Beyond 99 Things

February 2016

Two years ago I made a list of the 99 things that I owned. The list no longer matches reality, and my philosophy has diverged from the philosophy espoused by the list.

So what happened? I built a homestead. Not literally, but I did sign a lease for an entire year, and I set about making that apartment into a home. The apartment didn’t come with any furniture, so the obvious solution was to learn how to build some - a dresser and a bed and a dining table and a knife board for the kitchen. And the kitchen wasn’t about to go to waste, so I outfitted it with real place settings and cookware.

Should those all count as things? Certainly by any reasonable definition. And what about the drill, and the measuring tape, and the engineer’s square? These were all useful acquisitions, and I wasn’t about to part with a pair of underpants in order to make sure that my angles were all 90 degrees.

I realized that my embrace of 99 things was rooted in a rejection of the cheap and the disposable. When I did outfit the kitchen, I bought plates and bowls that I wanted to use for a very long time. It wasn’t a coincidence that the original list included the age of each item, with some going back over ten years. Sticking to those principles was more important than any actual number.

I also realized that if you adhere literally to the limit of 99 things, it often forces you to make compromises with other peoples’ values.

Don’t own a real water bottle? You’ll end up buying and wasting a lot of plastic.

Don’t own pots and pans and cooking utensils? You’ll end up eating out a lot at best, and at worst you’ll grow accustomed to eating bad food.

Don’t own a drill or other tools? You’ll be less likely to tinker and build things. You can rent or borrow the tools, and rent the expertise from a contractor. But you won’t know if they did a good job.

This line of thought branches out quickly to other areas of life. Don’t want to “own” the map of the city in your head, and just “rent” it by blindly following the expertise of the map service of your choice? You won’t know the place as well and you’ll never get lost in a good way.

Don’t want to “own” your travel by doing the legwork yourself, and instead just throw money at the problem by buying a prepackaged itinerary? You’ll forget the experience by the time you buy the next one.

To me these are all the same choice. The common thread is that with each incorrect choice, you lose autonomy in one way or another.

But back to 99 things. It’s not so much that the underlying philosophy has changed; I’ve just identified the real motivating principles and updated the implementation details accordingly.

Coincidentally, everything I own once more fits into my car (I sold the furniture but kept the drill and its friends). This may seem to contradict everything else I just said, but you’ve caught me in a transitional period and I’m preparing to build a home that reflects this philosophy. It will contain more than 99 things.