Tools Don’t Matter — Until They Do
Most experienced professionals would tell you tools don’t matter, while younger or less experienced people tend to believe tools are everything. After all, it’s easy to believe having top-of-the-line tools will provide a swifter path to success. And, let’s be honest, they’ll make us look cool in the process (which isn’t false).
But the truth lies — as the truth most often lies — somewhere in the middle. After all, tools are just part of what it takes to make something happen. Mostly it’s the mind and heart — creativity, problem solving, passion — that matters.
I consider myself fortunate that I learned early in life that tools aren’t everything, but I also learned there’s a caveat. There comes a point in time when tools really do matter. But it’s preceded by a period in which they don’t.
I’ll start by giving a brief background on one of my many experiences with tools. Since I’m a photographer, I’ll begin by attesting to the truth in a phrase like “The camera doesn’t make the photographer.”
In 2009, I received my first Daily Deviation (DD) on DeviantArt.com, a daily feature seen by the whole community, for a photograph I took with an entry-level Canon dSLR. I had only been doing photography for about 7 months when I received that honor. Passion, not my equipment, helped me earn it.
At that time, I didn’t even have Photoshop. I had Photoshop Elements, Photoshop’s infant brother. Since it couldn’t do all the things Photoshop could do, I had to find ways within Element’s capabilities to make my visions come to life.
It was my passion for tinkering that helped me turn this RAW file, a terribly exposed, mostly uninteresting photo:
Into this image, for which I received my first DD:
The reason the photo was overexposed was that I wanted the water to look soft, but I hadn’t purchased a neutral density filter yet. To make it look soft, I had to leave the shutter open longer (a long exposure). A neutral density filter, which dims the light coming into the lens, would have allowed me to take a long exposure that wasn’t overexposed.
I may not have had the “right” tool for the job, but it turns out that didn’t matter. All it took was finding the right balance, where the image wasn’t too overexposed and the water was just soft enough, and a bit of ingenuity in post-processing to give the image new life.
(Fun fact, it’s been 8 years since I took this photograph, and I’ve never shared the RAW image with anybody till now.)
Since I have experience in this area, I’m going to use photography as an example throughout this article. But the ideas I present here can be applied to any field.
There comes a point in time when tools really do matter. But it’s preceded by a period in which they don’t.
When Tools Don’t Matter
Especially when it comes to young people (I would know, I was a young person once; still sort of am), the temptation to buy into expensive new tools can be difficult to resist. The truth, though, is that expensive tools, aside from being expensive, have another barrier to entry: they’re often far more complex than their less-expensive counterparts.
Which is why, when you’re starting out, there’s no reason not to invest in the cheaper option. There are a few reasons for this:
- Honing creativity
- The learning curve
- Interest validation
Tools don’t matter when it comes to creativity. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the game or a seasoned professional.
Why? Simple: Creativity thrives on restriction. Less-capable tools force you to engineer alternate methods to achieve your goals. Inventing new solutions and taking the longer route to the finish line helps you put in more practice and think more deeply about the how and why behind what you’re trying to accomplish. This is a faster road to mastery than using a fancy tool that allows you to take shortcuts.
If you never learn the why and how of what you’re doing, then you’ll miss the fundamental knowledge that makes a professional in your field a professional.
We live in a world of quick fixes and quick wins. But the people who excel at what they do are in it for the long haul: they put in a phenomenal amount of time and energy to reach mastery.
The Learning Curve
The truth: You don’t need a $3000 camera when you’ve never taken a photo before. All you need is your phone. Once you get good at composition, then invest in an inexpensive SLR camera and spend time getting to know how such a camera works.
What makes SLR cameras different than point-and-shoot cameras is that they aren’t just a camera. They’re a system. Many professional tools are this way. That’s what makes them expensive: They’re inherently complex. They’re systems, not just a singular thing.
I went from starting with my parents’ point-and-shoot camera during family vacations to easing into SLR photography with a $500 Canon Rebel series dSLR. Starting out with an inexpensive dSLR helped me gain entry to a complex system. It gave me a cheap way to practice with different types of lenses until I knew how and when to use each kind (wide angle vs telephoto, for example).
Once I mastered the tool’s limited options, I started looking at the next tier of cameras. After my first dSLR, I got a $1400 Canon 60D when I started doing professional work (after stocking up on a few lenses between camera purchases), and then I moved onto a $3000 Canon 5D mkIII when it was clear that professional work was sticking.
Which brings me to my final point on the subject of When Tools Don’t Matter: interest validation.
It would be a waste to go from never having done photography to buying a $3000 camera. Because without ever having done it, there’s no way to know if the interest will stick. A period of validation is inherent to the process of professional growth. It’s more sensible to spend this period with lesser tools than to go all-in with your wallet when you don’t know if you’ll go all-in with your heart.
Buy a $500 camera first and see if you even like doing photography.
The tools you purchase need to make sense for the type of work you’ll be doing. There’s no use in buying costly, overpowered equipment when you don’t even know yet how many of their features you’ll use or need.
Buy advanced equipment when you’re ready. You’ll know it when you are.
When Tools Do Matter
Now let’s get to the advice that’s often ignored: when to obtain new tools. Tools matter in three different instances:
- Reaching the next level
- Increasing productivity
- Fostering passion
Reaching the Next Level
The first is rather self-explanatory in light of what I wrote above. Buying expensive equipment from the outset can inhibit growth because advanced equipment has a steeper learning curve. Mastering the basics is difficult as it is; but with a tool crammed with an expansive list of options, early-stage learning can become overwhelming, even discouraging. Beginning with a tool that has fewer options lowers the barrier to entry tremendously.
Once the basics are mastered, then it’s time to reach the next level. Sometimes, advanced tools are what help you get there, because they offer more options for expressing your creativity.
New tools can help you do more. For example, my Canon 5D mkIII can do much more than my Canon 60D could. It performs better in a wider range of lighting conditions, image files have more detail to work with, there are features like Double Exposure and High Dynamic Range (HDR), and the camera is more rugged and weather-proof.
My 5D helped me move from amateur professional to professional. But I couldn’t have leapt right to professional even if I had bought my 5D at the beginning. I had to put in the time and learn the why behind everything.
Light is a photographer’s greatest tool, and mastering how to leverage it must come before mastering the functions of a piece of technology.
New tools matter when your productivity is suffering under the capability of your current tools.
I have a fine recent example of this. I spent the past few months struggling to get work done because both my MacBook Pro and iMac were over six years old (my MacBook Pro was actually seven). On one hand, this is a testament to the quality of Apple’s products (my previous two custom-built PCs didn’t last half as long); on the other hand, their age sort of snuck up on me. Since nothing catastrophic happened to them, I failed to notice their slow decline in processing power until it became unbearable.
I spent a lot of time worrying about how much a new laptop would cost instead of thinking about how much my lost time was costing.
It’s impossible to be productive when you spend half your time waiting for things to load. That was my life. Every time I opened any Adobe product, at least 5 minutes would pass till I could start working. Programs would hang up left and right. The spinning wheel of death was my constant, unwelcome companion.
So I bit the bullet and invested in a new MacBook Pro. Now Adobe products open in less than 5 seconds. I can just work, without worrying about lost time. It’s so, so liberating.
Before investing in a new tool, consider the tradeoffs. I’ve definitely made the mistake before of impulse buying something just to find out I didn’t need it yet. What a waste.
On the other hand, when we’re able to resist the desire to make an impulsive purchase, we face the struggle of justifying the cost of a new tool. I was loathe to buy a new laptop, and resisted it for a long time, because I didn’t think I could justify the purchase. I spent a lot of time worrying about how much a new laptop would cost instead of thinking about how much my lost time was costing.
In short, I decided my lost time was costing a lot.
When your tools help you become more productive, you can get more work done. When you can get more work done, you can make up for the lost money by getting more projects done in a shorter span of time.
The bottom line is tools don’t matter … until they do. It’s a valuable life lesson, one I’ve learned from and need to keep in mind from here on out.
Sometimes, buying a new tool doesn’t have to do with learning or productivity. Sometimes, investing in a new tool just to have a new tool is the right move to make. This is why it’s important to have a savings account, so that you can pull from that pool to foster your passion.
Because sometimes that’s all it is: an investment in one’s passion. There have been times when I’ve bought a fun new tool, like a new lens, that helped rejuvenate my creative spirit because it gave me a new way to play. Sometimes, investing in a new tool to maintain that sense of wonder and exploration is the essential ingredient to reach the next stage in your journey to mastery.
When it comes to fostering passion, it’s a judgement call. It’s a heart-decision.
Sometimes a Tool isn’t a Thing
Tools are usually thought of as objects. Things that help us get things done. That help us create whatever we create, do whatever we do.
But skills are tools too. So sometimes learning opportunities are the best tools we can buy. Aside from the most popular choice (university), learning opportunities are everywhere:
- An online class on Skillshare, Udemy, or Coursera, or the many other online learning platforms out there.
- Studying online through free courses from a major university (MIT has loads of them).
- Attending a conference.
- In-person bootcamp or trade school (there are lots of companies offering demanding 8–12 week courses for learning new skills).
- Gaining new insights by reading books written by experts in your industry (audiobooks are great too).
Skills are tools too. The more skills you have, the more capable and indispensable you become.
Considering New Tools
So how do you know when it’s time to invest in new tools? Weigh the costs and benefits of obtaining them. Make a list that compares the cost of the tool with the cost of your time. How much time are you losing with your current tool? How much time will you gain with a new tool? What new options will be granted to you by making the investment? Are those options necessary right now?
Frankly, time is more valuable than money. Because the more time you have, the more potential money you can make. Not only that, the more time you have, the more potential impact you can make with this one life you have. The world needs your impact, and if your current tools are preventing you from maximizing your time and preventing you from reaching the next stage of professional development, then it’s probably time to consider upgrading to new ones.
But also don’t forget that everyone needs to start somewhere. Don’t forget to think incrementally. Use the tools you need right now to reach the next stage in your quest for mastery. The tools with a lower barrier to entry. Something that will challenge, but not overwhelm.
Skills should always come before tools.