When the things you own end up owning you

Anthony Pica headshot
Anthony Pica
Read in 

When the things you own end up owning you

When the things you own end up owning you

Right after she got a new car, my aunt told me she bought an iPhone to use her new car's AirPlay feature. One purchase led to another, and since she's not technically inclined, she became frustrated trying to get the latest tech to work.

Her experience made me think about second-order effects and how every action has a reaction. Have you ever introduced new technology to your business processes that resulted in increased resource demand to manage it?

Here are three stories illustrating how more can sometimes be less:

The Luxury Trap

~10,000 years ago, during the first agricultural revolution, foragers learned to cultivate wheat. They believed the crop would make life better. But with each new generation, people became increasingly dependent on wheat. Campsites settled around wheat farms. The population boomed. As more children were born, more wheat was needed to feed them. Fields grew larger and more area had to be weeded and protected against pests. Greater amounts of water were necessary. People were put on guard duty and walls were built to deter thieves. More work was required to maintain the farms, and less time was available to hunt and gather.

The agricultural revolution was a net positive when you zoom out, but this story acts as a reminder to avoid complexity and technical debt at work. Sometimes, innovation can lead to dependence, which necessitates further adaptation, maintenance, and increased resource demand.

In his bestselling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes this as a luxury trap and writes, "the pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time."

The Snowball Effect

In 2012, I pledged on Kickstarter to back a project called SmartThings. The smarthome automation project was successfully funded with $1.2M, so it went to manufacturing, and later that year the kit arrived at my doorstep. At the time, I was the only person I knew who had voyaged into the Internet of Things—a world where devices like lights and door sensors are connected to the internet and each other. I was excited.

But maintaining the system was tedious. Murphy's Law was in full force: whether it was a software problem, network connection issue, or hardware malfunction, it seemed like something went wrong almost weekly. Batteries drained quickly, so I bought a rechargeable battery system. I rewired my home network to improve connectivity. The product I had purchased to create a new kind of automated convenience ended up consuming my attention.

(Today I still use smarthome tech and I have a lot of connected devices. In fact, one of my moisture sensors prevented costly water damage. A decade later, it's easy to say the maintenance was worth it, but it's also a reminder about the unspoken consequences of being an early adopter of technology.)

Like a snowball getting bigger as it rolls down a hill, a project that seems small at first can unexpectedly grow into something more complex.

The Diderot Effect

In 1765, a poor but well-known philosopher Denis Diderot was given a large sum of money so he could afford a wedding for his daughter. With the leftover money from the celebration, Diderot bought himself a magnificent scarlet robe. But it was so captivating he noticed the rest of his possessions paled in comparison and seemed out of place. So he went on a buying spree to upgrade his other possessions.

Sometimes an accumulation of assets can trigger more consumption. Buying a new SaaS product might mean you need to upgrade your existing system to accommodate more API calls, or maybe you'll need to hire an expert consultant to implement and manage the system.

Diderot's story reminds us how we can find ourselves in constant pursuit of upgrading what already works.

Sum Up

As Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, said, "the things you own end up owning you."

We work hard to afford a new house, get a mortgage, and work longer hours to pay off the mortgage. Someone purchases a boat, gets a better place to dock it, buys expensive fuel, and gets a headache when the motor malfunctions.

When luxury products require extensive maintenance, they're no longer a luxury.

"Mo money, mo problems," said the late great Notorious B.I.G.

Are there areas in your life or business that are at risk of incurring increased resource demand? Sometimes the second-order effects are inescapable. Other times, we can avoid them. By predicting the consequences of our decisions and understanding the trade-offs, we can minimize issues caused by reactive innovation, impulse spending, and early adoption.

Passing on that next luxury item might afford you peace of mind. Building the most minimum viable product can help you test the market early. Identifying the high impact + low effort tactics can help you use resources efficiently. Less can be more, as the cliché goes.

You might also like...

No items found.

Join: Work Smart, Lead Better.

Liked this article? No more than once per week, I send a newsletter containing one idea you can use to work smarter and be a better leader. Core themes: strategy, collaboration, and mental fitness.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.