Gear Acquisition Syndrome
28 May, 2023
Over the past few years I’ve become wary of a certain feeling related to my artistic hobbies like drawing and music production: the sense of excitement and “motivation” after I’ve acquired some new art-related material. It’s very easy to spend hours doodling with a new marker, writing in a fresh journal, or twiddling with a synth I’ve just bought. The next day, though, the new tool is a little less exciting, and so on, until it’s as normal as everything else.
In situations like these it seems easy to mistake the excitement of novelty for actual interest in an artistic process. I find it kind of scary to imagine accidentally convincing myself that creativity and motivation follows from having bought something new. Here’s an archetypal story of a situation I’m trying to avoid, based on my experiences with this subject across a few hobbies:
Painting is a large part of my identity. I think of myself as a painter, and the idea that I create paintings is almost existentially important to me. If I’m a painter and I don’t paint, then what even am I? There’s one problem: I haven’t painted anything in months. These days I never have any good ideas, and I’m rarely inspired or motivated to pick up a brush. One day I stumble across a video of someone painting with gouache. I feel something when I see that painting (inspiration, maybe?) and I’ve never used gouache before, so I head out to the art store to buy some. I arrive home excited to try these new paints. In the hours that follow I have fun fooling around, and the part of me that sees myself as a painter is satisfied: I’m doing the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. As days and weeks pass the excitement fades, and the pressures of everyday life eclipse my painting practise. One day I realise that I haven’t painted anything for a while. This realisation is as uncomfortable as ever: I am a painter, so if I haven’t been painting then what have I been doing with myself? I jump on Instagram to look for some inspiration, and the cycle repeats.
There’s a lot going on there: self-concept, motivation, shame, creativity, and conditioning all interacting. Right now I’m most interested in the way “getting new stuff” relates to motivation and creativity.
This topic came to mind recently after reading “When the Cymbals Come In” by Thorsten Ball where I was introduced to the term “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” (GAS). The blurb of “Gear Acquisition Syndrome: Consumption of Instruments and Technology in Popular Music” by Jan-Peter Herbst & Jonas Menze defines it very nicely:
Gear Acquisition Syndrome, also known as GAS, is commonly understood as the musicians’ unrelenting urge to buy and own instruments and equipment as an anticipated catalyst of creative energy and bringer of happiness.
Parts of GAS describe the relationship toward my tools that I’ve been trying to avoid. It’s relieving to find a concise, searchable term that gets me into the same “informational neighbourhood”. I found two interesting articles while exploring the topic through Google:
This Guitar World article suggests that this essay from 1996 popularised the terms “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” and “GAS”.
A neuroscientific, psychological, and slightly philosophy take on GAS from a photography perspective. I most enjoyed their take on the relationship between creativity and anxiety. Stress, fear, and shame around creative projects lead to avoidance1, and “gear acquisition” temporarily masks these emotions with a burst of excitement.
What to do about it?
I have some heuristics to avoid GAS. I don’t always follow them (but I hope that writing them down will increase my accountability to the idea), and being heuristics they necessarily don’t work for every situation. I’ll present them here as advice to my future selves.
Do the thing a lot
Demonstrate a commitment to the activity before you think about buying anything to support it. I place a lot of weight on enjoying the process, and when trying something new it’s easy to confuse the excitement of novelty with enjoyment of the activity. New toys compounds this. In the beginning it’s more important to make a habit out of the activity, or discover that you don’t actually like it.
Example: You’ve just started rock climbing with friends. Use the rental shoes at the climbing gym for a few months before buying your own.
Wear it out
One measure of commitment to an activity is whether you’re wearing out my gear and using up your materials. It’s important that this stays a measure, rather than a target, in the sense of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
Example: You use your cheap stand mixer at least twice a week and it’s starting to fall apart. It’s time to think about getting a higher-quality model.
Keep it simple
If you physically need gear to do the thing, start with cheap gear and keep research to the minimum. As a beginner you can’t percieve most of the differences between similar tools. Perceptual ability and taste only develop as your skills improve. It’s easy to get caught in “analysis paralysis”, comparing gear that would be indistinguishable to you in practise.
Example: You want to learn guitar. Use the crappy hand-me-down that your friend is giving away instead of buying your favourite player’s signature model.
Relief over excitement
As you become committed to an activity and your skills improve, you will start to notice real flaws and limitations in your current tools. These are no reason to stop doing the thing, and you can usually continue to improve without addressing them. At this point the experience you’ve gained will suggest specific properties you need from a different tool to overcome the limitations of your current one. Crappy gear or not, you are going to do the thing anyway. So when you finally get the better tool, you mostly feel relief from the benefits of using it, rather than excitement or “inspiration” to use it.
Example: Having played tennis weekly for the past 6 months with clunky hire racquets, you appreciate how light and responsive your new one feels while playing.
When I told my girlfriend about “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”, she taught me a Chinese phrase that has a similar meaning: “差生文具多”, which literally means “the poor student has lots of stationery”. It’s inspired by a hypothetical student who is not studying enough, so to get more motivation they go shopping for stationery (instead of studying). A student who does well, on the other hand, can study at any time with the simplest of materials. The phrase is an internet meme in China and we watched a few funny videos about gym-goers with too much fitness gear, home cooks with too many pots, and so on.