President's Column: Completist? Specialist? What's your 'Comfort Zone?'

President's Column: Completist? Specialist? What's your 'Comfort Zone?'

By: Robert Zeigler, President, APS Board of Directors

Many of us, especially if we were introduced to stamps as children, began by collecting more or less randomly. We depended on what mom and dad and the mailman brought us, and what friends and relatives shared —used United States stamps, mostly.

Boy Scout

As we grew, we learned that by marshalling our nickels and dimes, we could obtain little packets of stamps from far-off countries with exotic names. Contemplating those stamps from distant lands and times, we discovered a bit more about them. Our world expanded accordingly.

After we learned of people in places beyond our borders using stamps to send mail as we did, many of us responded by beginning to chase the whole world of stamps. As we matured further, however, it became apparent to us that pursuing the planet’s philately was a colossal task without end — without even any actual possibility of completion. Furthermore, the effort was far beyond the limitations imposed by our youthful resources. For most, dreams of becoming the next “World’s Greatest Stamp Collector” flickered and faded away with time.

We kept collecting, but narrowed our field of interest to what we found most rewarding. Often, we focused on a group of nations, even a single country. Even so, we risked finding that in the case of a place with lots of people and mail, completion was still all but impossible.

This is why, frequently, we would keep tightening our philatelic focus. We would concentrate of a period of time, or a political movement, an historical event, a region, state or city, or some other smaller slice of that majestic world of stamps.

(2) Swiss 1966 10c Finsteraarhorn - Scott 479

Specialization in philately, as in anything else, has pluses and minuses. Some have voiced a real concern that they will come to know more and more about less and less until they know almost everything about nearly nothing at all! Is this actually preferable to chasing the world and learning a tiny bit about such a wide field that it is hard to keep anything straight?

Yet one of the delights of philately is that those who stick with the hobby long enough usually work out the dilemma of completist versus specialist for themselves, becoming comfortable with its virtues as well as its occasional drawbacks. Luff Award and 2011 Champion of Champions Award winner John H. Barwis showed how he successfully applied this to his own collecting interests in his brief and commendable article “Expanding by Contracting,” which you will find in our August issue of The American Philatelist (page 736).  

(3) East Germany 1975 25pf Electron Microscope

Each decision we make and every new piece of information we acquire in philately pushes us toward new knowledge and fresh frontiers. If we choose Russia or France, or any other stamp-issuing entity for that matter, we will likely learn more about the languages, peoples and heritage of those countries. We’ll also learn the complexities of collecting them, the many back streets and boulevards of their philatelic neighborhoods utterly unknown to outsiders.

Even if you go back to your beginning as a youngster, soaking U.S. stamps off the mail the postman brought, there’s a lifetime of pleasure to be had. The history, geography and sheer variety of this vast country—and the vital roles these all have played in shaping our stamps and postal history—can keep you learning and enjoying your stamps for a lifetime.

Editor's Note: The column was published in the September 2019 issue of the American Philatelist. We will be posting the columns of APS executives on this website to provide updates about American Philatelic Society. Membership information is available through this link.

Read next: Our Story - A great summer at the American Philatelic Center

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Great American Stamp Show

Hartford, Connecticut | August 20-23, 2020