and rotate through a collection of hundreds of watches… this approach doesn’t resonate with me, since this sort of collection feels more like an accumulation. The way I see it, is your ability to connect with each piece in your collection is somewhat of a ‘finite resource’. This means, as the number of pieces in your collection grows, your ability to really connect with any particular one reduces. This is a point which I would welcome some debate on, since I have only ever owned up to 25 watches at any single point, and I know people who own hundreds – so please let me know if you disagree.
Let’s cover Paxton’s thoughts first – for me, the key takeaways were the point that real contentment comes from the time we spend with other people and the relationships we build with them, sparking joy isn’t enough of a reason to buy something, and that you can’t get rid of everything overnight. What this means to me is that rather than focusing on landing the next piece, we should simply take advantage of this excellent circle of friends which have come together through our shared hobby. Being part of the hobby seems to breed a desire to keep buying new watches, and that simply isn’t what the hobby is about. We shouldn’t lose sight of that… and the negative feelings that might come after a long period without a #NWA are in fact a distraction from all the positive things which are ever-present in the hobby.
Regarding Schuett’s thoughts, the ones which resonated with me the most were around sharing and mindset – she talks about how we can borrow things, and consider ourselves custodians rather than owners. In my previous post about “watch collecting and happiness” I specifically say regarding my collector friends owning watches I don’t own: “This is something I choose to see as a privilege, rather than something to be sad about just because I don’t own them.” That’s the key – we can still enjoy watches we don’t own through our fellow collectors, and oftentimes these are watches we certainly appreciate… but might not even want in our own collection anyway.
A really relevant quote from another previous post of mine:
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
That post was entitled “The freedom to have enough” – and seems quite relevant to this post so I will link it here as well.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough, and hope you found something worthwhile in all this drivel!