Let us discuss the situation.

I own a relatively small number of widgets.  While the number is not exactly frugal, it is small compared with the number of widgets others have, and the total number of widgets available for purchase.  My number is not small because I do not possess the ABILITY to buy more; a plethora of cheap widgets for the man on a budget are ever at the ready for consumption, and though cheap, their overall usefulness is not much less than one ten times its price.  I could double my stock right now if I so chose, and it would be a pittance to my pocketbook.  No, funding is not an object here.

I tell myself I know why I do not buy more.  I tell myself that it is rooted within the philosophy of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility.  It was explained to me so many years ago thus:  When you are stranded on a desert island and have only one coconut, gaining a second coconut is astronomically useful.  But when you have one thousand coconuts, gaining the thousand-and-first is no large thing anymore.  We all know this to be true in our hearts.  And question is why?  You are gaining exactly the same amount as before; why do you no longer care?  And the answer is because the gain is no longer special to you.  What you are gaining, you already possess.  Before, your gain was 100%.  Now, it is 0.1%; a pittance.  You possess so many that if a thief were to come in the night and steal one away, you would neither know, nor care.  What you might do with this coconut, you could just as easily do with that coconut:  Its utility has diminished for you.

And I say, “That is not how I want my widgets to end up”.  I enjoy my widgets, as others enjoy theirs, but I obtained each widget individually, for a purpose.  I bought them because I wanted to use them, and I wanted to use them in a specific way.  Each widget has a niche that it fills; a set of functions that, when combined, no other widget can do quite as effectively.  While two widgets may fulfill very similar roles, they do not fulfill the SAME role; this is why the creators have made dozens and dozens of different kinds.

But if there are, for example, ten widgets which possess a quality the other widgets do not, a question should be asked, and it is one I always do:  How many of these ten should I buy to fulfill my “need” for this specific quality?  While these ten are all unique, and have unique applications of this desired quality, they ARE still similar, and fill similar niches.  Obtaining five of the ten costs half the resources, and may be nearly as effective as all ten; the difference between five and ten could perhaps be imperceptible, and thus I may be quite satisfied with five.  Or, I may not be.  Or again, I may be satisfied with only three instead of five, or two, or even one.  It is again, the Law of Diminishing Utility:  when you possess a widget with a certain quality, your need for another with the same quality diminishes, because you already have one.

The rub, however, is that while need diminishes, WANT does not.  It is an intrinsic human facet to want that which we do not yet have; to see something and impulsively desire it despite never having known of it before, or to long after a gem year after year.  And this desire, this greed, it overrides logic, efficiency, and satisfaction.  Let us say I have obtained my five widgets out of the ten, and am satisfied.  Now, an eleventh appears.  Like the ten before it, it is similar, but not the same; certain aspects are tweaked, and its wrapping is different.  Why is it that I am now drawn to it?  Why do I desire it?  I was satisfied before with five; if ten was all there were until the end of time, I would not be sad.  Why is it now that I am sad, because there are eleven?  Do I desire it simply because it is new?  Do I desire it because I feel it is more unique than the other ten, and thus the prized jewel of them all?  And in turn, is this lens of uniqueness simply a byproduct of the fact that it is new, and that it has no great intrinsic value by itself save for it being a new star in the sky, which my eye is drawn to because it has not yet grown accustomed to its twinkle?

There is a rush, when one obtains something new.  A feeling of happiness, of satisfaction.  And for a time, all is good.  But all honeymoons come to an end, and all automobiles lose their fresh clean scent, and it is at this point when the real truth of the new widget will be revealed.  It shall be determined whether this widget has intrinsic value, or whether it was merely “new”.  The period between the purchase and the determination is hardly set in stone, but with each new purchase, this period shrinks.  Like a drug addict building a tolerance, the acquisition of “new” shall one day fail to appease; diminishing utility.  And yet, despite this, the “new” always beckons, always winks seductively, and is always desired.  No matter how many times the “new” lets a man down, he will always forget the past upon seeing the next “new”, and hope that THIS one will truly satisfy.  But without intrinsic value, “new” can only satisfy for as long as it remains such, and then is discarded for the next “new”.

And I say, “That is not how I want my widgets to end up”.  I want each and every one of my widgets to have intrinsic value.  I want them to be useful to me.  And more, I want to CARE about them, as a father cares for his children.  It is not a frivolous thing, in my mind, to care for a widget.  A widget is not something one needs, but something one wants.  A question, then, is WHY do we want it?  Widgets are not necessary to sustain life, or even to make life markedly easier to sustain; want comes from individual personality, from emotion, and thus the stronger and purer the emotion, the more intrinsic value a widget will have.  It is because of this that I strive to care for widgets, both before AND after acquisition, and it is to this end that I am picky, that I am careful and do not purchase wantonly.  Yes, my widgets are few.  But they are few because I have selected them from the many; because I have weeded out those that are frosting without cake, or cake without frosting.  I do not mind being picky, because in the end, I feel I value my few more than they value their many, and it is often our limitations which inspire us to excel; to do more, with less.  I am blessed with the opportunity to choose my widgets, and thus I do not need to choose them all, so long as I choose the best.

If life were only so easy; so black and white, so clean.  As with most men, my struggle is the grey:  the “new” which yet has at its heart intrinsic value.  And it is here where my philosophy works to my disadvantage, because I am skeptical towards the new; I am biased against it.  I say that the new is shallow and fleeting; that I will have some small time of euphoria, and then feel worse than I did before, now that I am overburdened with one more widget I thought I liked but did not.  I take solace in the old, the things I am familiar with that have stood the test of time, and I am satisfied to not chase after the green grass over the fence.

Diamonds exist in the rough.  Despite my skepticism, my conservatism, out there exist widgets that I WILL enjoy more than the ones I currently possess, that have even MORE intrinsic value than the ones I currently possess.  These widgets may be the ones I see as I crest over the next hill of the future, or they may be the ones I took only one glance at in the past when I should have taken two.  And if I remain cloistered, remain “satisfied” with what I have, I will forever be missing an even greater satisfaction that I never knew was there to miss.  The question, then, becomes, “How can I tell the diamonds from the rough?”

It would be easy to say that a man who does not know what he is missing does not truly miss it.  If only life were so easy.  For I DO know what I am missing, even if I might not know its name, or its face.  I know that somewhere out there is something more suitable for me than what I have now.  And this is the problem.

I may stay as I am, with the widgets I have, and be satisfied, yet forever be tormented by the question:  Could I have found something better, more satisfying, if I had only looked for it?

Or I may look for that better widget, and forever be tormented every day I do not find it, and forever be tormented by the question:  Will I ever find what I am looking for before I die?

Or I may look for that better widget, and FIND it, yet forever be tormented by the question:  Is there something ever GREATER out there for me, if I just look a little harder?

It never ends.  As long as one puts their faith and their heart in widgets, there is no victory.  There will always be another widget, either coming from the past, or from the future, and there will always be widgets crumbling into dust.  You cannot win.  And once you realize this, everything becomes simpler.

Do not simply try to find true happiness in widgets.  Instead, try to find some simple happiness from them, and find truth elsewhere.


{A short philosophical commentary on buying and owning things.  While I had a specific example in mind while I wrote this, I deliberately removed all reference to it to make it more universal.}


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