The Life Cycle of Gear and Its Impact on Our Lives

In the past few months, I’ve replaced two major pieces of gear that I used nearly everyday. First to go were a pair of cycling shoes that I’ve had for four years and done many many miles on and the second was my raw denim jeans I had for a year and a half. Those cycling shoes were caked with grime from three different cities and the smell would be overwhelming whenever they would get wet but they dutifully performed day in and day out until they finally couldn’t take the stress of NYC riding anymore. The jeans, well, they had a shorter life and one that could have been longer with better care. They were in the repair shop a couple of times to be mended but came out and returned to my daily life. They too saw the impact of the days stresses and had to be retired. The process of replacing this gear that’s been a part of my daily life (and mulling it over for the past few months) has given me some insight on the impact of that gear we use day-to-day and the importance that choosing it has in our lives.

When I picked out those silver cycling shoes–with red accents, just like my bike–it wouldn’t have run through my mind the same way as it does now that such a purchase could become a vital part of my every day life. I do remember stretching my budget a little bit to get the better quality ones, though, which is a decision that shows value still.

Marco Arment has found that the minutiae that we experience in our life every day has big impacts on our happiness:

Installing timer switches on my bathroom fans has eliminated a daily annoyance from my life. Deciding on a pillowcasing strategy has made me sleep more comfortably every night since I wrote that stupid article seven years ago. By caring about what type of headphones I use, I satisfy my own needs better and annoy the people around me less every day.

Marco then quotes a post from Joel Spolsky:

So that’s what days were like. A bunch of tiny frustrations, and a bunch of tiny successes. But they added up. Even something which seems like a tiny, inconsequential frustration affects your mood. Your emotions don’t seem to care about the magnitude of the event, only the quality.

And I started to learn that the days when I was happiest were the days with lots of small successes and few small frustrations.

What we surround ourselves with everyday, from the software, tools, and scaffolding, to the people and places, and the gear we use have the ability to impact our days and provide “lots of small successes” and fewer small frustrations. Gear that you love and trust lets you stop thinking about it and searching for alternatives and lets you focus on living your life. You trust your gear to do its job so you can do yours and, everyday, you can have your focus and attention spent on better things.

Understanding It

When the time does come that gear needs to be replaced, it takes energy and thought to find a suitable replacement. If your previous purchase was a long-term investment, you have the benefit of having a lot of time spent with it and, likely from that, a better understanding of some of it’s strengths and weaknesses which you can incorporate in your decision when you upgrade that piece of gear. It’s important to understand what you’ve got before you think too much about searching for what you need. When getting a new pair of cycling shoes, there were two big things I needed to solve for. The original shoes that I purchased were road biking shoes which tend to be flashier to match the fancy road bikes (remember, mine were red and silver) and also tend to have only a flat plastic sole since they aren’t designed to do much walking in. Because I used these shoes to commute, I would often end up walking around in them, doing things like groceries and other errands without ever changing into the other pair of shoes I had in my bag. More than once I almost died because the metal cleat doesn’t have any traction on the slick floors of grocery stores. Mountain bike-style cycling shoes have treads around the cleat that help give you grip when you are walking up muddy mountain bike trails but also do the same in the grocery store (minus the cool “extreme” factor). That’s something I hadn’t even considered in my original purchase but with day-after-day, year-after-year use, I became to innately understand where the gear I used was strong and where it was weak. I also wanted my new cycling shoes to be just plain black. I had had enough of walking around wearing normal clothes with these flashy shoes and wanted something that would just fit in with my attire. After great searching, I found a pair that matched my needs. The finding wasn’t the hard part, but understanding my needs took a long time and a lot of use.

When you have better gear that lasts, there’s a longer life cycle of use where you gain an understanding of that gear. You’ll also tend to care more about it and its intricacies when you invest more time and money into the research and purchase. Your investment isn’t only one of money but the time you’ve spent researching and learning about it and one that you want to see rewarded in the long life of that product. There’s a level of care and understanding that you have in that gear which you might not if it’s a cheaper purchase.

Caring Appropriately

When you’ve invested your time and your money into something, you tend to care for it more, in both the emotional “I care a lot about this expensive watch” sense and the physical “I spend a lot of time taking care of this expensive watch” sense. I learned with the denim that I had to replace was that I could have cared for those jeans differently and they would have lasted much longer. It wasn’t that I was neglecting them but I realized after having to replace them that the priorities I was caring for should have been different. The trend for raw denim is to leave as much time in between washes as possible to help maintain vibrant colors and fades in the denim. What I hadn’t really thought about is that the same road grime that caused my cycling shoes to break down were causing my jeans to wear much quicker and my care for them should have changed based on my usage and my goal for them lasting longer rather than fading better. This learning had an impact on the new jeans I bought as well as how I take care of them.

I value the idea of “appropriate care”. I think of “care” in a similar way that we understand attention: that it is a finite thing and when you’ve used it all up, your attention gas tank is empty. You can only care so much about certain things, so it’s important to care for things in a way that’s appropriate and allows you to focus your care on the right things. Though I’m a careful person, there are somethings I just care less about than others because I try to care for that gear appropriately. Tools should be cared for but are just tools. You’d never leave a hammer in the toolbox because you were afraid to get some dings on it. Some things matter more than others and require more attention so you should strive to understand what the appropriate level for care is in your gear.

Incorporating It Back

The way you understand the value your gear has and the care you have for something often ends up getting incorporated into other things you do. The same thought process it takes to understand your gear is a core part of what design is. The idea of “appropriate care” is fundamental and incorporating that into other parts of what you do will help you care more about more important things and less about stuff that doesn’t matter. Just as there’s a life cycle in the gear you use, there’s an iterative cycle in the process of understanding, caring, and evaluating that’s useful everywhere. In a really meta sense,1 the impact of understanding what “value” is, and choosing gear that has value is just a life skill that can have importance in everything around you, minutiae or not. I’ve been asked about my process of distilling the “why” in the things I do and, like I talked about on the topic of design with The Mikes, that distilling isn’t really a step-by-step process that can fit in a mind map, but it’s something that’s ingrained by being a part of everything I do. It seems nearly obsessive to a point (and that’s my own perspective on it, can’t imagine how a significant other would see it) but that awareness of the value of small things on how I enjoy my daily life has an impact on pretty much every decision I have.

In an old post Active Ownership vs. Minimalism, I talked about how taking an active role in the things you own can end up impacting your lifestyle:

Active ownership, which differs from minimalism, is about investing your limited attention, money, space, and time to what you value so that those things will thrive. Being vested in something makes you care more about it. You can’t do or have everything, so when you choose to take active ownership, it becomes a commitment to it and decisions and compromise have to be made about what commands your limited attention. As a result of the explicit choice you make in how you spend your attention, you reduce the things around you to what’s most valuable. What’s not valuable gets cut from your attention budget. You end up with less around you and are more focused on the basic forms of things, like with minimalism.

The goal for me in desiring and seeking out great gear is about making commitments to myself, to continue a trend in supporting the things I do with tools that I can trust and removing things from my life that can’t live up to those standards. Whether it’s strictly about gear or not, you’ll find yourself happier in the micro and macro of your daily life by committing to understanding the pieces of your day-to-day, deciding what to and how much to care about certain things, and gain a greater grasp how the process is cyclical an applicable to your life in a greater context.

  1. Because, honestly, a lot of what Hack/Make is about lives up in the thin air of Architectural Astronomy.↩︎