We're Not Getting Any Younger
A couple of days ago, one of my friends alarmed me with his contention, “You know, we’re not getting any younger.” Although it happened inside my head, politeness demanded I not scream, “R‑E‑A‑L‑L‑Y? Where in the world did you get THAT idea?”
The truth is, we have all used the phrase ourselves. It is simply a way of telling ourselves we need to make changes. We need to re-examine what we’re doing. We need to re-think our approaches. We need to revise our ideas in the face of advancing years and, hopefully, improving wisdom.
With my little cataloging project now over twenty five years old, I have had the tremendous fortune of corresponding with hundreds of collectors. In that period, only a microscopic handful have contributed and corresponded over periods of more six or eight years. I am not sure what happens, but most of my correspondents seem to fade away after four or five years. With the exception of the collectors whom I learn have passed away, there is rarely a finality to our relationships.
I had one enthusiastic contributor who moved to another continent and he found that collecting U.S. railroad certificates from that distance was too difficult. A couple more complained about maltreatment from their regular sellers and quit the hobby. Fortunately, their choices have proven unusual. More often — in fact, almost all the time — I hear complaints about the difficulty in finding new material. I have talked about that subject in great length before, but I feel it’s time to add a couple more observations before I lose any more valuable correspondents, contributors and friends.
Look, I do not care one bit if you want to switch from my specialty to another. Or, in fact, if you choose to switch from the scripophily hobby to another. I will be the first to advise you to do exactly that if it means continuing your enjoyment of collecting another decade or two.
However, instead of giving up all your hard-won knowledge of trends, traps and topics, why not make a minor shift of focus instead of a cataclysmic overhaul? Most experienced collectors seem to have developed focuses on specifics topic or geographic regions. To me, that form of collecting seems pitifully easy to modify. Here’s an idea. Look over your collection up to now and look for the items that don’t seem to fit with everything else. Is there some feature that attracted your interest that you never paid attention to? What made you collect those kinds of off-topic items in the first place? What if you purposely started expanding into those areas?
In my experience, collectors who burned out the quickest were the ones who tried to collect everything. Virtually all of them wanted to acquire everything immediately.
Unless the goal was to spend the maximum amount of money possible, trying to collect everything was like Don Quixote with a checkbook. With that approach, a collector could spend a great amount of time buying, buying, buying and end up with a collection of little meaning.
Maybe it’s pragmatism. Maybe it’s a philosophy of life. Maybe it’s making do with insufficient funds. It just seems to me that the clearer the focus, the greater the enjoyment and the sweeter the success. Our hobby is typified by staggering rarity across the board, so raw acquisition is a recipe for discontent and failure.
In our hobby, the vast majority of varieties are represented by very, very few examples. In my particular North American railroad specialty, I have identified 20,268 identifiably different certificates. Of that number, 60% (!!!!) seem to be represented by only two or fewer examples. I suspect most specialties display similar statistics.
Admittedly, we can never know how many non-numbered certificates or identically-numbered specimens might exist, so I will decrease that statistic by half to 30%. How popular would coin collecting be if half of all varieties of coins were represented by only one or two examples?
Let’s say there were only two collectors in the entire world that collected certificates in my specialty and both were rich beyond measure. Would you be surprised to learn that almost exactly half of all varieties recorded so far are represented by a single example? I’m okay with someone arguing to decrease that number to 25%. Just don’t try to tell me that some collector could ever collect them all! Sooner rather than later, the richest collector in the world would run out of new material.
Going back to my personal insistence on focus, I propose that instead of whining about the lack of items to collect, we focus on contributing to the enjoyment of the hobby. Yes, collecting hobbies are all about acquisition. We can do very little about that. As collectors, we are all inflicted with the collecting gene. I get it!
By why not start looking at what we have collected already? How can we add to our collections? Maybe we can add precursor companies to our collections. Maybe we can try to collect all combinations of signatory names. Maybe we can research corporate intentions and reasons for failures and successes. Maybe we can collect peripheral documents and artifacts. Maybe we can research and write about out discoveries.
I already hear some of you whimpering, “All that sounds like work and it will probably not matter one whit!” I actually agree with you. Your (and my!) work will probably not matter at all. But so what? You have already started something. You may not know exactly what that something is, and you may not know where you’re going, but you’ll never know unless you keep going.
The point is that all of us obsessed collectors can realize a truly staggering number of possibilities as soon as we stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get on with what we have already started.