What we can’t spend

Some things, like money, time, and effort, are scarce resources that need careful budgeting to be used optimally. Some of those, like effort and attention, can return stronger after resting from difficult use, as if they’ve been built up like a muscle through exercise, which makes the calculus of optimizing how much and when to spend them more complicated.

But other resources can never be spent at all, because using them just makes more. Love is one example: while the time and energy that go into loving someone can be spent, the love itself only grows through use. (Shakespeare’s Juliet says of love, “the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”) But beyond romantic love, each new person you care about increases your capacity for caring: I hear from new parents that while their children take up a lot of time and energy that used to be spent elsewhere, they discover in themselves a depth of love that they never knew existed.

Here are some more of these unspendable resources:

  • Joy: Choosing to look for the joy in your experiences costs nothing, and every success just makes the practice easier.
  • Wisdom: When you act in accordance with your values and principles, you can learn from the results and adjust your behavior. It’s when you don’t follow your own advice, and the negative results are just what you’d expect, that you don’t learn anything.
  • Skill/Intelligence: It’s up to you whether you think your intelligence can change with time, but certainly skill at any activity grows through the use of that skill. In Lois Lowry’s book “Messenger” (sequel to “The Giver”), Jonas tells a budding healer, “Wait for the true need, Matty. Don’t spend the gift.” What terrible advice!
  • Ideas: The way to have more ideas is to use the ones you have. I’ve heard the writing advice (I wish I could remember where!) to spend your best ideas, not to save them for an imagined perfect future work, and I’ve noticed from keeping track of my own blog post ideas that when I have a backlog of posts to write, it becomes much harder to think of new ones.
  • Contempt/Resentment: Not all of these unspendable resources are positive. While anger can diminish once expressed, the more you nurse contempt or resentment, the more the emotional distance between you and the target grows.

In spite of so many examples, this is still a phenomenon that’s hard to describe. We have so many words for how using something reduces it—spend, expend, exhaust, use up, deplete, to name a few—but almost no words for how using something can increase it. I feel like this concept has some overlap with tending, growing, or cultivating, but that makes me picture the effort that goes into growing a tomato so that you can eat the tomato later, whereas a closer analogy would be if eating tomatoes is what got you more tomatoes in the first place. It’s also a little bit like investing in that money-making-more-money sort of way, but again, the situation I’m trying to describe would be more like a bank account that grows every time you buy something. Is this lack of suitable vocabulary some kind of cultural scarcity mindset? Do we all just figure, “We’ll never run out of these things, so why spend our effort thinking about them?”

Well, because we can run out of them. We can run out of ideas, we can stop loving, we can wonder when joy disappeared from our lives. The way to run out of an unspendable resource is to stop using it, letting its capacity gradually dwindle. And mixing up spendable anger with unspendable contempt can mean feeding your thoughts to a hunger that will never be satisfied.

One more thing to note about unspendable resources: they can all be spread from person to person without diminishing anyone’s supply. It’s easier to love others when you’re confident that you yourself are already loved; it’s easier to be joyful and creative when you’re around joyful, creative people; it’s easier to be resentful in a culture of resentment. Skills, of course, can be taught, and consider reading “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” if you’d like to experience someone’s intelligence rubbing off on you. These are gifts that cannot be hoarded; they must be given away to be kept.

3 thoughts on “What we can’t spend

  1. Thanks Owen, that was fun! I really like the bit about `spend your best ideas now, don’t save them’. On the other hand, sometimes it feels like ideas are not in a simple way a resource that one spends – to turn a vague idea into something that makes sense to other people can be a huge investment of time (as we have experienced…). So in some sense the advice feels more like `when it comes to spending time on your ideas, buy only the best that is currently available, don’t worry about a possibly-better/better-value idea coming in future’. But it’s less obvious if this is actually good advice – though probably it is…

    I have to quibble over `While anger can diminish once expressed…’ – does that really fit your experience? I’m not sure I’m convinced.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think individual ideas can be spent in the way you describe—this one for a bachelor project, that one for a conference talk, etc.—but I’ve definitely had the experience of finally deciding to work on something I’ve had vague impressions of and discovering as I go that I have many further questions to answer. So in that sense, ideas replace themselves as you use them, plus interest.

      As for anger, I do find that sometimes I just need to tell someone about the thing making me angry to feel better about it. (I’ve also had good results from “drawing my anger” on paper.) In another sense of spending anger, I find I can only be angry about so many world developments before it’s hard to muster even appropriate indignation. But at the same time, it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between spending the anger (or love, or joy) and spending the time/effort/opportunity that goes into it. It could be that anger itself is something that grows with use—or comes in amounts that have no relationship with your past usage—but also takes energy to use, and that makes it feel like you’re using it up.


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