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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Mindless Collecting as Reverse Alchemy

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A blogger I encountered some time ago argues against something he calls the "collector's fallacy." The author argues that collecting things might feel like progress, but that it can hinder the pursuit of one's goals. His point reminds me of a connection I made long ago when playing cards in college: Being very long in a suit can, in some ways and circumstances, resemble being very short in it, because other players will be unlikely to lead it. Years later, I likewise noticed that my in-laws, who had moved a lot, had several copies of tape measures, screw drivers, and other tools. These were all things that are usually needed upon moving into a house -- but which they'd end up buying at moving-in time because they had been packed away.

Having too much stuff or having it organized badly (or both!) gets in the way of using it, on top of wasting storage space, money, and time. The author's example of the graduate student who copies large numbers of papers that he ends up not reading will ring a bell for many; and his example of bookmarking material on the web that also doesn't get read will cover almost everyone else. Although I wouldn't call anything a "reward in itself" and have other reservations about some of what the author says, I think his proposed remedy for this common practice is worth considering:

hoarding.jpg
It doesn't have to be this bad to be a problem. (Image via Wikipedia.)
Shorter cycles of research, reading, and knowledge assimilation are better than long ones. With every full cycle from research to knowledge assimilation, we learn more about the topic. When we know more, our decisions are more informed, thus our research gets more efficient. If, on the other hand, we take home a big pile of material to read and process, some of it will turn out be useless once we finished parts of the pile. To minimize waste, both of time and of paper, it's beneficial to immerse oneself step by step and learn on the way instead of making big up-front decisions based on guesswork.
More broadly, I think one should keep one's purpose in mind more deliberately when acquiring anything, and proportionally to the cost of maintaining the collection. Too many physical objects take up space for example. Time spent hunting for things to bookmark could have been spent profiting from some of that knowledge.

This is not to say that noting material one may or may not use -- or even surfing the web -- is inherently bad. I think letting one's mind wander from time to time can aid creativity, for example. But that, too, can be done more purposefully, be it by setting aside specific times or circumstances for doing so, and creating a regular routine for review, organization, and weeding-out.

-- CAV

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