Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Gear Acquisition Syndrome: Lustily Buying More Tools Than You Need

Buying stuff is the easy part.

I like to shop, not for luxury items--clothes and cars--but for the tools of mastery. It's my father's influence. He had money but also a very firm policy. Spend on things to do, not just to have. He bought the finest bagpipes, oboe, lathe, camera and fishing rod, but dressed and drove modestly because, he said, what's the point? Anyone can wrap themselves in luxury possessions. They prove nothing about your real worth.

To him the most reliable source of joy was getting better at something. People come and go; what goes on between you and them is unreliable. It's not entirely under your control. But what goes on just between you and a fine tool, there, you get to see what you're really worth.

I've followed my father's advice. I've always pursued mastery, but always distracted by the search for better tools. Shopping has paid off, but with diminishing returns. My musical instruments are more than adequate. It's time to just woodshed-the musician's term of practicing, isolating yourself in the woodshed to hone your skills.

I've had what we musicians call GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I'm not alone. There are millions of us "weekend warriors" as the music industry calls us, folks who spend lustily on unrequited dreams of musical mastery, folks who keep the dream alive but unfulfilled by shopping for instruments more than they practice them.

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GAS isn't limited to musicians. People buy exercise equipment they don't use, books they don't read, software they never master. Buying them is the easy part and gives us the false impression that we've become their masters. We can wrap ourselves in these tools of mastery, as though they were merely luxury possessions never getting around to woodshedding and finding out what we're really worth. Maybe we don't really want to know our worth, but would rather bask in the vague potential.

Midlife, I sold off a small orchestra's-worth of musical instruments so I could focus just on becoming a better bassist. Lately I've been "thinning the herd" selling off basses, and committing monogamously to one fine ax. With less time ahead and the prospect of declining faculties, I'm finally woodshedding like there's no tomorrow.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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