Sunday, May 04, 2008

Consumerism vs Discipline and our personal satisfaction

Andy Crouch, the editorial director at Christianity Today gave a very interesting talk tonight at the ECPA Leadership Conference, on how he thinks our culture is shifting from one of consumerism to one of creationism. If I was to boil his talk down into one sentence, I would say that his long view of things is that we as a society are becoming less and less satisfied by the short term "thrill" we get from consuming products, and are starting to move toward the longer term "thrill" of earning things.

Andy interestingly correlated satisfaction over time, and seemed to make the point that "high point" in our satisfaction comes either at the point of acquisition of a consumer product, or very shortly after. Then satisfaction drops precipitously. This causes us to want to consume more in order to keep ourselves at a high satisfaction level. I think that Andy is spot on in this assessment. I would also add that the more we consume, the shorter the thrill, and so we end up in a bad spiral. Any parent who has lovingly bought presents for a child at Christmas can appreciate this as they watch the kids discard things often within minutes of being opened.

The other interesting point that Andy made was that there is what he calls a 'discipline curve'. In the discipline curve, general satisfaction is very low at the beginning but grow substantially over time as we gain skill and strength at some ability that it takes time to cultivate. Andy used the example of learning to play the piano, and how difficult (and unsatisfying) it was in the beginning, but after years of discipline, he has come to be proud of his abilities, and his high level of satisfaction lasts for years and years.

Andy tried to correlate money to these two seeming opposing forces, and I don't think I agreed with his assessment that the consumer does not spend very much on his long term satisfaction after he or she has attained a certain level. His own example of spending @25,000 on a grand piano seems to contradict that argument, as he probably didn't spend $25,000 on lessons to achieve his ability. In my experience, what I see is that people tend to try and balance their dissatisfaction with their early abilities (on the discipline curve) by consuming related products, to make themselves feel better, or to feel as though they will come up the curve faster.

This is where I really see the economic opportunity. If we are going to learn new things and create new things, then we will probably buy things surrounding that area of interest.

What does this mean for books and media? I think it spells great opportunity for products that teach us things, or enhance our learning experience. In our 24x7 world, people need help at odd times, and do not often have the luxury of regular schedules. Anything in the online learning space that is available as self serve, whenever the consumer needs it is going to do very well.

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