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Collector's Fallacy

Brendon Otto
Brendon Otto

Have you ever heard of a new concept and it described you or your behavior so well that it stopped you in your tracks? This recently happened to me and I wanted to tell you about the Collector's Fallacy.

To give some background, I am someone who is an information hoarder. I collect ebooks, articles, videos, browser tabs like toilet paper before a pandemic (too soon?). This saving of resources and even categorizing them with tags or organizing into lists is a form of wasted energy. The material I've gathered for so long isn't actually making me smarter, it's a form of being in motion but not taking action. If I were to use the material then I'd be in action, I'd be building software or making things in the garage or making videos or taking pictures. Instead I allow it to collect dust and continue to search for new information that I won't use to actually do something with it.

So when I was watching a YouTube video by Shu Omi talking about this concept, it felt super uncomfortable because he was basically describing me and my pattern of behavior. He outlines my exact behavior of impulse buying books and courses (Udemy courses anyone?). I've completed a few courses and books but that number is very small compared to the rate that they are purchased. While examining this I also noticed that I have a tendency do this in other non-digital areas too. I buy all kinds of electronic components, tools and other equipment with grand plans to use them in the near future. Yet years have done by and I have yet to use them, some are still in their original package!

Great! I've identified a problem, what am I going to do about it? Here are my three ideas of how to help this pattern of collecting information instead of using it:

The first step would be to let go of the idea that "you'll get to it all". In a perfect world I'd read every book and every article I've ever come across but my time on earth is finite. There are people I'd rather spend time with than read another top five things to know about a technology article. This type of information can become obscelete really quickly too when a language, library or popular project ships a major change now I need to learn the differences. An example of this that I've stopped doing is trying to keep up with all three big front end JavaScript frameworks (Vue, React and Angular). I only use one on a regular basis and if my day job changes to one that I'm not using, I'll learn it then. Actually using the framework to ship code will allow me to learn much faster than simply consuming content on the various gotchas or tricks of one of them. This touches on a larger concept of creating over consuming. There's so much more to be gained by making and creating over consuming. You learn better because you build experience and our brains are wired to remember experience better than words on a page. Anything that I have built or done is much easier to share with others than something I read once. Blogging is part of my plan to create in place of consuming.

When one wants to invest time into reading deeply or researching a topic, pick a foundational topic. Each professional field has foundational concepts that are very important to that field. For example if you're a programmer knowing how a computer works will help you. Knowing various data structures that you see frequently and their trade offs (because there are always trade offs) will help in your work. Or if you are primarily focused on one langauage, know that langauage really well will pay dividends. If you're a film maker knowing composition of frame, audio leveling and editing video are foundational skills to have. Photographers also need to know how to compose a frame and expose a picture correctly in order to create art. With these foundations in place one can focus on producing better art but then also experiment with breaking the rules to push their creations in new directions. Foundations of a field rarely change, that's why their foundational, and so investing in them is a low maintenance task. They are also common which means your knowledge is used more frequently and your brain will work to ingrain it in you.

My last way to combat Collector's Fallacy is to teach what your investing your time in. Share articles that you like to Twitter, Discord or other areas. Write up responses to articles on a blog or start a discussion on a social platform. This will force you to assess ideas from other perspectives that you hadn't thought of and push your understanding deeper. By writing or sharing something you're forcing yourself to organize your thoughts and ideas enough to discuss or teach it to someone else. This process will expose areas you don't understand as well as you originally thought. If you have children, explain something you're working on at their level. This is a big challenge as you'll discover how much context one might need to have in order to understand. I do this with my kids when they ask what I'm working on during the workday. There's so much they aren't aware of and it forces me to explain my work in simple terms anyone can understand. Richard Feynman used this technique so often that it's now named after him.

To be clear, I am constantly struggling with this. I still go on article frenzies where I save everything to Instapaper and know that it's building up. I have put a stop to the impulse buying of Udemy courses for the most part. They have done an excellent job of getting me to purchase courses that are $9.99-$11.99 because it's so inexpensive but I haven't completed a new one in quite a while. I also have stopped purchasing technical books as most languages and frameworks are so well documented on their sites. Technical books now provide the value of walking through building an application instead of documenting the technology. Please don't beat yourself up if you slip and start collecting information instead of using it. I do it frequently and need to gently remind myself that I won't get to most of it (●'◡'●).