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The Problem With Loyalty

Today's update is another not-really-writing-related entry in my Writing Journal.  (I know... after last week's treatise, it's starting to look like I don't even have a Writing Journal.)  But it's tangentially related, and it comes in time for Lulabelle's first birthday.  (Happy birthday, sunshine!  Show the world your beautiful face!)


(Close enough.)

Today I wanted to write a little bit about one of the most important lessons I've learned as a consumer of media and technology, and one that I think everybody could stand to learn.  Especially young people who just got their hands on some money for the first time and want to spend it before it goes bad.

There's a well-known tendency for people to view the world in terms of poles and opposites.  You're either a Mac person or a PC person.  You're a Ford guy or a Chevy guy.  You're a Pixar fan or a Dreamworks fan.  You're either into Star Wars or you're into Star Trek.  And so on.

Now, it would be pretty shallow of me to just casually say, "Don't do that."  I'm not the first person to suggest that it's a bad idea to view the world in extremes, so even though that's basically my point today, I want to say it with a little more empathy.  I understand how it happens - it's a perfectly natural train of thought.

I think it normally starts because any time you make a choice, whether it's major or not, you want to feel like you made the right one.  There's a feeling of safety with numbers, so you find yourself allying with other people who made your same choice.  If you just spent $18,000 on a car, it's incredibly comforting when not just one, but thousands, or maybe even millions of other buyers say, "Oh, good, you got a Toyota.  They're awesome."  Suddenly, you're no longer in debt for five figures - you are the owner of a Recognized Good Product.

Most of us recognize that it's possible for multiple competing things to be Good Products.  Where it starts to become a problem is when you decide you no longer just want a Good Product - you want the Best product.  The thing about "The Best" is that, by definition, there can only be one.  And suddenly you have to categorize the entire world into two camps: the "best" things and everything else.

And that's where you start to turn into an asshole.

When you need The Best, you start turning your nose up at perfectly acceptable alternate solutions.  Worse: you start ignoring the very real flaws of what you have.  You become complacent.  You become an echo chamber to yourself.  And soon you find yourself entrenched in loyalty to one particular brand or name or artist or franchise or cause, and you build up an unreachable mythology.

When that mythology shatters - and they easily can - it hurts.  It sounds silly to say, but it really does.  I've recounted before my teenage obsessions with the Final Fantasy series of video games, which led to what is, without exaggerating, a life-changing event when I saw The Spirits Within in theaters and realized it was actually kind of a crappy movie.  That only happened because I decided that Final Fantasy was "The Best" series of video games and I became fiercely loyal to it.

Ugh... it still hurts to look at it.
I can only wonder what would have happened if I had that same kind of loyalty to everything. What if I decided that Five Guys was "The Best" burger chain and then I had a pretty good Whopper one day?  Would I have freaked out so badly at my sudden lack of direction that I joined the army?

Just the other day I was talking with my in-laws about Apple products and it occurred to me that ten years ago I probably would've been a whiny jerk and said that Apple could go screw off.  Today I just shrug.  Apple makes good stuff.  Microsoft makes good stuff.  Google makes good stuff.  Everybody makes good stuff.  I use both a Windows PC and a Mac OS X desktop throughout the course of every work day, and they both have merits.  I've been satisfied with phones from every major brand.  I drive a Nissan at the moment and I like it no better or worse than the Ford and the Toyota I previously owned.  (I do like it better than the Eagle Talon I once had, but that's only because that specific Talon was ancient and had some significant issues, including a drive belt that refused to stay put.)

When I hear anybody rally around brand loyalty or franchise loyalty today - "DC comics suck!  Marvel's the best!" - I'm just baffled.  To me, it's like saying that you only watch Paramount movies or you only watch Universal movies.  Do you really have to choose between Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park?  Wouldn't it be a shame to lose either one?  Why would you want to live in a world where you are arbitrarily confined to one or the other?

The world is so richly complex and diverse in experiences that it wants to offer to us that I can no longer comprehend the idea of being loyal to any one particular Thing.  There's just so much beauty and joy to behold to waste your time clinging to a narrow, simple-minded definition of The Best.

I don't care whether you're talking about food, electronics, beds, books, sneakers, or ideas.  Don't be an idiot.  Don't choose a side.  Find things you like, enjoy them, and don't be afraid to try other things that you might like.  Life's not as difficult as you're making it out to be.

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