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Having a Story — Why We Buy

Marketing stories and how they promote the narcissism of minor differences.

Mon 22 September 2014

I realized years ago that every big decision I make in life benefits when it has a clear story. I’ll often agonize over something that a part of me wants to do until I can make it clear to my whole self why I’m doing it.

I decided to travel because I was getting old, I decided to take pictures because it’s the easiest creative outlet to learn, and I decided to come to Japan because the people are so polite that I can learn from them. This pattern: “I decided to do X because of Y,” is fairly universal among me and many other people I know.

Without the story, I can go back and forth on decisions. But with a good story comes an easy decision and I reinforce that story in my mind until it feels like fact.

When I talk with people about purchasing decisions they also often have similar stories. Android phone buyers will tell you that they chose Android because it’s cheaper, because it doesn’t require so many proprietary sacrifices, or because they wanted a bigger screen. Similarly iPhone buyers tell their own stories: better cameras, longer battery life, more cohesive software. The decision to use Android or iOS is one of the most polarizing topics of our time.

We develop stories for other products we buy. We buy a Prius because it’s fuel efficient and we care about the environments, a Tahoe because we like to go to the mountains, or an Audi because we wanted a safe luxury car that isn’t a BMW.

Most of the time these stories don’t even need to be true. They often fit directly with the marketing message from the companies who sell the product. It’s true that Apple phones tend to have better cameras, Android phones tend to have bigger screens, and the Prius tends to be the most fuel efficient car you can buy. These companies are probably thrilled when we rationalize and promote a purchase using the same line they used to get us to buy it.

The stories are also largely bullshit: any flagship Android phone is at most two generations behind Apple on its camera, sometimes extra pixels or screen size aren’t actually more useful, and buying almost any used car is better for the environment than buying a Prius.

In thinking about this I’ve decided to be a bit more careful with the stories I tell myself, and to recognize that many of them are just stories. They are ways for me to rationalize a choice and to convince myself that it’s the right one, but they often focus on a very tiny detail and ignore the rest of the picture.

One of my favorite things that Merlin Mann talks about is the “narcissism of minor differences.” An example is that where I grew up in Virginia, Ford and Chevy guys both drive trucks, but you’ll have a hard time getting them in the same room. Similarly Android and iPhone users can get into passionate arguments where it seems like the aren’t even hearing what the other person is saying — or that they live in totally different realities populated by different facts.

Looking down from space, Ford and Chevy guys both really like trucks, and Android and iPhone users both really like smartphones. They have a lot more in common than they have different from each other, but they can also hate each other far more than any alien might think reasonable for such similar people.

These stories we tell ourselves: “my phone is better because it has the best camera,” or “my truck can haul more,” are mostly lies. They ignore the 95% similarities.

I’m going to make an effort not to let technology choices or any other stories I’ve fed myself about the way I interpret the world cloud my judgment in the future. It won’t be easy, and it sneaks up a the times I least expect it, but it’s one of the most insidious aspects of consumer society that I’d like to get rid of.

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Japan is Stimulating

Mon 22 September 2014

After six months in Southeast Asia, Japan is stimulating. Very stimulating. Having previously thought that Japan was a relaxing country I wasn’t at all prepared for how I’d react to fast Internet, hard beds, and an incredible feeling of safety.

How did I react? I had a lot of trouble sleeping more than five hours for my first few nights in Japan. It’s an exciting place to be. Even though Kyoto shuts down around 10pm there’s no risk in going out for a walk late at night and seeing the town. In Cambodia I’d be settled in for the night already by 10pm, a bit weary of any characters wandering the street so late. Here there is no worry.

I accidentally left 500 yen (about $5) outside and came back an hour later to find it still on there chair where it fell from my pockets. A friend told me he saw a man get on the subway, look down at a 1,000 yen note on his chair and just move it aside. Picking up found money doesn’t even count as stealing in the United States, but I think people in Japan are either so caring or so concerned about being arrested that they would never do it.

The other thing I didn’t expect about Japan is that the electronics stores are like being at CES. All varieties of products you’d rarely see outside of a specialty retailer in the United States are readily available here. Basic everyday electronics stores have a wide variety of specialty cameras, high resolution displays, whole aisles of bluetooth keyboards, mice, camera bags, straps, and camera tripods. I took the chance to scope out all sorts of products I’ve wanted to see in person for a while. I bought a few new things that I’ll talk about on here eventually, but not too many.

After not sleeping well for almost a week I changed plans and booked rooms in my two favorite Kyoto hostels for a total of six nights with the intent of just chilling out and relaxing. I knew it would get boring by the end, and it did. At the end of the deliberate six day pause I was very ready to hit the road again. I’m now on the bullet train headed from Kyoto to Tokyo to spend a few nights near Ueno station exploring the big city. It’s truly a wonderful feeling to be back on the road even after such a short pause.

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Kyoto Notes

First observations after visiting Kyoto for the second time.

Sat 20 September 2014

Walking down the street in Kyoto I'm amazed a city that should be so ugly can actually be so beautiful. On arrival, Kyoto feels like a basic industrial town. It's pavement, concrete, steel, and gray. Underneath, after walking around, I suddenly realized how clean everything is. Thinking back, for the first few days the largest garbage I saw in the street was a stray leaf callously dropped by a tree.

I've spent time looking at spotless concrete walls, wondering how in the world a society could get to the point of keeping concrete so clean. Some people extend theories related to samurai or cultural identity or Buddhism, but I don't know which to believe. What's even more remarkable about this cleanliness is that Japan has basically no garbage cans. I hear that the ricin terrorist attack years ago used garbage cans to deliver the poison, so trash cans are gone now. I regularly walk half a kilometer with a used Coke can looking for a place to trash it before giving up and crushing it into my back pocket.

Months ago my impression of Japan was that it contained a deep inner peace. These days I question if that's actually peace I'm feeling. The Japanese are exceptionally polite to me, but I'm a foreigner. They bow comically often when I order coffee at Starbucks: once when place my order, then when I hand over the money, then when I get the receipt, once I get the coffee, and finally when I leave. At Family Mart a man bows so low that his heads almost hits the counter. I hear that they aren't as polite to the locals.

Another foreigner, a photographer I met from Missouri, tells me that Kyoto is basically the Texas of Japan. Compared to the rest of Japan the food is exceptionally sweet, just like Texas. If you grew up here, you're welcome here. But if you're from outside it can be an impossible culture to penetrate — just like Texas. The traditional way to ask someone to leave your house here is to offer them rice with tea poured over it as dinner — it's food, and it's good food, but it's a known signal that it's time for you to leave.

I don't know why I remember Kyoto as so quiet from my previous visit. It's peaceful, but more often than I remember the peace is rudely broken. Today it was a blaring car horn as a driver sped past a bicycle and an over revving motorcycle waiting to leave a stoplight at 3 am. In the rest of the world this is the soundtrack of life. In Kyoto it's alarming, so exceptionally rude compared to what else I've seen that it hints at discord. It's hard to believe someone here would behave that way. Whoever is making this noise doesn't fit in.

Japan feels like it's in the future. The electronics stores have so much depth and breadth that walking into one feels like a visit to an Amazon warehouse or the Consumer Electronics Show. I see products, like an 800 gram 13 inch laptop made from magnesium alloy, that are years away from being introduced into other markets. When an American electronics store might have one to five options to solve a problem the Japanese store has 10 to 100. I counted over 200 different cases for an iPad Air. The variety is overwhelming.

I'm enjoying my time here. It's a delightful to be in such a quiet and generally peaceful place. It's nice to have not been hassled about buying a taxi cab or a prostitute since arriving. Overall though, I miss the energy and hustle of South East Asia. When you've already arrived, when your country is already years in the future compared to anywhere else, there isn't as much desire to push forward. People move quickly but no one seems to be climbing.

One more note, on the food: it can be had cheaply. Today I ate for about $10, mostly prepared food from grocery stores. If you cook for yourself it's obviously going to be lower cost. When traveling I expected that cost would vary substantially by country, but the cost of food and lodging doesn't move too much. A hostel bunk in Indonesia can cost $8 per night, in Japan it can cost $17. A Big Mac in Japan costs maybe 50% more than a Big Mac in Indonesia, and Starbucks coffee costs only 30% more here.

A good cooked meal in Indonesia can cost $1.50, but the portions are small. A filling meal with a drink is closer to $4. In Japan you can drink water from the tap, cutting maybe $2 from a daily budget, and you can get a good filling meal for $5 after a bit of digging around. Considering that Indonesia's GDP per capita is maybe one eighth of Japan's, it's surprising that living here can cost only about twice as much.

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Just Do It

Thu 18 September 2014

Six months ago I sold everything I own to travel around the world. Everything I own fits in a ten pound backpack. I went from being a full time Facebook employee to walking or taking buses most places, eating out of grocery stores and convenience stores, and owning only two shirts and two pairs of underwear.

I love it, but I know it's not for everyone. Oddly when I tell people what I'm doing the number one response is "I wish I could do that... but."

This phrase kills me. Words are powerful, and hearing words coming out of your own mouth is even more powerful (it's why we pray). If I say "I wish I could do that but," I'm telling myself that I can't do something. Instead I'm very clear with myself: either I want to do something or I don't. I never tell myself that I can't do something.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned was from the video below. Steve Jobs tells it convincingly, years before he got famous for rescuing Apple: life isn't a game. No one is going to tell you that it's OK to do the things that you want to do. Many people might tell you you're crazy. You just have to start doing what you want and see if it works.

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Throw Away Your Map

Travelling is better without plans

Wed 17 September 2014

Tienanmen Square. Beijing, China.

I was talking with a traveller yesterday who just finished riding his motorcycle from Belgium to Russia and then by boat to Japan. He crossed through twenty-two countries before arriving in Hiroshima and finishing his trip.

What was most remarkable to me about his trip isn't what he saw. It's how he did it. He planned little: sketched a rough route, applied for visas, and got a motorcycle passport. He stayed in small towns, met remarkably friendly people, and had almost no problems.

Then he complained to me that a coffee in Hiroshima costs almost $3 and that the people were too busy and unfriendly. He was used to spending $10 per day for food and sleeping in the mountains for free. This stuck out to me because I felt the opposite way about Hiroshima but the same about Bali.

It got me to thinking: small towns are more pleasant than big cities, and tourist towns are the worst. How do you avoid tourist sights? How do you find nice small towns? You have to go off the map like this guy did.

New Maps

It should be clear, but our map of the world is expanding rapidly. Almost every restaurant, cafe, hotel, or store with a name has an online review and pictures now. Think about how impossible that was just a few years ago.

In the Facebook age it’s actually fairly easy to travel and stay entirely on the map. You can visit the same towns, restaurants, and tourists sights that other people visit. Even when I accidentally open Google Now it decides to show me nearby photo sights, tempting me with more things than I'll ever have time to do.

Even being aware of options for other things that we could be doing can make travel harder than it should be. I'll never do as much as the next person. If I look at a social network or travel engine it’s designed to show me the highlights, but to me the most memorable parts of my trip aren’t the highlights that would be transmissible through pictures or digital stories.

The most memorable thing about places to me is the zeitgeist. It’s the minor places. It’s smelling what the air smells like in a town, looking at how people treat each other, and seeing what people do with themselves and what they keep in their houses.

Honestly, the only time that I think I’m not doing enough or not exploring enough on my trip is if I log into some social network or Google around and see what other travel bloggers write about a town. In my personal reward system, how I feel without comparison to other people, just sitting still in one place for a while and watching the world go by is fascinating enough. Striving for more — more sights, more foods, more beaches, more mountains — can just make me tired.

Going off the map

How does this translate into practical travel advice? The best advice I have for finding places to go is to ask friends or locals directly or to just take a long walk. Sometimes I find good cafes, small parks, or interesting sights. To me there's not much appeal in staying on the map or making plans. The joy of travel is in the adventure itself. I'll always miss something, so I try not to remind myself of what I'll miss or make too much of a plan about what I want to do in the future.

I'm envious of the motorcylist's trip not because of any specific place he saw, but because I have some sense of the mental challenges and rewards that he experienced. There's not a lesson that he could transmit, not a photo that he could give, that would make me want to re-live the specific towns and people that he visited. I don't want to pull out a map and chase down his vacation, I want to find my own. It's his framework for travel that I most admire.

The picture at the top of this article is from Tienanmen Square. I went there not because anyone suggested it, but because I've wanted to visit it for my entire life. I wanted to stand in the middle of that big space and see what it felt like. If there's any country you want to visit there will probably be places like this you'll want to see as well. I try to go find those spots, the ones that I can't miss. If I have time I'll read a history of the town before I arrive. If not, I'll just take a walk and find my own stories.

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