Builders and Buyers

By John Piotti | Jul 17, 2014

I had a college buddy named JR who I often heard say “There are two kinds of people in this world,” before flippantly adding, “Those who think there are two kinds of people in this world, and those who don’t.”

Always the wit, JR was, of course, verbally skewering all of us who tend to pigeonhole people into one of two camps. Bravo, JR, for pushing his college friends to think a little deeper.

Still, I’m not ready to abandon the impulse to divide the world in this simplistic way — not completely. Sure, any dichotomous categorization has limitations, but it can at times also prove enlightening.

When our kids were still quite young, I made the point of stressing to them that our world is comprised of “builders” and “buyers” — and that they should aspire to be “builders.” On one level, I was saving the family some money, discouraging our children from thinking of stores as the only source of good stuff, urging them, instead, to make gifts for others and toys for themselves, ideally from items they found in the woods or at the seashore or laying around the house. But on a deeper level, my convictions here had nothing to do with money. Rather, I wanted our kids to feel the pride and satisfaction that comes from making things — and in so doing, become more self-sufficient and live more sustainably than the average American.

After all these years, it’s clear that the lessons have taken hold. My daughter Anna makes her lunch every day and all her gifts every Christmas. Beyond this, she is a true scavenger who has pieced together her wardrobe from what others have discarded. When she needs to buy something, she goes to GoodWill. My son John is a different animal, in that he doesn’t possess the same aversion to buying things — though he mostly buys what he needs to make things. John is clearly a builder. Last week he completed a computer program to solve the Rubik cube — and he just ordered the parts to build a robot, which will manually follow that program. Meanwhile, we are in the middle of repairing one old boat and building a new one. The boat work we can often do together, but the computer programming is far beyond me.

I see the applicability of this “builder” vs. “buyer” concept on many levels. For instance, I think about the 186 year old house we live in. During the 27 years we’ve owned it, we have always had some home improvement project underway. Then, just two years ago, we invested big money — in new sills, siding, systems, windows, etc. — to help ensure that the building will stay standing for at least another hundred years. There is no question in my mind that we could have bought a newer house of similar size for less money than we now have invested in this property — and that’s just the investment in cash, not to mention our commitment of time over so many years. But that’s not the point. We have an obligation to this old house — and thus we would never walk away from it just because a new model could be purchased more reasonably.

As you can see, my motivation in adhering to this philosophy is clearly not to save money. We may have saved a little when our toddlers didn’t expect store-bought toys. But more often than not, the mindset that comes with being a builder does not result in financial savings.

The essence of being a builder is this idea that you try to make what you have better. And if that proves impractical, being a builder is about making do. It’s certainly not about running after that next bright shiny object.

I can apply the same concept to the communities in which people live. Some people seek to buy into the community with the best features they can afford — be that the best homes, best schools, best neighbors, or whatever. If they get to a point where those features no long meet their requirements, or where they can now afford more, they simply move along. But other people — what I call builders — would respond to these changed circumstances differently, by working to improve their community, by working to build it up.

So, are you a builder or a buyer? Here are some descriptions that may help you decide.

Builders plant gardens. Builders prepare their own meals, often using whole foods and scratch ingredients. Builders try to repair things others would have long discarded. Builders often sing and play instruments, rather than just listen to the music that others make. Many builders sketch or paint — if just for fun. Builders may write songs or books or newspaper columns. Builders make things out of wood and paper and fabric and metal and anything else they can obtain. Builders seldom buy what they can make — and the best builders can make just about anything.

Builders make the world a better place — or at least they try to.

Of course, the divide I describe between builders and buyers is contrived, and somewhat false. We are all both builders and buyers. Still, I see value in pulling the two apart. It emphasizes the nobility of the builder in this modern society where the consumer is king.

By the way, my friend JR is a builder himself. An engineer by profession who makes beautiful furniture as a hobby — he appreciates the art of building. I recall a trip to Maine where he was so taken by the craftsmanship he saw in the wooden boats — not only the odd assortment scattered throughout our barn, but many others I pointed out wherever we went. He was visiting me, so he saw many boats.

Maine has a long history of making things — and of self-reliance. Maine is also one of the few places left in this country that retains a strong sense of community — one where people stay put; one where many people work to make the place better. I see all this as connected. We have stronger communities here in Maine in part because we tinker and fix and make things. The world needs more of us.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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