Most of us have heard the classic story “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s a short story by O. Henry and is easily one of the most culturally known stories out there.
If you’re not familiar, here’s the rough outline: it’s about young married couple and how they deal with the challenge of buying secret Christmas gifts for each other with very little money. The husband sells his gold watch to buy hair combs for his wife’s beautiful long hair, while, at the same time, the wife cuts her hair off and sells it to a wig maker to buy a chain for her husband’s prized gold watch.
The lesson of the story isn’t that they were giving foolish gifts. The lesson was that they already had the best gift of all: the love they shared for each other. To have a partner so full of love that they’re willing to sacrifice something they so deeply treasure to bring joy to the life of their significant other is a true gift.
In their gift giving, they were foolish. They gave away something valuable in order to give a gift that the other could not use. The actual value of what they gave away was much greater than the value of what they received for it.
You might argue that they still “won” because they learned about the strength of their shared love, but that love was already strong. The presents themselves were mere symbols of the love they already shared. They already have the thing they most need at the start of the story. If they wanted to give something that expressed that love, they could have invested other resources in their life – their time, their creativity, their energy. Instead, they found themselves with less than a dollar for their food.
So, what does this have to do with us?
In a lot of ways, many of us live through some version of this story over and over again. We buy items in order to seek things that can’t be bought. We try to buy love, but that’s just the start. We try to buy physical beauty or handsomeness. We try to buy mental fulfillment or a sense of having been entertained. We try to buy friendship. We try to buy respect.
We’ll plop down money on that item, but before long we find that it doesn’t really change our sense of physical beauty one bit. Our sense of mental fulfillment or friendship or respect from others doesn’t change at all over the long term, though we might perceive a small bump in the short term.
It’s very easy to turn this into a cycle. It seems very easy to try to buy whatever it is that we want in life and, if it doesn’t work or is only a very temporary fix, we’ll try buying something again, because that desire for change is genuine.
Why do people choose this path so often? It’s a matter of the “path of least resistance” … or, at least, our perception of it.
We have something we want – and that something usually isn’t a product. It’s usually a change in ourselves or in how others perceive us. We see what appears to be an easy way to get there – buying something. We buy it. It “fixes” the problem either in a very superficial way or in a very short-term way, but before long we’re right back where we started. That short term “fix” sticks with us, though – the book we bought, the clothes we bought, the beauty product we bought – and we strive to “fix” it again the same way.
Getting into this cycle has a heavy cost, though. We’re spending money that we could have been investing to chase that “fix.” Usually, we end up sacrificing our financial future to chase something we already have or something we can’t achieve through buying things.
If you want to actually “fix” the problems in your life and improve yourself, you shouldn’t be buying things as an immediate response. The solution might eventually involve buying something, but it’s usually not the first thing you think of and it’s usually further down the road.
The first step? Whenever you’re really tempted to buy something, ask yourself why you’re buying it. What is it you hope to get out of this product? It might be that you already have it. Then, once you’ve figured that out, look for a way to achieve the result without buying anything or buying something really inexpensive. Even better, look for a way to achieve that result in a lasting fashion.
Achieving that result through other actions besides buying a product is usually a harder path, but it’s also the one that genuinely brings about the changes you want.
Once you start breaking through that cycle of buying things to improve something that can’t be bought, you start seeing a lot of those cycles throughout your life, and you’re going to want to break a lot of them.