Maintaining Self-Awareness in an Ever-Changing Hobby

A card from my childhood collection that I can’t persuade myself to reacquire now.

My hobby story is a familiar one. After a hiatus during my 20s, I came back to sports cards in full force in 2011. During those first couple of years, I opened a lot of random hobby and blaster boxes. After only being able to afford single packs as a kid, I enjoyed having the spending power to open entire boxes. I opened “wax” from the 1990s, 2000s, and the early 2010s, and had a lot of fun doing so. Over time, however, the excitement began to wear off. Sometime in 2013, I assessed my cards, and I was not happy with my progress. My collection consisted of stacks of random base cards and essentially worthless patch and auto cards that were supposed “hits.” It wasn’t really the low monetary value that bothered me, however. Cards with low monetary value, after all, can be amazing pieces in the right collection. Aesthetics and intrinsic value count — always have, always will. Instead, what bothered me was that I didn’t really have a collection at all. I had miscellaneous cards from miscellaneous sets from miscellaneous years. Simply put, there was no purpose or overarching strategy to what I was doing. Looking back, the first thing I should have done after returning to the hobby was find a mentor or two. Finding a mentor would have made me a better collector much sooner. Still, even without formal guidance, I knew by 2013 that I needed to make a change.

I told myself that I needed to mature as a collector, create a plan, and get good value for my money. In the investor-collector sliding scale, I had always leaned (and still do) heavily on the collector side, but I realized I needed to do a much better job of ensuring that my collection grew both monetarily as well as with purpose. The reality is that circumstances happen in life (changes to our health, family, jobs, etc.) that may necessitate a collector to sell his/her collection (or at least part of it) at an unexpected time. As the years progressed and my new collection grew, I became more and more engaged with the hobby community in an effort to become an informed collector. I started by reading through online message boards and watching YouTube videos. More recently, Instagram and podcast content have helped me out. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’d like to think that I have helped others out as well. We all have different experiences and insights, and it is best to listen to others with an open-mind and humility (while still maintaining a skeptical/critical view of what others are saying). Balance is key.

By learning from others as well as my past mistakes, I’ve built a collection that I am proud of. Like so many longtime hobbyists, I now own cards that I never dreamed I would own as a kid. My collection is meticulously organized and protected, and every transaction and inventory detail is well documented. I have even created a so-called Mission Statement (at over a page long, it’s not really a “Mission Statement,” but it was all I could think to name it) that guides the way I collect. I make much better financial decisions than I ever have, and I love the hobby now more than I did during my younger days. I am grateful that I changed collecting strategies in 2013, because my redirect has helped me create a collection that has scope and represents me in different ways.

And yet, despite all of the progress that I’ve made, I’ve begun to wonder if my thought processes are starting to become a little too mechanical and dispassionate. For instance, I can’t add a card to my collection anymore without thinking about the card’s grade, pop report, price trend, and so on. I consider where we are in the calendar year, where we are in the sports season, and (if the player is still active) player performance projections. When I was a kid, I’d just look at a piece of cardboard, and if the player and design spoke to me as I collector, I would probably try to obtain the card. The only question that I asked myself was “How does this card make me feel?” Nowadays, on the other hand, even for cards that depict a player that I like and is aesthetically pleasing, I’m often turned away by huge pop reports, a little dinged corner, 60/40 centering, etc. Furthermore, I’m scared to open a box of cards because the likelihood is that I won’t get my money back in terms of assets. I won’t even consider building sets because there are too many common cards to wade through. I no longer have binder after binder of my sports heroes to leaf through like I did when I was a kid. I am hesitant to let my own children hold my cards because I am afraid they will damage them — this is true even though I hope my kids will grow into collectors themselves. In truth, I have opened a few boxes over the last several years, but a lot of the joy has been taken out of the experience because I’m always thinking in terms of opportunity cost. It all makes me feel a little sad — kind of like I’ve forgotten why I started collecting in the first place. Despite these misgivings, however, I’m not going to change how I collect anytime soon. I like the efficiency and focus that I have created through self-discipline. I have chosen (I like to think anyway) efficiency and rationality when it comes to building my collection. Still, I have given up a lot to collect the way that I do.

The point here (yes, I am actually trying to make a point — thanks for sticking with me) is that it is important for collectors to be self-aware hobbyists. Being self-aware helps us recognize both the pros and cons of our collecting decisions. Recognizing limitations in our own strategies helps create empathy and understanding about fellow collectors and their motivations. The more self-aware we are as collectors, the less hubris there will be in the hobby community. I genuinely miss the flexibility that my 2011 self had when it came to cards, and admire people who may collect that way today. I would never tell them how they are collecting is wrong, only that they should fully consider the pro and cons of their decision making progress. There is no “right way” to collect.

Whatever your goals are, if you really want to do well in this hobby you should love cards and get to know them. This might require buying a couple of boxes and digging into a set. Buy the card, not the grade we often say. Sometimes, we should buy the card, and not the population report. It’s okay not to consolidate everything. It’s also okay to lose money from time to time — don’t beat yourself up over it. See how getting out of your comfort zone makes you feel. Doing so will help you understand both yourself and the larger collecting community. Never forget to ask yourself how you feel. Sometimes, following your heart instead of your head may be the most rational thing you can do — because doing so can keep you in the hobby for the long run. This is a lesson that I should consider more often. And I hope you will too.