The Illusion of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’ When Buying Stuff

Back in my “big spending” days, one of the most powerful ideas that constantly ran through my head was the idea that if someone else had something that I coveted, they were somehow the “winner” and I was somehow the “loser,” and the only way I could also be a winner was to try to acquire that thing – or a better version of that thing – myself.

Let me give you a clear example. During those years just prior to the release of the iPhone, Blackberry made the most popular (and most useful) smartphones. If you worked at some white-collar jobs, the usefulness of such a device was pretty clear, but for many (including the people in my group), owning one was a sign that your job was “important.”

Thus, Blackberry ownership became something of a competition of oneupsmanship in a way. It was often assumed among the younger professionals that I knew that a person who cared about their career really ought to have one and that (somehow) having the latest one meant you were on even more of a fast track to success.

When someone showed up with a new Blackberry model, people were practically jumping over themselves to check it out and it quickly gave the perception of this person being the “winner” and the others being “losers” in some sort of technology and career competition.

The truth? This sounds absolutely silly to me even as I write it out.

Having said that, I still see that same phenomenon happening again and again in groups. I see it even in some of the groups I participate in. When someone shows up with something new, the others ooh and ahh over that new thing, stroking that person’s ego and often making the others feel jealous in some fashion. It quickly creates a sense of a “winner” and some “losers.”

This phenomenon is aided by advertising and marketing. Watch a few commercials or look at a magazine’s advertisements and you’ll see that phenomenon popping up. “Look, this successful person is a winner because he/she has this product, and thus it follows that because you do not have this product, you are not a winner! Buy this product if you want to become a winner!”

All of it, from the coworker with the hot new item to the magazine advertisement, is an illusion, a mirage. It preys on your own sense of self-doubt, but it’s not real. It’s a trick created by marketers to get you to spend more money on stuff you don’t need.

Take that old situation where people are oohing and aahing over someone’s new smartphone. That response doesn’t really have anything to do with the reality of whether that person is a “winner” or a “loser.” It does have a bit to do with the marketing behind that product, and it also has to do with our own tendency to look at new things and see what they do – our curious monkey brains.

At the end of the day, does that new thing help that person actually do their job better? Not in any significant or notable way. Does it give that person more skills? Nope. Does it change that person’s character traits? Nope. Does it improve that person at all? Nope.

Does it impact their bank account and financial future? It does do that, but not in a positive way.

Will the “new” wear off of that product pretty quick? Will that little burst of attention fade within a few days? It sure will.

What’s the reality, then?

First of all, just because you don’t have the hot new thing doesn’t mean you have nothing. It means that you have more money in your savings account, for one. You have more day-to-day financial stability. You also have the ability to buy something else if needed (or desired).

For example, let’s say I spend $300 on a new fruit-based watch. Sure, I’ll have a new watch around my wrist and, hey, look, it alerts me when I get a text! Sure, it would be kind of cool to have such a thing and I’d certainly use it if I did have it, so I could arguably say that my life would be somehow better if I had it, right?

Not necessarily. For starters, I’d have $300 less than I had before. For another, I’d have another device that needed attention, charging, and maintenance, providing a further life distraction. For another, that device is going to eventually wear out, leaving me with nothing, so I would need to get $300 worth of use out of it in the next few years.

Without that device, I have one less distraction in my life. I have $300 in my bank account. I have one less item that needs maintenance. And I won’t have to deal with a dead watch when that device’s life cycle ends.

Second, the uses for things you might want that you make up in your head often don’t match reality. There are several reasons for this.

People tend to imagine the best possible outcome when they want something. If your interest has been piqued, it’s much easier to imagine that you’ll get life-changing use out of an item. You’ll imagine that it works like a charm and come up with situations where you’re glad to have it.

People also tend to over-amplify the situations that the item will be useful. Let’s take an electric razor that someone might use daily and might save a minute while shaving. With some imaginative stretching, that device becomes something that will transform every morning of your life.

People rarely think about the downsides of a product. Smartphones are a perfect example of this. Sure, they provide information and connection whenever you need it, but they also distract us from important moments in life. They constantly replace and interrupt “important but not urgent” moments – like spending time playing a board game with your child – with “urgent but not important” moments – like interrupting that parenting time with constant smart phone glances.

Third, the stuff you own has no impact on the skills or characteristics you bring to the table. Having a smart phone does not make you smarter, nor does it make you a more effective communicator. It does not make you a better computer programmer or a better presenter. It is a tool useful in some situations, no more, no less.

It is often easy to see many items as some kind of skill or personal characteristic enhancement or replacement, but they essentially never work that way. In the end, you are operating that device and, just like any other tool, the successful use of that item is up to you, your characteristics, and your skills.

A much better approach is to spend that time and energy (and money, to a degree) you would have invested in that new item on improving whatever characteristics or skills you’re actually wanting to improve. Get some exercise. Take a class. Study a new topic. Practice and hone a skill. Make yourself better, and then you have the benefit of the item except that it’s inside of you and can’t be taken away or worn out.

Finally, the vast, vast majority of people don’t care about the specific item. Sure, some people will use ownership of that item to differentiate between those that have it and those that do not, but those same people would find something else to use as a differentiator if that item weren’t available to them.

The rest of us? We don’t really care about the item. Sure, we might be happy that you’re happy with it. We might want to see the features of it. But your possession of that item – or lack thereof – is not going to make any real difference in how we perceive you.

In fact, if you want one single take-home message from this article, it’s this: if you want to change how you’re perceived, change and improve yourself, not your possessions.

In the end, that’s the real secret to personal, financial, and professional success.

Those that achieve it don’t do it by buying the latest item or the newest thing. They do it by putting in the work to genuinely improve themselves and their situation.

They are not made into a “winner” by buying the latest smartphone or having the shiniest car. They are made into a “winner” by being smart with their money, by being diligent in improving themselves, and by building skills that others might want or value.

In the end, almost every possession you have will be stripped away from you at some point in your life. All that you’ll have is you. So, if you truly want to be a “winner” and have the best that life can offer, don’t seek it in things. Seek it within yourself. Build skills so that you’re confident doing anything. Build financial independence so that you have the ability to take on any journey. Build positive characteristics so that you’re happier in your own skin.

That’s how you become a lasting “winner,” not by buying the latest offering from a company that just wants to sell you more product.

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