Yak shaving and watch collecting

Have you ever heard of the term “Yak shaving”? The term was supposedly coined by Carlin Vieri from MIT, but others attribute its popularity to a Ren and Stimpy episode. Either way, I found it had some applicability to watch collecting, so I decided to share some thoughts on this; while slightly obscure and not wholly enlightening… hopefully still educational!

What is Yak shaving?

The term “Yak shaving” refers to the phenomenon where, when setting out to accomplish a particular task, you realise you need to first do something else, which needs you to finish some other thing… and this nested-task sequence continues until you find yourself “shaving a yak”, or doing some equally unrelated activity – all in order to do the first thing you set out to do.

By way of example, perhaps I want to take a photo to post on Instagram. This means I need to find a watch; but the watch is at the bank, so I need to go and collect it, and so I set off in the car, but realise I need to fill up petrol. Since I am going out in the car and the supermarket is close to the petrol station, I might as well buy groceries too. Now, since I am buying groceries, and filling petrol, I am out for a quite a while and it ends up being near the end of the school day, so my wife asks me to pick my kid up. As I pick him up, it turns out the kids are heading to the park afterwards, so I head over there with them, and by the time we’re done, it is nearly supper time so we head out to grab some pizza… you get the idea – what started as a decision to post a photo on Instagram, ended up with getting pizza for supper. (LOL!)

On the various interpretations of Yak shaving, Hackaday says: Yak shaving has been interpreted by many folks as being always a distraction from the main task — necessarily a bad thing — and something to be avoided at all costs. Others have interpreted yak shaving as an annoyance that must be nevertheless be dealt with. But yak shaving can also be an enjoyable diversion that contributes to the end goal, or it can also be like the way that spending a year learning to string a bow was reported to work in Zen and the Art of Archery — as a meditation on the finest details that results in transcendent mastery of the whole.

I think Yak shaving can be all of the above, and therefore requires a pause to evaluate whether we ought to refocus on the main objective, or continue on these tangents as they are indeed value-adding.

Source: XKCD

What does it have to do with watch collecting?

As I said at the outset, this is not necessarily always true in collecting, but it certainly can be. We often get drawn into a particular brand or specific watch due to aesthetics… but as we dig deeper our research reveals certain flaws or deal breakers which put us off a particular watch. Conversely, we can sometimes have ‘certainties’ in our mind about a particular watch or brand, which are later disproved to our immense surprise… I have many such examples to share, here’s one…

I used to think the Omega Speedmaster was not for me, as I was simply convinced it was too large for my wrist. Having tried it a few times wanting desperately to like it, I never got that feeling when it was on the wrist – in particular, I felt the end links would overhang on the wrist making it appear bulky. I have since learned, through this experience, that bracelets can be deceiving, especially when it comes to judging the size of a watch. One day, a friend (who I eventually bought my Speedmaster Tintin from) told me that he had also had this misconception, and that I should make a point of trying it on a strap instead of a bracelet. Needless to say, that changed everything for me – and I took away a valuable lesson about bracelets, straps and sizing too!

Omega Speedmaster “Tintin”

That story was a tangent, but anyway – we are Yak shaving! Anyway, back to the main theme… as we go into that collecting rabbit hole, my suggestion is that we embrace Yak shaving. In particular, it can be super useful to start with your preferences, and then try and find all the watches which meet these criteria. Once we’ve done this, perhaps we drill deeper into each option and try the watches in person… as we do this, we learn more about the features we thought we liked… and may even discover features or criteria we hadn’t thought of at all, but actually do appreciate and want.

This is arguably one of the most fun areas of watch collecting… speaking to fellow collectors, discovering new watches or nuances about certain watches you hadn’t even realised existed… and ending up buying watches on a whim, and loving more than you expected you would. I have a few watches that fall in this category of ‘whimsical’ purchase – and I am grateful for the circumstances which led to them.

That said, in a hobby like watch collecting, this whole Yak shaving idea can also be a bad thing too. The dark side of Yak shaving in collecting, is each time you deviate from your intended goal, you tend to move further away from it. As I have written before, the little purchases do add up… so spending a few hundred here, and a few grand there may not seem like much in the short-to-medium term – but over the course of a few years, this might equate to you missing out on a proper grail. Sure, you could sell some watches, but rarely is anything as liquid as you tell yourself it is. Try selling any of your watches as an experiment… you don’t have to follow through, but judge the time taken to get to a final point at a price you’re happy with – this will surprise you. Hence, it can be easier to do without some watches and have the liquidity to not miss out on your grail when it becomes available.

There is no “correct” course of action and what you do will depend on what gives you the most enjoyment – some people simply aim for their grails, and don’t really care for, or collect anything else; they seem to have mastered this laser-focused approach. Others are enamoured with the weird and obscure stuff, and while they may have a grail watch, they don’t particularly care whether they get it and may not even actively pursue it in the form of saving up for it, or trying to find it etc… then there are the rest of us, somewhere in-between the two.

At this point I will sound like a broken record when I say… always be clear on why you’re buying a particular watch, and where possible, set short-term goals to help you have some semblance of focus… but don’t be afraid of Yak shaving from time-to-time… might end up surprising you!

-F

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