I spent half my day at the airport above in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. I missed my flight by about five minutes because I was busy drinking coffee and talking with friends in the airport cafe where we arrived over an hour early for the flight.
The little mishap cost my wife and I an extra US$160. A pretty expensive mistake. However, the entire weekend had me thinking of the way many of my friends and I consume experiences and the associated opportunity costs.
Opportunity Costs of Consumerism
I wrote about information consumerism a year and a half ago and the issues I believed were associated with it for me and others who fall into the hole of reading and consuming extensive amounts of information. Over this past weekend, I have found myself having similar feelings about the consumption of new experiences.
All weekend, I couldn't quit the feeling that consumption and creation are diametrically opposed. In my weekend full of new places, new foods, and old drinks, I couldn't help thinking of all the work I wasn't doing instead and I don't just mean the duties from my job either; I mean the creative work I like to do here on this website via writing and producing content. As many ideas as I had for new content while on the trip, I was incapable of doing any of it while consuming the flights, hotels, restaurants, cafes, buses, and taxis of Kuala Lumpur.
This left me feeling extraordinarily ambivalent about the whole process of novel experiences for their own sake.
I very much enjoyed the trip, possibly the most of the five I've taken this year. And yet. While enjoying the experience, the marginal cost felt too high when weighed against the marginal benefits of content creation on this site and the potential use the money could have been used towards.
The diagram above shows a simple production possibility curve utilized within the field of economics. It illustrates the trade-offs that are necessary between new experiences and creation. In this case, I've chosen to label the x-axis as travels to new countries and the y-axis as pieces of writing that could be accomplished.
This year, I actually did travel to five new countries and so the x-axis is representative of my 2014 travel year. The 15 pieces of writing that could have been accomplished had I not gone to any new countries is an estimate, based on the fact that I could potentially write somewhere around three new pieces of writing per trip had I stayed home.
The real trade-off in the number of new pieces of writing could be lower if, as a result of traveling, I actually produce more creative pieces after traveling or higher if there is some non-linear relationship between how much writing I do as a result of travel. For instance, traveling to new places could potentially give me more content ideas and have the resultant effect of me producing more content due to travel. Or, it could very well be that by not having any travels disrupt my writing habits, I actually write more overall than I currently do because of multiplier-type effects of writing continuously.
Not buying and having few things does not equate to be a minimalist. This is becoming more and more clear to me. Traveling, by its very nature, is often opposed to minimalism and traveling is just one way to have new experiences. Bucket lists are another popular method for encouraging consumption of experiences over "things" among the well-off. Items like skydiving, bungee jumping, mountain climbing, and swimming with whale sharks are all ways of experiencing novelty while not necessarily consuming products or information.
I am simply surprised at how often I find myself relying on consumption as a proxy for my happiness - whether that be in the form of products, information, or experiences as discussed here. Even if it is disguised and I own few possessions, it always sneaks in. While it is often momentarily enjoyable, it most often leaves me feeling anti-productive, as though I've spoiled an opportunity to do good.
I am not renouncing consumption in all its forms in the hopes of reaching pure asceticism, only trying to constantly refocus on the creative process and adding value to the world. I would hate to leave this life without having added more value than I took from it.