Affirmation of Life

Dustin Curtis’s post titled The Best has generated a bit of a buzz recently. In it, Curtis talks about the idea of taking the time to research the items you care about to find the best one for you. He argues that this investment in time and money pays off because when you finally find that product it will not only meet your requirements but will surpass your expectations. It will work well, delight you and be there when you need it, without fail. All annoyances and imperfections have been ironed out, and so the experience of using that thing is on a level elevated far beyond the average.

I thought the idea was self-evident, but to my surprise many commenters, both in comment streams on social news sites and as responses on their own blogs, have argued against it, at times with violent undertones. Their main issue with the post was that they thought the author is advocating consumerism, an obsession with the goods we use to the point that those goods end up owning us. It is a metaphysical clash between two opposing visions of how human life aught to be lived.

In imbuing the post with the characteristics of the philosophy they oppose, they proceeded to take it apart, but in doing so, they’ve began to argue agains the points the author never made, and to attack a philosophy the author never subscribed to. I’m still not exactly sure why the response took on a violent quality – though I have some ideas on the cause, but this is not the time to discuss them – the fault lies both, in the faulty logic of the readers, but also in the vagueness of the original conclusions. While the former is inherent in the reader, the latter gave it enough room to do damage. Let’s address both now.

First, let’s dispel the idea that seeking “the best” is a bad thing, or at the very least, not something desirable. Imagine for a moment a Japanese samurai. Does he not want his weapon to be made of strong steel? Does he not want it to be sharpened to the point it will slice through bone? Does he not want it perfectly weighted so that his strike can be executed with accuracy and speed? In a word, the warrior wants the best weapon he can get his hands on. We’re obviously not talking about “the best in the world”, we’re talking about the best he can get. We’re talking about taking the time to research options and to select with careful judgement.

Now, at this point a reader may point out that something like a set of cutlery is not a samurai sword, and so this obsession with selecting the very best should not apply to it. It is true that a set of cutlery is not a samurai sword, but neither is the context the same. What is a samurai sword to the modern man? The answer is that which makes a difference in his life. Some things matter. To a samurai, the strength, sharpness, balance and weight of his blade matters. It makes a difference. It makes sense for him to select the best he can get. What matters to you will not be the same, and so the argument is no longer about picking the best product in a specific category, but whether that category of goods matters – and unless you consider that everyone should be the same and should have the same purpose as you, the argument falls apart. What matters to Dustin Curtis is not the same thing that matters to you. Someone who cares little for food will not care about the experience of cooking or eating it, yet a professional chef would. Others who share this passion would, too. Consequently, the tools they use for the preparation and consumption of the food would matter to them. This applies to every other product category. Should you care about everything? Probably not, but only you can know what products matter in your life.1

Second, I want to expand on the conclusion in the original post, which touches on something much deeper that the author did not follow through. This may well be not what the author meant, so take this as my own commentary on the subject. Here’s a segment from his conclusion:

“The best” isn’t necessarily a product or thing. It’s the reward for winning the battle fought between patience, obsession, and desire. It takes an unreasonably long amount of time to find the best of something. It requires that you know everything about a product’s market, manufacture, and design, and that you can navigate deceptive pricing and marketing. It requires that you find the best thing for yourself, which means you need to know what actually matters to you.

The first sentence is revealing. “The best” is not a product or a thing. What is it, then? It’s an intersection between two exceptional paths: the master creator and the discerning consumer. The creator in question has spent countless hours, perhaps his whole life, perfecting his trade, researching all the possibilities, pushing through with new innovations and experiments, cutting out the bad and refining the good – all in order to achieve a product that is his best offering to the world, a shard of his imagination brought to reality through the skill of his hand and the sharpness of his mind. The consumer in question is somebody who cares about that thing which they are about to purchase, somebody for whom the thing will make a difference in their life, somebody who wants to experience all the refinements and design decisions that went into its making, to appreciate the careful craftsmanship and the countless hours and years that went into the creation of the product.

Something special happens at the intersection of these two souls. The creator passes on his work to somebody that can appreciate it for what it is, who can see the difference made by all the efforts and struggles invested in it, who can enjoy the subtle details and design decisions that make it. At the intersection of these two paths lies the affirmation of life. The master creator’s self chosen purpose in life – i.e. his chosen trade – is affirmed by the discerning consumer for whom the work makes a difference, who can appreciate not only the experience of the final thing, but the effort that went into making it. The value of the work lies not in its final materialization, but in its concept and the work that went into it by the masters who made it, and it is that dedication, experience and genius that is appreciated, not merely the physical manifestation of the product itself. In taking the time to research and pick out “the best”, the consumer is saying to the creator: “I see and understand what you went through to make this, and I approve and appreciate your work”. A discerning consumer who has spent the time to research what they’re getting is the ultimate compliment to the master creator. To be understood is their reward.

  1. This probably need not be said, but I will add it to be clear: we’re not talking about the buying of things to be used as status symbols. If you would not buy a thing if nobody else gets to see or know you have it, then it does not really matter to you and thus is not bought as a result of research and good judgement (you won’t have the patience for it). It also needs to be stressed that since we’re not buying the object as a status symbol, we’re buying it for what it does, i.e. how it performs. This is important to stress because of the assumption that such objects end up owning you. Following this line of logic we would not improve anything for fear of it being “too good”. If something is too dear to you to fear breaking it or losing it, the problem lies with you, not the object. You have to raise yourself to a level where you can simultaneously value an object based on its qualities and the work that went into it, yet not be obsessed about it or value it over human life. Value the work and the genius of those who created it, not just the result.
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