2020-01-22

A Novelty Problem

There are many reasons why guitars are more popular than pianos. One is that, unless you happen to own a temperature controlled airport hanger, it is impossible to collect pianos. Not so for guitars. You could fit two dozen guitars into a standard-sized coat closet. There are also many different kinds of guitars, each one with its own unique sound, which justifies the purchase of another guitar. "I don't have that kind of guitar, and I need it to make that kind of sound!" They're also priced low enough that one can buy several guitars for the same amount of money as a piano. And then there's all the peripheral stuff that goes with the guitar: the straps, the strings, the pedals, the plectrums, each one with its own claim to improving your tone.

We see a similar thing in bicycles. It's not enough to buy and ride a bicycle. One also has to get the right kind of helmet, riding gear, water bottles, safety lights, fitness trackers, shoes, and so on. If a person decides to make the leap into bicycling, he'll eventually find himself investing in the sport as much as riding his bicycle, just as a guitar player will find himself investing in music gear as much as playing his actual guitar.

Golf, too, is similar. Once you've made the initial investment, there is always something more; a new driver, a better pair of shoes, a ball retriever... anything that will enhance the golf experience. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of club-swinging.

There are many such hobbies and sports. I've chosen to single-out male-oriented hobbies, but I could have mentioned their female equivalents, too. Do you really think women need to buy seventeen different kinds of skin cream, or five colors of eyeliner, or a different jacket for every type of cold weather, or five differently scented candles or soaps that can't be used together without causing some sort of olfactory overload? And, of course, the coed hobbies are the worst of all, since all dollars from sexes and genders can be exploited equally.

Marketeers are quite clever, and armed to the teeth with tools to extract more of your spending money. To be sure, in many cases, there are good reasons to spend more money on your hobby. One very simple reason is that it's fun to own a new guitar, bike, golf club, hair conditioner, or yoga mat. It's fun to complete your collection, to curate a perfect room full of enticing gear, sure to motivate you to do more of what you originally started out doing, anyway.

But if we're being honest, most of us should admit that we over-spend on our hobbies. A few of us will even admit that it would be better to spend less money. So, how do we resist the urge to spend money on fancy new stuff that will surely make us happy -- especially if we're spending within our means?

Here's one solution: Make part of the experience of your hobby the source of novelty, rather than the gear used to engage your hobby. Instead of buying a new guitar, learn something new on one of your guitars. Instead of buying a new bike, go on a new kind of bike ride. Instead of buying a new driver, go to the driving range and perfect your swing with your existing driver.

When we make incremental progress a source of novelty within our hobbies then we are less inclined to buy new things. The trick here is that the increment has to be a meaningful one. You can't simply learn a new song and expect that to replace your desire for a new guitar. Instead, you have to learn something that feels awesome and makes you want to do more of it. You have to learn a new technique, or play a lick you already know at a record speed. You have to impress yourself so much that you don't think a new guitar is as impressive as what you've just done. It's a little more work, but it's ultimately much more rewarding.

This is one of the reasons that children are such a joy. They can learn new things from existing, on-hand stuff and be entertained for hours; meanwhile, the same stuff would typically hold little appeal to us adults. This past weekend, I taught my daughter how to play a new card game. She doesn't usually play with cards, so the opportunity to play a game with dad, using a somewhat novel toy, was irresistible to her. I asked my wife if she wanted to play, and she emphatically said, "No, thanks." Truth be told, if it were only my wife and I, neither one of us would have chosen to play cards together. Those cards had been collecting dust in a closet for a long time. But then again, no one has offered to teach either of us a new card game.

So, my daughter didn't need to watch a new cartoon or a new movie, and she didn't need to buy a new toy. She just needed to expand her ability to play with our existing toys, namely, a deck of cards. It works the same around dinner time, too. She could sit and bore herself to death with cartoons or coloring pictures, or I could have her help me bake biscuits, or cookies, or peel carrots, or measure ingredients to put in the bowl. Things that I find to be relatively mundane, because I do them so often, are new and fun for my daughter. Not surprisingly, I recently found myself in a bookstore, perusing the cooking aisles for a source of new recipes -- something to make my mundane daily task of cooking everyone dinner more interesting. It took me fifteen minutes to realize that I didn't need to buy a new cookbook. I just needed to use the tablet I already own to look up some new recipes!

Again, to avoid seeking novelty in new stuff, seek incremental novelty in stuff you already have. Learning how to make falafel is a nice tool to have in the kit; it's enough to make a person excited to cook again. Learning a new guitar technique, or a better way of chipping onto the green, or a new card game, can all help you find the novelty you're seeking. We seek that novelty when we shop, but we don't need to. We simply need to avail ourselves of the novelty available in our life as it is now.

This relates to another concept I may or may not have mentioned on the blog: depth versus breadth of experience. Finding novelty in a new guitar makes your guitar-playing experience broader. But finding novelty in a new playing technique will make your experience deeper. I, for one, find that to be a positive move.

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