Experiences, Not Stuff: From Parenting to Business

angry childLast weekend my wife forwarded me an article that hit her right between the eyes. And to be honest, it did for me as well. It was a parenting piece that focused on one of the rampant problems we deal with in our house: toys. The gist of the piece is that our kids have enough toys and that buying them more just makes them more bored and more hungry for the next thing. It doesn’t satisfy them and provide lasting joy that one would expect from all the advertisement (and the whining that may occur prior to the purchase). The author’s alternative recommendation?

If you insist on giving an actual item, give them a book that you loved as a child. Write your favorite memory about the book in the front. Then read it to them after they open it. You really can’t have too many books.

Buy them experiences. My kids love the zoo and museums. They love taking community education classes and music lessons. Support them in their passions and support them exploring the world instead of acquiring more stuff. Bonus points if you take them to the activity. But if you don’t, I’ll remind them of who lovingly purchased that karate class for them, and they will appreciate your thoughtful gift.

When you think about it, none of us need more “stuff,” do we? There are people in need, of course, but my kids aren’t those people. In fact, I’m trying to teach them about how fortunate they are, and that they should be grateful for what they have, but it’s hard to do that when they’re being spoiled with toys by all their relatives.

I want to transition this to apply it to the workplace, because I think there are several angles that fit our needs.

First, in this incessant focus on creating a great environment for employees, some companies are trying to throw “things” in the mix to drive engagement. Research tells us that doesn’t work. In fact, even paying people more just causes a temporary boost in happiness only for a few weeks, then their level returns to pre-bump levels. It’s important that we’re creating great employee experience as well as a great candidate experience.

Second, this author’s comments about experiences versus things is a great reminder of what matters to people and what they remember. That keychain or coozy that has your company’s logo on it? It won’t create long-term feelings of affection. The fun trip someone won to celebrate their anniversary with their spouse? Those memories last a lifetime (hint: I know, because I won one of these and we still talk about it years later!)

A few tips for managers. Going back to the author’s specific recommendations, give someone a book with a handwritten note about why it mattered to you or how it affected your life. Double whammy: handwritten note and a tool that may help to improve their life/career. You know my philosophy on books mirrors that of Charlie Jones:

The difference in who you are today and who you are five years from now depends on the people you meet and the books you read.

The experiences are incredibly valuable, and you don’t have to break the bank. It could be internal activities like competitions or even just fun while celebrating the monthly birthdays. We used to have a tradition where our CEO would tell funny stories from his time in the military while the rest of us gathered for cake and ice cream. Or we’d pop open the conference room computer and let people pick their favorite YouTube videos to share with the group, which often led to laughs and more inside jokes. :-)

Whether you’re in parenting mode or just working to create a work environment that people actually want to participate in, these ideas are going to help you to make it happen. What are your thoughts, whether on the parenting front or in the office? Do you agree? 

2 thoughts on “Experiences, Not Stuff: From Parenting to Business

  1. Good stuff, Ben! Experiences, not stuff was my parenting philosophy and so true about extending this to the workplace and the employee experience. My favorite workplace memories don’t surround choosing my anniversary gift from a corporate catalog. It’s the impromptu kickball game on the lawn, the personalized birthday signs, the monthly outings to baseball games and trampoline parks. The relationships I built kept me at that company longer than I would have thought…

  2. This advice also beyond childhood and the workplace; it applies to life in general. A sizable amount of research shows that experiences are more valuable in a number of ways than “things” or material goods. More specifically, long-term/sustained happiness itself seems to have more to do with experiences (and the quality of relationships with others) than material goods such as expensive cars or electronics. So, thank you for drawing parallels to the workplace.

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