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Last Wednesday, Wanderer wrote an article about forgiving yourself, and in the spirit of confessing past sins, I’m going to tell you about one of my own.
You see, I wasn’t always this spread sheet-loving, super-disciplined Budget Nazi. My ability to hoard money like Fat Albert hoards cake developed out of necessity because I grew up poor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any money skeletons in my closet.
In fact, back in 2010, right after Wanderer and I got married, right after I got my second promotion, I decided to treat myself to something “fancy”. Big mistake. Because just like the Lay’s motto of “betcha can’t eat just one”, I quickly fell for the sweet siren call of something so vapid, so pointless, I’m STILL ashamed to admit it.
That thing was…
I, a self-proclaimed clothes-hater and judgy bitch of purse-owners, had for the better part of the year, a full-blown Coach addiction.
I knew how to authenticate real Coach purses from fakes, how to figure out when and where a bag was made just from the serial number, and recall the exact Coach model from seeing it on a stranger’s arm from twenty feet away.
Every time I bought a Coach bag, I would stick my entire face inside and inhale. New purse smell. Mmmmmm….
One day, Wanderer came back from work to find me sitting in front of the computer, eyes glued to the screen, completely oblivious to the unattended stove in the kitchen.
“What’s that smell,” he asked, sniffing the air. “Is something burning!?”
“SHHHH!” I said, not looking up from the screen, annoyed.
He sprinted into the kitchen, turned off the stove, just as the smoke alarm went off.
“What the HELL, babe,” he asked. “Are you trying to burn the place down?”
“Check out this hardware, it’s so cool!” I said, completely ignoring him and instead gesturing at the computer screen. An 18-year-old girl was explaining all the metallic parts or “hardware” of a Coach Penelope Soft Pebble Leather Satchel as she carefully removed it from its official Coach packaging like it was a newborn baby.
“You’re watching a video of people unboxing a purse?” Wanderer asked, incredulous. “WHY?!”
It hadn’t dawned on me at that point, but that was the moment I realized I’d reached a new low.
I was watching “purse porn”.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was basically doing was sending hits of dopamine to my brain, over and over again.
You see, dopamine is the “pleasure chemical” that gets released by our brain when we do something we find exciting and pleasurable like sex, drugs, eating tasty things, or accomplishing something we’re proud of.
Shopping is the EASIEST way to get that dopamine hit. Because all you need to do is pull out your wallet. You didn’t need to struggle by cooking the food, courting a partner, or overcoming hardships to accomplish anything
So when I was buying those Coach purses, I had basically turned into a lab rat with an electrode connecting my brain to a big red button. Every time I pressed that red button, the pleasure-generating part of my brain would light up. And that button was labelled “Buy Now!”
It was AWESOME and so EASY.
But what I realized over time that the high was short-lived. Every time I bought a purse, I’d get bored of it after a week, and start looking for another one. The hunt was intoxicating but when I actually bought the purse, I’d quickly get bored of it and need another one. Like a drug addict needing another hit.
At this time, I’d also been writing for a couple of years. The manuscript I’ve been shopping around had been turned down so many times I could build a paper fort with the rejection letters and still have enough leftover for a bonfire.
Unlike the easy high of the purses, trying to find an agent for your first manuscript (or the “query trenches”) was the 9th circle of Hell. Not only was I writing everyday, I also went to as many writing conferences and joined as many online writing groups as I could. But it didn’t seem to be paying off.
At least with the purses, I could get that quick shot of dopamine that I wasn’t getting from writing. Even if that high didn’t last…
But then one day, I got an e-mail that changed everything:
“I just finished reading LITTLE MISS EVIL and I LOVE it!!! I would normally be making a phone/skype call to you at this point however I am in the process of driving across the country with my pets and family so it would probably be a bit chaotic. I would love to offer you representation!”
I had to double-check the ceiling because I was pretty sure there was a FIRECracker-shaped hole up there. I had no idea how I was still sitting. In my mind I’d already shot through the ceiling, broken through the roof and was now rocketing through the stratosphere.
From that point on, I knew what a real “dopamine high” was. From that point on, I quit consuming. I stopped buying purses and returned 4 of the 5 I had. The remaining one I’m STILL trying to sell to this day.
The high I got from writing not only lasted, it kept getting better. The more I created, the more I loved it.
What I learned from this whole experience is that the high we get from consuming is short-lived. Once we get that shot of dopamine into our brain, it quickly fades. And then we need another hit to make us happy. Eventually we just end up drowning in a sea of stuff that doesn’t make us happy, while continuing to chase that elusive long-lasting happiness high.
On the other hand, learning something new and building things is insanely difficult at first. And that’s why so many people give up. They feel frustrated at putting in so much effort without getting any reward. But what’s really happening, what’s completely invisible to them, is that their skills are gradually improving, and with each day that goes by, they are getting closer and closer to that ultimate high. They are getting closer to that coveted feeling of “flow” you get only when you’ve mastered a skill and are using it to create something beautiful.
In my case, I didn’t feel that flow initially, because I was struggling to write for many years. But I forced myself to continue, even when every neuron in my brain screamed at me to stop.
And guess what? It paid off.
Instead of throwing money into a dark hole like I did with the purses, we ended up getting PAID when a publisher agreed to publish our book.
One day Wanderer came back from work to find me sitting at the dinning room table, happily hammering away.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Check out this hardware!” I said. “Isn’t it cool?”
I showed him a picture frame I had just finished putting together. Inside it was our first royalty check.
That framed royalty check STILL makes me happy whenever I look at it.
What this experience has taught me is that consuming gives you easy highs, but creating gives you BETTER highs. Highs that last forever.
So don’t fall for the cheap thrills that consuming gives you. It won’t last. Master a skill and use that to create something beautiful. Your brain (and your wallet) will love you for it.
Note: Shout-out to Chautauqua attendee and reader Brandon for inspiring this post! This is why we love hanging out with our peeps. Hanging out with cool people always shakes loose cool ideas!
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