Part of a series of posts about what I learned after four years at MIT. We’re ramping up to deeper topics eventually, I promise. Soon™.
This post is about things. You know, physical objects. Earthly possessions. The indispensable yet fickle chains that bind us to this plane of existence.
As a freshman I loved getting free stuff. I went into my first career fair starry-eyed, taking free pens and t-shirts and sunglasses and drawstring bags from every company that would let me; I’m sure many other MIT students have gone through the same ritual of passing. There seemed to be no downside. Besides, all the swag was probably small change for most of the companies anyway, due to VC funding or massive government contracts or whatever. So I might as well make full use of it.
Less normally (although I have no idea by how much), I also hoarded a lot of things that naturally pop up in everyday life, the stuff that would otherwise get thrown away: extra napkins, plastic bags, produce containers, boxes, those payment envelopes that come with magazine subscriptions and exhort you to Subscribe Now To 12 Issues For 20% Off!! At some point I kept the fortune from every fortune cookie I had ever eaten in a tiny resealable bag. The rationale was basically the same: they might be useful some day1 and there was no downside.
(I also hate throwing course notes away and only do it after I have digital copies, a tendency whose prevalence I estimate to be between the two tendencies above, but that’s neither here nor there.)
It took years for me to realize the downside of free stuff. It was the effort, mental and physical, required to deal with the free stuff later: whenever I wanted to find something in my room, or figure out what to pack when I wanted to go somewhere, or store my things in the basement for the summer, or (as was all too relevant recently) move. Although the cost for individual free items is probably small, it adds up rapidly if you have a lot of stuff, and then it gets multiplied by the number of things you do that involve dealing with all your things. Even making the decision of “do I want to keep this” costs mental energy, typically more so for free stuff than for anything you bought. So, consider those downsides before taking free stuff just because it’s free.
This is not to say that free things aren’t worth it, just that many items have diminishing returns. After four years of accumulating a hoard and then being confronted with all of it while moving, I think the things that are worth hoarding many of usually have at least one, if not more, of the following properties:
Consumable: It feels good to hoard napkins and then expend them to clean up the gross things that accumulate in drains and hidden corners. It lets me not feel like I’m wasting those highly engineered paper towels with weird patterns that help it absorb more liquid on such a lowly task. Plastic bags can be used to hold trash, so they get to be of use a second time before being thrown away; or to hold shoes or dirty laundry when you’re traveling and then to hold trash, so they are useful three times.
“Consumable”: It’s nice to be able to “lend” free career fair pens to people and not worry about getting them back. Extra bags can be used to hold things to give away as well, for many different reasons: if there are lots of pieces, if it’s hard to carry, if you want to tie a card somewhere conspicuous, if you want to leave it on their doorknob, if there’s no packaging and you want it to be a surprise, if you’re trying to make it look marginally more presentable.
Really small: I don’t use all the extra rubber bands I’ve saved, but they’ve all gone in the same container where I also keep Pyrion, the nanoblock Charizard from four years ago, when moving, so they actually have basically no downside — the attention demanded by the marginal rubber band is zero.
While we’re here, a few honorable mentions of things that are so useful, you might even buy them, but that weren’t obvious to me four years ago:
- Duct tape fixes countless things, more if you’re shameless enough to wear it as a fashion statement.
- Binder clips are so versatile they have their own Lifehacker tag; bigger ones are better.
- Sharpies I’ve already written 1,000 words about, somehow.
Things that are not worth hoarding too many of:
Clothing and wearables: I’ve given away or left at home almost all of my career fair t-shirts, simply because I’ve acquired sufficiently many t-shirts that I like more, which turns out not to be a high bar. This may be more caused by the specific other activities I ended up doing through college, though. I’ve never needed more than three drawstring bags or one pair of sunglasses. Drawstring bags haven’t turned out to be more useful to me than plain bags; they usually hold less and are more awkward to transfer without being more presentable. I do manage to get some mileage out of two backpacks and one shoulder bag, but somehow I’ve accumulated and given away several more.
Books: These cause me all the angst of throwing away my course notes times a hundred. I want to internalize or take notes on everything worth knowing or remembering in a book before I can contentedly throw or give it away. That’s not on the horizon for any of the books I’ve kept and is definitely never happening for my high school or college yearbooks, for example; most of the books I gave away while moving were books I had barely touched and simply given up on.
I think reading books is still useful, and something I don’t do quite enough of, but in terms of the effort required to handle, books are surely the worst offender on this list simply due to bulk and size. I am not sure what the solution is here. Ebooks are a thing, but I think I prefer reading in-depth on paper and also don’t like ebooks’ DRM story.2 I definitely much prefer reading text to listening to an audiobook or similar; I read quickly3 and like skimming on top of that.
Actually, the obvious-in-hindsight solution is libraries. Oh well.
Larger stationery: After giving a few away, I still have way too many notebooks. Nobody “borrows” notebooks.
Then there is the flip side: losing things. Over the years I’ve lost my share of umbrellas, water bottles, scarfs, hats, gloves, you name it, and I used to get extremely beat up about them. I’ve also lost more important items — each of my phone, my wallet, my school ID, and my passport have been dropped at least once, although so far I’ve been quite lucky and have managed to get all of these more important items back again. The worst occurrence so far was when I dropped my wallet this past winter, after which I spent a day or two calling the places I had been and the police departments of the regions I passed through trying to find it. Eventually I managed to find the Uber driver who found my wallet in his car, and set up a time and place to get the wallet back. I gave him most of the cash in the wallet for his trouble. It was absolutely worth it.
I am still not confident about how to avoid losing things. The worst thing about losing things is that it is in its own bizarre way anti-inductive. If you understand how you lost something, then (1) you often also know how to get it back, so now you haven’t lost it by definition; (2) you can often take precautions to never lose things in similar ways again. Eventually, once you’ve learned how not to lose things in any of the easy ways, you exclusively lose things in mysterious ways that you are helpless to prevent, forever.
Still, based on my experiences almost losing things as well as some speculation about how certain things were lost, here are some things that probably help:
Label your things. Acquire some stickers, borrow a labelmaker, buy a keychain tag, find the option buried deep inside your phone’s settings menu that lets you write a message on the lock screen… do whatever it takes to get your email address or some other form of contact on everything important you own. I think most people will try to return valuable things they find, but the easier you make it for them, the better your chances are of getting it back. I know this has helped me retrieve my phone at least once.
Minimize the chances for you to drop your valuables. Specifically:
Physically attach valuables to yourself when reasonable. For a long time after coming to college, I wore my keys and ID on a lanyard on my neck, which probably contributed to people thinking I was a freshman for as long as I did it.4 I liked the setup because because they were easy to access but still physically attached to me, but eventually I got tired of the jangling and the way the lanyard swung against my chest when I tried to walk around. Plus, there were the times when my ID slid out of the card holder on my lanyard (I should have seen this coming, as the bumps on the holder keeping the card in place were definitely wearing out), as well as the time when my key fell off the lobster hook (I still don’t know how that happened). After that I ordered a large batch of key rings from Amazon and an assortment of lanyards and card holders from Specialist ID upon a friend’s recommendation. Now all my keys are secured with at least two key rings, and my keys and ID go in my pocket while still attached to my belt or a belt loop via a lanyard, so there’s lots of redundancy. It also features a small carabiner for attaching things more temporarily. So far this has prevented me from losing the things on this lanyard.
Avoid having more than one thing in any pocket at any given time. This was a policy I eventually developed for myself because I found the risk of accidentally pulling something out and dropping it when reaching for something else in the same pocket was too high. I have almost lost my gloves several times this way, so I assume that when I actually lost them something similar happened.
Be extra vigilant when taking valuables out in any public place. I think empirically, rideshares are the highest-risk place where I might lose things, because it’s usually dark and cramped, making it hard to notice dropped items. When entering and exiting a high-risk place, inventory everything you have that you might drop.
Keep your valuables in designated places so you can find them and check for them easily. The previously mentioned lanyard now always goes on a hook next to my bed. It’s not hard to find or buy adhesive hooks that go on walls or many other surfaces without damaging them. They’re useful and inexpensive, and I wish I had started using them much earlier than I did.
That’s all I’ve got. As before, if you have any additional suggestions about how to cope with our feeble attachments to this Platonic realm, let me know.
After writing this up I realized I have a faint memory of a recurring segment in some children’s show I must have watched years ago. In the segment, somebody brought out a box of odds and ends and then all the children excitedly made fun arts and crafts things out of the materials. I think that segment must have motivated me to collect my own box of odds and ends at least a little. I have no idea what segment of what children’s show this is, though, nor have I been able to find it after a bit of searching. It’s faint enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if I was confusedly reconstructing it from totally different memories.
Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to be involved in a children’s show where this kind of thing happens anytime soon.↩
Some counterpoints upon further reflection:
On the other hand, I’ve already crossed that line a lot with Steam purchases and can’t say I feel like I miss the other side.
On the other other hand, from a practical standpoint, Steam does add a fair number of social features and some convenience to the game purchasing and playing process in exchange for what it does, and maybe I’m okay with this tradeoff.
On the other other other hand, given this post, the lack of bulk of an e-book is a pretty big feature.↩
After taking a few random reading speed tests online I got some numbers from 600 WPM to 1200 WPM, with varying comprehension accuracy results. The tests inevitably feel artificial though.↩
The joke is that, even after I stopped, people still think I’m a freshman. True story.↩