The Real Life Survival Guide: Stuff

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Words have meanings. “Stuff” is both verb and noun, and both its uses have a generically unpleasant sensibility.


Beloved icons of past eras are neither “stuff,” nor do we “stuff” them anywhere. But the last 50 years have created more stuffed stuff than all millennia prior. Our consumer culture, where our economy is spent in volumized acquisition, has the unfortunate byproduct of “stuff.”


Big Box stores provide more “stuff” at cheaper prices. We are bombarded with messages to buy “stuff.” Our cyber world tracks not only our purchases but our unfulfilled desires to buy “stuff” and then targets those patterns of acquisition and fantasy with pinpointed missiles of seduction on Facebook, spam, and even the ads that pop-up on any site we visit…


And yet our national credit card debt is going down. It turns out to get “stuff” you need some form of money, borrowed and earned, and as our net worths have tanked by about a third, it turns out our hunger for “stuff” is self-regulating.


There is a fine line between desire and entitlement. Our culture regularly crosses that line – and our “stuff” reflects that. If one is good, three are better and 12 is an “investment.”  This week, The Real Life Survival Guide touched on the fact that we often have a bigger hunger for “stuff” than what we can manage, let alone afford.


There comes a point where we go broke, not in terms of money, but in terms of our capacity to cope with too much “stuff.” “Organizing Systems” are now a cottage industry, with experts, gatherings and, of course, products.


All of these retroactive make-up calls for having gone on “stuff” benders are flailing attempts to control attitudes that have abandoned rationality in a rush to satiate some inner hole with “stuff.”


You cannot fill emotional holes with “stuff.” Or food.  Or the wrong partner. Or politics. Emotional holes are filled with knowing who you are, not who you, or all those “stuff” purveyors, want you to want to be.


So pull back. Feel the truth. Your “stuff” either reflects what you value or how much your life falls short of them.


Words have meaning – “stuff” is the textureless, undifferentiated, bland matter that we could care less about, and when we “stuff” away that “stuff,” it’s to get it out of sight, and thus out of mind.


Purge if that’s you, organize if you love what you have, but do not let guilt paralyze you or think anything you buy will change your life. “Stuff,” in the end, is just “stuff.”



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Duo Dickinson, architect, has designed and built over 500 projects in over a dozen states in the last 30 years. Dickinson sits on seven not-for-profit boards, including the New Haven Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, and Madison Cultural Arts.  Twenty to 30 percent of the ongoing work in his office is dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, totaling over 50 projects for over 30 organizations over the last 25 years. He is the architecture and urban design contributor to the New Haven Register and the contributing writer in design for New Haven Magazine, and has been contributing editor in home design for Money Magazine and co-host of 14-part CNN/Money website series “Home Work.” He is the author of seven books on home design, including his most recent book, Staying Put, which was published in 2011 by Taunton Press. Mr. Dickinson has taught at Yale College, Roger Williams University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design Summer Program, and has lectured at dozens of universities, AIA associations, and national conventions and gatherings.


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