Thursday, January 13, 2011

Want Is Not Need

While the title of this post is one of those "Well, duh!" aphorisms, I find myself lured from lethargy to type those words. I'm by no means certain that I need to type this but I certainly want to type this because it seems to me that much of the trouble we bring on ourselves is a result of our conflating and confusing the simple concepts of want and need.

While discussing this subject with my lovely and talented spouse, she reminded me of a time long ago when our kids were still kids and learning the ways of the world and the ways we use language to make sense of things. In the store and on a budget, Christine tried to teach the boys the difference between want and need. "You don't need Oreos," she explained, "you just want them." Our boys were sharp students and learned quickly. Needs trump wants so from that day forward they learned and practiced the mantra of the marketplace, a grating whine centered on the word need with the pronunciation drawn out so it sounds like neeeeeeeeed. Christine really did need some quiet and a respite from the high-pitched pleas, so more than a few times we found ourselves with the Oreos we desperately needed.

The problems with the tricks we learn as children is that we often keep using these tricks past their useful lifespans. We believe our own words and build a world where happiness is always just a few key objects away. Whether we're lusting after the latest iPhone or we've convinced ourselves we would really be happy if we could only get down to 57 good things, we seem to think stuff is the problem. We have too much or too little, but either way it's a drag. Stuff is sticky and it's hard to let it go, but stuff seldom falls cleanly into the need it or not piles. In some sense, we need to want, for want is what keeps us moving. Our goal often turn out to be mystical macguffin, but it doesn't matter if our Maltese Falcon turns out to be a cheap forgery, if it has gotten us in motion. I suspect the value lies not in the goal, but in the pursuit.

When stuff, either a lack of item A or too much of item B, is seen as a need when it is in fact a want, we run the serious risk of either delaying our departure or riding with the brakes on. I was prompted to write these words after reading this blog post:

The man describing himself as "Average Joe Cyclist" does a good job describing how his e-bike helps him ride more, gets him in motion and made him stronger and that's all well and good. If e-bikes help more people ride, exercise and do more with less, more power to 'em. But I think Average Joe missed an important lesson in his tale: he made it up his big hill, carrying the motor and batteries as dead weight. Yet he concludes that he needs to ride with an electric assist. How does he know? The evidence I see in his story leads me to a different conclusion.

I love all different kinds of bicycles but something strikes me as a bit off when I hear people say things like "you need a Long Haul Trucker to tour cross country." A Trucker is a fine machine and if you want one, go for it. But do you need it? Or do you just want it?

We gain strength and grace by moving forward, pressing ahead when we're not quite sure we have all we need. We seldom have all we want. But if we try sometimes we just might find, we've got what we need.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


bikelovejones said...

How you manage to say these things and still hold down a job in the bike industry is amazing.


Seriously, I just talekd a friend out of a Surlythe other day when I pointed out that he already had three perfectly fine bikes -- and only one butt. The ration between bikes and butts is a useful one.

Happy riding --B

WMdeR said...

Dear Kent,

Want is not need, but where do "need" and "want" shade into each other, particularly in the context of our equipment-dependent activity and faddish/fashion-driven marketplace?

I'd argue that good food, weatherproof shelter, appropriately protective clothing, meaningful and rewarding work, and strong connection to community are human needs.

Almost everything else is a "want" not a "need".

As a magpie and serial upgrader, I'm easily distracted/drawn by new (camping/cycling/running/climbing) stuff. Not an endearing habit. I seek to minimize what I buy for a given activity, but also to find the Right Stuff--to find the elbow in the price-performance curve for those items you really want or from which you benefit. The fewer things one carries (and who wants to be unnecessarily encumbered?), the more intensely dependent on those items one becomes, and the higher the standard of performance.

Sometimes that means I fabricate my own things (rarely less expensive than buying the same thing, but then I can work out the design to my own satisfaction). Sometimes I get very lucky and get the Right Thing right off the bat. More often, there is a flux of Stuff when something wears out and is not available anymore, until the Right Thing is satisfactorily replaced.

This is the advantage of a (good) equipment review. The disadvantage is that it stimulates dissatisfaction with a formerly satisfactory item--the review is advertising, in effect, and is manufacturing demand. I hesitate to discuss equipment as a result (but it doesn't preclude it entirely)

Thank you for your insight.

Best Regards,


William M. deRosset
Fort Collins, CO

Kent Peterson said...


Indeed the better is the enemy of the good and I go down that "getting this to replace that" many, many times.

I wrote about this years ago in "The Way of the Mountain Turtle":

"It is easy and wrong to think that minimal gear and a simple quest equates to some kind of renunciation of the material world. In a very real sense, a Divide racer’s minimalism is in fact an extremely purified form of materialism. I’m not free of material goods, I’m intensely dependent on them. Each item I have chosen for this journey has been extensively studied and obsessively considered. I’ve literally weighed my options and made my choices. The other racers have done the same.

My sleeping bag weighs 1.2 pounds, my Chloe tablets save me the weight of a water filter and I now know that I’m carrying too many socks. These are the truths of the trail."

Yep, it's a balancing act. And add in the fact that I make a living because people do buy stuff and yeah, I test stuff out...well I guess what I'm saying is we all wind up with stuf. But paying attention to what we add and what we can drop away is a worthwhile activity.

Eric said...

I don't need 30 bikes in the garage. But for the year that I was laid up with a pinched nerve and couldn't walk let alone ride, collecting them kept me sane.

kfg said...

My '68 Schwinn Deluxe Racer needs new tires if I am to continue riding it, which I admit is something I merely want to do. I might wish Schwinn didn't use proprietary rims so I had some choice in tires. The gear cable pulley probably should have been metal, but as the plastic one ain't broke yet I haven't had cause to fix it. It could be "upgraded" by replacing the galvanized seat post with a chromed one, but really, that's just a purely cosmetic want.

I'd be willing to ride it across the country and can't see the weight of an electric motor and battery system as anything but a downgrade, but that could just be me.

So I guess I'll just keep it rollin' 'til I die or somethin'.

CailinMarie said...

I was all set to try and leave a nice, grown up comment along the lines of "bravo" with a little superfluous-ness thrown in and then read bikelovejones "I pointed out that he already had three perfectly fine bikes -- and only one butt"
and now I must find a way to morph that into skis "husband darling, you have bump skis, GS skis, powder skis and only two feet" just isn't as funny...

Biker Sam said...

Awesome post! your blog inspired me too make my own! Your posts are always very entertaining and meaningful.

Anonymous said...

Something I used to tell my kids is, "You can have anything you want, you just can't have everything you want." I realize you are making a different point but a related notion is setting priorities, both in wants and needs.


thomas said...

New reader here, great post.

Bob said...

The devil is always in the details and in the case of need vs want the detail is in the words that come after "need" and whether I utter them truthfully. I do not need a bike, but I do need a bike in order to be able to ride. If, like a friend of mine, I need the bike in order to ride, but then never ride it, I was lying to myself about the premise of the purchase. A person may "need" a new seatpost in order to save ounces of weight, but are they being truthful or are they rationalizing? Carrying one cup less water would save the same weight.

I'm still riding a 1989 mountain bike; it's the only one I own. I don't need another one. It helps that I don't want another one.

DrCodfish said...

"I suspect the value lies not in the goal, but in the pursuit."

An excellent definition of cycling! Consider this, are you more satified when you have arrived, or when you are traveling by bike to that destination? And if the destiation is the end of a circle, long and arduous or leisurely and langorous, what do you crow about?: "I'm here" or "Let me tell you how I got here!"

But also your statement above is the just right justification for the e-bike, the up-grade, the new Trucker, or perhaps even the new home brewed retro-direct franken bike: Who does not see a spike in his or her mileage after that shiny new (or industrially welded) two wheel dream come true arrives in the stable? An e-bike might just be the thing to get average joe out on that long hard climb, where he otherwise might have gavitated to the daveno.

A post that disproves the conventional wisdom that great posts need great photos.

Yr [pal Dr C

PS: Take some time in the next couple days to think about MLK.

girlandsteed said...

All I can say is: Amen.

Anonymous said...

i love dahon curve... do you make a bike trip in dahon curve??? Good Blog.... i from Sao Paulo / Brazil... bye bye

Anonymous said...

I'm waking up from an obsessive collecting period where I hoarded a large number of "backup parts" for about 5 bikes. My obsessive mind found it important to troll eBay and Craigslist and collect sets of backup cranks, derailleurs, tires; at least 2 of everything. Just for backup in case something broke, but realistically, why do I need a collection of backup parts when I have backup BIKES? Just a consumerist compulsion (wow, that Race Face crank is so well made, a true example of vintage Canadian machining, and only 50 dollars?). Still, a relatively cheap compulsion.

Almost like this older guy I know who was born during the depression when there was never enough to go around and now finds it difficult to part with the original cartons containing consumer goods like coffee makers etc., because you never know when you might need to send something back to the factory (even though the factory's most likely in China and he threw that coffee maker about three years ago anyway). He's got two old acras and two old backup cars.

Now I feel choked out by all the excess stuff I collected and I want to get rid of most of it. (It's not like one of those tv shows where they go into an obsessive hoarder's house and find piles of newspapers and hoardes of cats, but I have too much stuff.) The funny thing is, I'm not strapped for money and I could afford to actually throw it all away in about five minutes, but I am horrified by that and will be taking several weeks to photograph the parts, eBay them, collect payment, send them off, and wait for feedback. All for about $500.

It's illogical. But to some part of me, it makes sense.

Anonymous said...

New reader as well. I just had a conversation with a friend abt the stress we inflict on ourselves with our want/need cycles. My goal is to simplify, simplify. Then live with intention. Make my choices and own, enjoy and love the right now! Thanks for your insight.

kfg said...

I'll hoard parts, but it's specifically because I don't want to upgrade or yearn for the "new and improved" model.

I'm not old enough to remember Depression 1.0, but I was raised by people who certainly did and I can smell 2.0 coming. There's an old saying, "If you find something you like, buy two, because they'll stop making it."

Schwinn sold a lot of bikes and tires in 1941 to people who remembered The Big One.

I'll also offer a tip; things aren't consumed when you buy them, they are consumed when you dispose of them. If you don't want those old parts passing them to someone who is going to use them is the thing to do, otherwise you're just being a pointless consumer.