Don’t Trade Up

January 3, 2013

Last year David Rakoff died at the age of 47. He was a writer, regular on This American Life, and most interesting to me, a maker of incredible, personalized gifts for his friends and loved ones. Shortly before he died, Ariel Kaminer, his colleague and the former Ethicist columnist at the New York Times, wrote him a letter to tell him how much she’d learned from him. Wise words for a new year.

I found this first part particularly relevant to our discussions here:


You know how much I love you, but what I’ve never told you is how much I’ve learned from you.

Here is the simplest lesson you taught me: Don’t trade up.

In terms of three-word volumes, it ranks right up there with “It gets better.” Like that more famous line, it starts out as a bit of simple, practical instruction — don’t back out of a social engagement just because a snazzier offer came along — and broadens out into an entire perspective on how to live.

Don’t grade friendships on a hierarchical scale.

Don’t value people based on some external indicator of status.

Don’t take a competitive view of your social life.

There are very few rules I carry around with me every day. Don’t trade up is one of them, and I truly can’t tell you how many seemingly complicated situations it resolved into clarity and fairness. I am grateful to you for that.

There will always be someone hotter, wealthier, funnier, smarter, more interesting, more something. You could spend your whole life reaching for someone better. Don’t do that.