On Tools & Results

Some people love to focus on their tools — photography comes to mind.

I don’t own any photography equipment that’s nicer than my iPhone. For me, always having a camera on me is much more worthwhile than having a very nice camera and lens set that gets left at home because it’s harder to carry.

I don’t own any film cameras, and I don’t own a DSLR (although I might rent something if I’m going someplace that I expect to be particularly photogenic). I have nothing against nice cameras, and one day I will get one with a good lens so that I can take pictures with a foreground and a background, but until then, I’m content to take pictures like these:

Artsy photo

I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Here’s a walkthrough of the difference between pictures from cameras that cost $150 and $5,000.

I like when Ice Cube talks about how Mr & Mrs Eames took advantage of what they had. It’s easy to impress people by working with the best tools and supplies. If they had one-of-a-kind, oversize glass panes custom-produced for the house, it would naturally be impressive to many people. Instead, by using ordinary ingredients, and treating them skillfully, they create something impressive to untrained eyes, and they get respect from pros, because the only thing really used was skill.

You see the same pattern in other areas, food, for example. There’s an episode of Kitchen Nightmares (UK) where Gordon Ramsay trains a chef on how to make oxtail delicious — and he explicitly says that it’s always a sign of a talented chef who can take a plain and ordinary ingredient, and turn it into a delicious meal. In addition, it’s an easy way to make a nice profit: cheap ingredients, impressive results. (There’s a corollary here: it’s not what you’re drinking, it’s who you’re drinking it with)

Or in life…what’s more impressive? The child of an upper class family, educated in private schools, who goes onto become a Senator; or the child who grows up in urban projects, fought and struggled to succeed, and becomes a Senator. There’s a reason we love rags-to-riches stories in America — it ties into our belief that with the right skill and attitude, you can take ordinary inputs and produce extraordinary results.

I’m sure there are many other areas that I’m not thinking of where this pattern repeats.

I don’t mean to knock an investment in tools. Even Gordon Ramsay would have a difficult time trimming a steak if all he had was a butter knife. Or a spork. Ansel Adams would probably notice if you gave him a cheap camera. A good tool has a multiplier effect — it takes the level of skill and makes the result better. But that still means that if you want to see an improvement in results, as long as the tool is “good enough”, you’re better off focusing on improving your skills — the improvement in skills will continue to be multiplied by the good tool, and you’ll have gained something that can’t be taken away.

Or to be lighthearted about it: it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it that counts. 😉

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