When I’m choosing how to spend my free time, the hardest choice is picking between new and exciting or old faithful. It’s a choice with infinite branches that touches on every aspect of our lives—eating, working, playing, exercising, all of it. In a broad sense, we stick with the tried and true because that’s what the world rewards. If you want a good job, you need to develop skills in a small number of fields, not branch out. You can’t change careers every year if you want to get to the top. This is also true for developing any uncapped skill, whether or not it’s used professionally. I revisit writing every day, rather than say, going to law school. No matter how good I get at writing, I can always get better.
The same isn’t true when we’re consuming a product or piece of art. When I drink Coke, it’s going to taste like itself every time. I may or may not want that taste, my desire changing based on a variety of factors. Likewise, when I read a book, there’s only so much I can get out of it. There are more layers to uncover in a good book versus in drinking a Coke (I have no idea how to describe Coke as anything but itself). What’s more, the first time I consume something is almost always the best time I’ve consumed it. The experience is fresh, firing off synapses in my brain that have existed precisely for this one fleeting moment.
Thus, I’m struck with a dilemma that has dogged me worse and worse with each passing year. It’s a challenge that has grown exponentially in difficulty since I read my first book, played my first video game, and watched my first movie. Though this dilemma applies to traveling as well, it’s a different beast because of factors like finances, safety, politics, etc. So I mainly think about this dilemma in terms of creative arts.
The reason this problem continues to grow exponentially is because with every year, I find more things I like. With every year, more awesome artists create more awesome things. Tastes are subjective, but for most people, there were more good books, video games, TV shows, and movies made last decade than in any decade previous. And I expect the 2020s to surpass that again, barring World War III. Storytelling continues to evolve (like getting rid of head-hopping), with storytellers learning from their predecessors what works and what doesn’t. Artists also love to try new things and inevitably, some of that innovation will stick.
It makes my life as a consumer wonderful.
It makes my life as a consumer miserable.
FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is a term commonly ascribed to this. Generally, it corresponds to missing out on a new experience. The thing is, it can be just as applicable to an old favorite. In the past twenty years, I’ve played Baldur’s Gate 2, read Dune, and watched Office Space multiple times. Every time, I get something fresh out of them. I experience them at a new stage of life, whether it’s due to my personal growth or changes in the world at large. With a video game like Baldur’s Gate, I literally play the game with a different set of main characters. It’s like reading your favorite book with a new protagonist each time (albeit with less depth than a fixed-protagonist story provides).
This new vs. old decision starts before you even engage with the artwork itself. When I choose to read a review, I am simultaneously choosing not to go deeper into something I’m already familiar with (which would include a book I’m currently reading, not just ones I’ve finished). Trailers, posters, popular/critical opinions, and the artists themselves all shape how we experience a story for the first time, regardless of the medium. Sometimes, these experiences lead to us not watching/reading/playing the item in question, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced something new.
Imagine standing in front of 1,000,000 portals, with worlds that on average provide enough content (including re-experiences) to last 50 hours. That’s 5,707 years if you did nothing else but indulge yourself. Given that cursory Google searches tell me there are 500k movies, 817k TV shows, 5 million video games, and over 100 million books, it’s safe to say this number of “portals” is much larger. Obviously, a lot of these works are considered . . . not good by the majority of humans. But a ton of them are quality creations worth more than the time they require.
This all circles back to this post’s topic. You have your favorite book/game/show/movie. I have mine. How are we supposed to choose between picking up those old favorites once again and something that could become an old favorite? What’s more, how do you decide your minimum level of commitment? Some people need several reviews before writing off a particular story.
I tend to read reviews, even when I have a stack of unread books and unplayed video games. I read reviews even for things that very likely aren’t for me. A fair conclusion is that I like living vicariously through others. But in reality, I’m simultaneously seeking a reason to buy it and a reason to cross it off my list for good. I just want to make a decision on it. I want to exhaust what’s behind as many portals as I can (keeping in mind that what may take me 10 minutes may take you 10 hours, and vice versa).
But what’s the value in a number like that? Breadth has appeal. Exposing myself to as many new aspects of the world as possible fuels much of my growth. I don’t need much exposure to an atrocity to see it for what it is. Depth, though, lets me feel it on a personal level. It lets me live it. No amount of breadth can make up for depth on a topic, but opting for depth leaves me ignorant of the broader world.
The truth is that there is no right answer. “Missing out” is both inherent to every decision and a grossly misleading term. What matters is if the world responds in a meaningful way. To use a real-world example, if you worked hard at your job and kept making less money, you’d probably find somewhere else to work (unfortunately, not a possibility for everyone). But what is meaning when it comes to creative works? That’s a broad question without an encyclopedic entry. Meaning is something that resonates with you as an individual. It makes your soul feel whole.
I think that’s all we can do in making this decision between old favorites and potentially new ones. Listen to what makes our soul feel good. If reading every Wikipedia entry in existence exactly once does it for you, great. If playing the same 5 video games or watching the same 5 TV shows on repeat does it for you, also great. Listen to what puts your soul at ease. Don’t try to strangle every ounce of entertainment from every purchase or constantly jump to the new thing. What works for others doesn’t necessarily work for you. You’ll never have enough time to fully explore what’s behind every portal, so feel free to explore each portal as you deem fit.