It’s the summer of 2007 on a campsite near the French Alps just after sunset. Four young men step out of a red van into the darkness and stride majestically towards the firelight in the distance. Glistening in the moonlight, their attire becomes more visible as they approach and the members of an amphitheatre of camp chairs and stools around the flames turn to behold what comes. Believe me when I say that when you walk into a small town discothèque, on a Saturday night in the south of France wearing these badboys, people know about it.
Looking back now, it’s hard to overstate how well spent that £8.00 for a lady’s purple body-warmer was. I’m still getting joy from it and I probably always will. Yet in isolation, they were just ugly items, left on an otherwise empty sales rack in the women’s section of an H&M. No one would have bought them for the purpose they were meant; presumably to wow the crowds of the daily urban fashion show. Yet in the hands of five young men, bored and waiting for girls on a sunny Saturday morn, they might as well have been stitched from solid gold.
(If you’re wondering what happened to the fifth young man…well, let’s just say that he’s never forgiven himself for what he missed out on).
The joy we got from that purchase was not in the item itself. It was the creative link; that electric spark that turned nothing into something. The audacity of grown men walking though a crowd and buying gaudy women’s clothes at the counter. The keeping it a secret for weeks on end. The special future purpose; to shock and amuse a gang full of mates and a club full of French with explosive surprise. The bond it built, where egging each other on to live or die as fools together made a summer last a lifetime.
The example might be daft but the point I’m making isn’t. When we plan our futures and we think about how we’ll spend the money we’ve earned it’s tempting to think of blocks of time, neatly packaged in a brightly coloured box.
Holiday to China: booked.
Glasonbury tickets: done.
New Land Rover: sorted.
Yet cavalier as it may seem to suggest, I believe that most of the fun and joy you’d get from those things has less to do with what you’ve bought and more to do with how you’ve learned to think.
I’d even go further than that: I believe you think it too.
When you were 4 years old what did you get for Christmas? Chances are, you don’t remember, but I bet you can remember starting school. And what do you remember about it? Apart from seeing new faces and making new friends, I’m willing to bet it was the colourful books, the building blocks, the finger painting. Breaking stuff and making stuff: the things you did to interact with a strange new world.
I’d suggest to you that it is the things we build, create and invent that give us most joy in this life and put fun in our days. Not the clothes we wear or the car we drive or the tickets we bought to some event. The bit that matters is the value you add, the spark you bring to what you do, where you go and who you’re with.
Now, I invite you to imagine a person who only ever purchased and consumed all of their joy passively. That person would probably be the most boring friend that anyone could possibly know. Yes they’d have been to Thailand, yes they’d own an Audi and get tickets to see Foo Fighters, but when you stripped away the packaging they’d still be them. In other words, exactly the same as who they were before they spent the money.
Interacting with the world around us changes us and it changes the world. The creative act builds you, grows you, turns you into something new. It reminds you that you are a participant and not just a spectator. It stops you from looking back in years to come and thinking ‘where the fuck did all the time and money go?’
It’s like a Channel 5 show; where some idiot wins the lottery and they spend their money paying someone else to provide them with all the generic, bland crap that they can think of. Several years later and the money’s gone and they still can’t understand why it didn’t make them deliriously happy. I know that this is an extreme example, and I know you’re all thinking: if I won the lottery then I’d spend the money better.
Yet we are all guilty of using the thing we bought to wow people via Facebook or Instagram rather than the experience we made, built, collaborated with others to produce or we created ourselves from nothing. If we’re somehow convinced that as adults there’s some special gain to be made by flashing our cash for status points then maybe we should think again. I don’t know about you, but when I see someone I may not necessarily like that much, bragging on Facebook about some place or event that they’ve been to or some fancy item they’ve just bought, I don’t think to myself ‘Holy shit. I wish I was you’. I think ‘I wish I had the thing you just bought’.
So why do we carry on like this, when even a four-year-old knows it’s not what makes life more fun?
Advertising. Take it away and you have to ask, would we really do it?
Advertising is like a mate whose got all the great ideas; an excited Labrador of a person who fetches their own lead and bounds around the furniture. “Let’s do this, go there, buy this and spend money on that!” He or she fills your head with a beautiful dream of what’s possible, then once you’ve spent your money they instantly lose interest, forget about you and disappear. You’re just left high and dry with some random gear and an idea (that’s really someone else’s) of how you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.
Ever get buyer’s remorse? Ever get home from the shops, or discover something hidden in a cupboard and ask yourself: “Why the hell did I buy this? I can’t even remember…” Then good news: because even if you were an idiot, at least there’s still hope for you.
We are living in a world where we are running out of stuff to sell. What we’re most likely to be selling and buying from here on in is ‘an experience’. Every company in the western world is going to be clambering to convince you that if you hand them your cash then all you have to do is step this way, follow the signs and fun will ensue. Grandma will probably tell you that when she was a girl, kids amused themselves. Well sometimes its hard to shake the feeling that our generation might well be telling our Grandkids that adults used to do the same.
Money can’t buy happiness. What it can buy is security, access to potentially cool places, technology and, nowadays, a whole load of novel choices. But here’s the thing: what defines whether you make the most of those choices and get to enjoy the experiences that follow is something you’re going to have to work out on your own.
I’ll give you a clue though: just like when you were four years old, when you barely knew what money was, you’re going to have to use your imagination.