There’s a lot about our consumer culture that worries and, sometimes, shocks me. Sometimes things even worry me. Like this: Lately I’ve noticed that things are becoming substitutes for actual experiences. We’ve taken to buying rather than doing. I see this in every sector, but it seems to be extremely prevalent in the sporting goods/outdoors category. It seems as though people are buying things and letting the things take the place of actually doing the activity. They buy top notch skis and call themselves skiers when they’ve never touched the slopes. They buy a basketball hoop and call themselves LeBron, even though they only played once. They buy tents and sleeping bags and then never camp, but call themselves avid campers. They get a full set of scuba gear and call themselves a diver, even though they’ve never gone further than the deep end of the community pool. It even extends to cars. How many people do you know that bought big SUV’s complete with the off road brush package and deer warning system and then never drove anywhere but the interstate?
Of course, this buying instead of doing extends to areas beyond sporting goods. Plenty of people have closets and garages full of craft or hobby supplies for projects they were going to take up. But once they have the stuff, the desire wears off and they never touch it again and all those projects languish. There are those who bought musical instruments, all the accessories, and the tutorials on DVD and never play, yet when asked they say, “Oh, I play the saxophone.” Some people buy lots of fancy kitchen gadgets and think they are suddenly Wolfgang Puck. In practice, they haven’t advanced beyond frozen pizza. I even know someone who claims to be fluent in three languages, when what she really has are three barely used Rosetta Stone packages. Try to converse with her in German (one of the languages she claims fluency in) and she can’t get past hello and goodbye.
My favorite current “buy it, don’t do it” trend is the Wii. So many people are taking up tennis, golf, bowling, and boxing on their Wii’s. Some even then claim to be tennis or golf experts. But what happened to getting a racket and some balls and hitting the local court? Or getting the family together and going to the bowling alley and playing some games? I understand that it can be nice to have something to do when the weather is yucky or you’re home not feeling well, but too many people are using the Wii as a substitute for any sort of real sporting activity. How satisfying is it really to catch a virtual fish when compared to landing your own real fish? Is it really satisfying to buy a virtual sporting experience when you could, for very little cost, go out and have your own experience?
We all have a desire to be more than we are. That’s understandable; it’s human nature to want to try new things and get involved in a lot of activities. We all want (or should want) to grow as people and expand our horizons. There’s nothing wrong with that. Where things go wrong is when the “stuff” or the “virtual experiences” we buy take the place of actually doing the real thing. Owning top of the line Rossignol skis doesn’t make you Picabo Street. Having a pair of Air Jordans doesn’t make you Michael. All that having the stuff does is makes you look the part. But it’s an expensive illusion. The only way to become a great skier, photographer, quilter, golfer, tennis player, or anything else is to get out and actually practice your sport or craft. You can own all the equipment in the world and still have no idea what to do with it. Ownership does not confer expertise.
I think that some of this is related to our desire to show off. We figure that we can craft the illusion of ourselves as great at something and no one else will be bothered to look too closely. If they see us out there with our fancy equipment or we say we play tennis every day (not mentioning that it’s Wii tennis), they will assume we are great. It lets us feel superior, even though we are not.
(True story: In my youth I was a figure skater. I, like most kids, started out on very basic skates and worked my way up to the more “serious” models as my skills grew. Well, this woman shows up at the rink one day with her daughter in tow. The kid was wearing super-serious skates, the kind we saw on kids who were national level competitors and that very few of the people at our rink ever wore. Well, all of us who were regulars at that rink were like, “Oh, man. Who is this chick with the skates? She must be really good.” We assumed from her gear that she was this great skater. Well, she hit the ice and I mean hit the ice. She could barely skate forward, couldn’t go backward and had no jumps. Of course, we (being kids) snickered at this poor girl, then we outright mocked her. Poor kid. She was in such pain because those skates were brand new and extremely stiff. Her feet weren’t used to boots that thick and unyielding. The coach asked the mother why on earth she’d decked the kid out in those skates when a basic pair would have been good enough for now. The mother said, “Because she’s a great skater and all the great skaters wear those skates.” The mother thought that buying the gear was enough to make the kid into a great skater. Coach shook his head and walked away. After about a week, the kid’s feet were so raw and blistered, she was crying before practice everyday. After about two weeks we never saw her again. I’m sure those skates gathered dust in the closet for years.)
The other part of it is laziness and impatience. We want to be great, but we don’t want to do the work. We want to be great now (or have others think we are), not three years from now when we’ve really mastered the craft. It’s easier to buy the equipment than to actually take the lessons and do the work required to be great. We can simply tell people that we are good at such and such, and then point to the gear. We don’t have to do the work. What’s funny is that they never hand out any marks of greatness-medals, monetary awards, plaques, or knighthoods to those who merely own the equipment or set virtual records on their gaming systems.
If you really want to try a new activity or become great at something, there is a budget-friendlier way (and it will ensure that you actually learn the skills necessary to do the activity). Start at the bottom and work your way up. Begin by renting some equipment. Yes, sometimes a rental confers the mark of “beginner” on your forehead, but at least you didn’t go broke trying this new activity. (And you don’t look like an idiot when your skills don’t measure up to the gear.) If you find yourself enjoying the activity, buy some inexpensive, basic equipment. Maybe look into used equipment. Then, when you outgrow the features or capabilities of that basic equipment, upgrade to something better and sell your old stuff to another newbie. Use the money you make to buy better gear. Only keep upgrading as long as you are still doing the activity. When you lose interest, stop buying stuff.
(Another true story: I know a guy who used to be a great skier. He always had the newest gear, but it made sense for him because he was always out on the slopes and had technical skills that required great gear. Then he quit skiing. I don’t know why. But every season, he still buys all the latest stuff. Yet he never skis. It’s costing him a fortune and I don’t get why he won’t stop. Something psychological, I’m sure. Anyway, don’t be that guy. If you lose interest in something or can no longer do something, stop buying the accessories for it.)
The whole point of buying gear or supplies should be because you are doing the activity in question, not to simply look the part. If you’re going to spend the money, for crying out loud, get out there and do something with it. If you’re going to claim proficiency at something, it had better be because you really know how to do it, not because you set the new high score on your Wii. Don’t let owning the gear or having the virtual experience be enough for you. Get out there and do the things you want to do. Doing it is the only way to master something or even become proficient at it. And if you start small and work your way up, you can become great without a lot of expense. Do it, don’t buy it.