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Don’t Hide Behind Fancy Tools

Posted by on Aug 29, 2012 | 27 Comments

How many times have you seen these situations:

  • The parents of a six year old kid buying a $150 alloy bat and $80 glove for their kid’s first foray into tee ball.
  • An overweight middle-of-the-pack triathlete spending $10,000 on an ultralight carbon-fiber bike to theoretically shave a few seconds off their mediocre finish times in a sprint tri.
  • An aspiring writer in a coffee shop typing away on a $2,000 Macbook Pro.
  • A homeowner installing a wireless doorbell using a $700 Dewalt commercial cordless drill.
  • A novice wine drinker insisting on drinking nothing but $300 per bottle Chteau Margaux.

What do all these situations have in common?

People are replacing skills with expensive “tools.”

In his book “Ignore Everybody“, Hugh MacLeod talks about the concept of hiding behind “pillars.” He loosely defines a pillar as a psychological barrier that interferes with our work. Great artists do not rely on unnecessary pillars. Read the excerpt from his book here.

MacLeod’s idea is precisely the problem many people face- we have a need to surround ourselves with pillars. When I take up a new hobby, job, or other endeavor, my first instinct is to run out and buy the best tools I can find for the job at hand. I’m sure that’s a function of our immersion in a consumer-based society.

In my last post, I commented on my friend Trisha’s decision to purchase a bike. As far as I know, Trisha isn’t a hard-core cyclist, wouldn’t be using the bike in extreme conditions, and has seemingly internalized to value of experiences over material goods. My suggestion was to buy a cheap bike at Walmart and use the money saved for an awesome adventure.

The responses were interesting. Some people responded with disdain for Walmart (I agree with that… their labor practices are shameful). But more people responded that it would be stupid to purchase a “junk” bike. This was fascinating to me.

First, I would argue the quality of the Walmart bikes isn’t dramatically different that the quality of bikes purchased elsewhere, and most of that variability in quality can be attributed to the people assembling and adjusting the bike after it arrives at the retail establishment. After all, close inspection of the manufacturing process reveals most consumer products are made in the same factories by the same workers using the same machinery. The difference isn’t actual quality, it’s perceived value controlled by the marketing and advertising of the products.

For example, many bikes use Shimano hardware. I’m too lazy to do the research, but I’d bet a large sum of money that the cheapest and most expensive Shimano derailleurs, functionally, are the same. The slight differences in materials and weight alone do not justify the different price points. They’re just made from different materials with different finishes and the company markets one as cheap and disposable and the other as ultra-reliable and high performance. Of course, there’s a dramatically different price point. This is how it works with any manufactured product- cars, laptops, coffee pots, VHS tapes, contact lenses, clothing, and toys.

To this point, people will likely say “But wait, I bought a junk bike and it had XYZ problems!” I’d argue it’s probably an issue of perception. All consumer products have problems. The “cheaper” we perceive something, the more likely we are to attribute the problem with the quality.If the chain falls off the cheap bike, it’s because it’s a cheap bike. If a chain falls off the expensive bike, it’s because we didn’t have the high-performance derailleur properly adjusted. If the frame of the cheapo bike breaks, it’s because of the cheap aluminum or poor welds. If the expensive bike frame breaks, it’s because we’re really bad-ass! It’s normal to do this… it’s part of the way we overcome the cognitive dissonance of buyer’s remorse.

Second, and more on topic, the “junk” bike is an opportunity to learn. When purchased, it’ll likely need some adjusting. It’s easy to learn and the skills we pick up could be invaluable down the road (maybe literally). More importantly, it will teach us how to ride a bike. We’ll learn to gain maximum efficiency by adjusting our peddling technique, posture, seat, handlebar height, cadence… whatever. In short, we’ll gain skills independent of the tools. Once those skills are developed, we’ll also learn exactly which tools are needed to improve performance.

Hunting- A Glimpse into my Youth

When I was younger, I did a lot of deer hunting, most with my dad. He was somewhat of an expert hunter. He spent his entire life in the wilderness at every opportunity. He was also the first person I knew that fully understood the lessons of eliminating unnecessary pillars.

At the time of this realization, we hunted with another dude. I believe his name was Jim. Jim always had the latest and greatest hunting technology. He used a $700 bow, carbon-fiber arrows with special fletching, a custom-made arrow rest, a fancy optical sight that amplified light, and a slew of silencing devices. He hunted from a commercially-built tree stand complete with drink holder. He surrounded his stand with motion-sensitive cameras that could record when deer were active. He wore a special suit that resembled a ghille suit with cutouts to allow him to draw his bow. He wore special underwear that supposedly locked in his human scent. He washed the suit in special detergent that masked odors that weren’t contained in the suit.

My dad had a little different strategy. He used a small compound bow he bought at Sears two decades earlier. He used cheap aluminum arrows. He aimed by looking down the arrow. His bow was slower and louder than Jim’s. He build his own tree stands from scrap wood. His clothing consisted of plain dark street clothes.

Any guesses which hunter bagged more deer?

To the best of my knowledge, Jim never shot a single deer in his life. My dad? He usually reached his limit of deer in a day or two.

Why was one exceedingly successful and the other a failure?

One relied on pillars where the other eliminated pillars and developed skills. Here’s how:

  • When deer hear a sudden noise (like a bow being shot), they instinctively drop down. Jim relied on his bow to deliver the arrow before the deer heard and reacted to the sound. My dad circumvented the problem by aiming a few inches lower.
  • Deer move at predictable times every morning and evening. Jim captured the movement on special cameras. My dad relied on years of experience of observing actual deer behaviors.
  • Jim relied on an expensive Ghille suit to camouflage his appearance in the tree. My dad made a scarecow-looking figure and placed it in his tree stand a month before season. The deer became accustomed to the presence of the human-like figure in the tree, and would eventually ignore it.
  • Jim relied on an expensive suit and detergent to mask his human odor. My dad would leave an article of well-worn unwashed clothing near the blind every few days a month or two before the season. The deer acclimated to his scent, so it wasn’t a novel stimuli when they smelled him when the season started.

In the Running World

I often see this same phenomenon in the running world. Look at the runners that have the most gear. Are they the fastest? Never. They’re usually mid-to-back-of-the-pack runners. It’s not surprising. The elites have probably taken the time to improve their actual running skills instead of trying to find shortcuts by purchasing fancy watches, hydration packs, clothing, and shoes.

This is one of the reasons I’m a huge proponent of learning to run while barefoot. It teaches you good form. It also teaches you to be aware of your surroundings. As Josh Sutcliffe once pointed out, there’s no better way to learn good trail running skills than to run trails barefoot. Once skills are learned, THEN add the tools that will actually help performance.

Sometimes people ask why I use so many cheap, old, unorthodox things when running. I run in cheap cotton shirts, a boonie hat from an Army surplus store, gas station sunglasses, old handheld water bottles, a headlamp from K-Mart, and sometimes an ancient Nathan hydration pack to carry a camera. I don’t bother upgrading any of that stuff because I know it won’t affect performance.

I DO spend money on a few select items like shorts (Brooks Infinity III; they are the best I’ve found to prevent crotch chafing), flashlight (Fenix handheld; it’s ridiculously bright, durable, compact, uses AA batteries, and I can carry it comfortably in the same hand as a handheld), occasionally a Garmin 305 (keeps my pace in check early in hundos when I have a tendency to go out too fast), and shoes (Merrell Trail Gloves; they fit my feet perfectly without socks which eliminates most blistering and chafing problems). All four of my must-have tools are specific to my needs and may not help other people perform better.


So… how can you eliminate pillars from your life? It can be surprisingly difficult. I always ask myself if something is absolutely necessary. If it is not, I don’t buy it. If I’m not sure, I don’t buy it. If I think it IS necessary, I try to accomplish the task without it or come up with a creative alternative.

In essence, I apply the minimalist approach to everything in my life. If I can develop a skill set that will eliminate the need for a pillar, I develop the skill set. Once I develop the skill set, then I assess whether the pillar is necessary.

What do you think? What are some pillars YOU have in your life that could be eliminated? Tell us about it in the comments section!


Sidebar- in the last post, I used Walmart as an example. I’d highly recommend supporting your locally-owned businesses versus Walmart. Their labor practices are abysmal.


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  1. Floyd Robinson
    September 6, 2012

    This article has all the right insights in the right places.

    Any artist can create great works of art no matter what tool he uses. Eric Clapton always emphasizes this when asked about his guitars. He would point to his head and tell the fan, “It’s all here, it’s not in the guitar.”

    There is a similar topic in photography that also values creativity over fancy tools. The link is below


  2. Erskien Lenier
    August 31, 2012

    Most of what you wrote is spot on but not when it comes to bikes. I came from 23 yrs of bicycle road racing and in the off season served as Service Manager for some of the largest and busiest shops in the USA. I also worked in everything from design – engineering of bike frames and parts to fabrication of those frames and parts.
    There isn’t a Walmart bike that would have an intact rear set of spokes in 2-3,000 miles of my throughing my legs over it. Even with my wheel building skills (And I’ve built wheels for Olympians and Land Speed Record Holders) could not make those cheap spokes and poor initial construction techniques have durability or stay true. Those who set Walmart bikes up for sale are the least to be trusted with proper brake geometry, bolt tension, the seating of cables. Dropping $10k for a first bike is silly but going to the other extreme and buying the equivelant to a jogging shoe is not the answer either. Like in running one would be prudent to contact and consult with others who have a lot of miles under their belts to get educated on what actually flys and what dies. Just as you found that catching your crotch on fire is no fun. A guy with fairly good sized thighs would save himself some dough and agony by connecting with someone like me who has experience with that too. I’d tell him or her to get the best compression shorts out there “Pearl Izumi’s” Cost you a bundle but they will last 20 yrs and fit like a glove….

  3. Martin
    August 31, 2012

    A nice post.
    I’ve been thinking about these things lately. My conclusion has so far been that one shouldn’t focus on unimportant stuff distracting him from the real thing he is, or what he says he is, trying to achieve. When it comes to minimalism in running, the idea for me is simply to focus on running, and trying to do so naturally, as we all were made by nature/evolution/God/make your choice.
    Because we were all made to walk and run instead of idle sitting or driving and we are great at the thing if we actually find the joy in putting in the effort. We may not be forced to do this anymore per-se, but the re-discovery of our roots is tremendously invaluable to our overall life quality and enjoyment of the time we have in our lives.
    The big picture with barefooting and minimalism for me is not on my running ambitions, but on simple, simplest possible, frugality.

  4. Bare Lee
    August 30, 2012

    I think it’s all about getting value. Pay for what you need, not more. If you need a decent guitar in order to pay well, pay for it. I don’t care about prestige so I’m not going to spend a lot on clothes, and it’s downright silly to buy most kids’ stuff new. If you got money and you want people to know it, then it’s probably worth it to pay a lot on fancy brands. I traveled across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and it took me three bikes to realize that it was well worth the money to pay $1000 for a mountain bike. You really don’t want your bike breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

  5. Franklin Chen
    August 30, 2012

    I think the line between “fancy” and “decent” can often be fuzzy. Sometimes, using a tool that is really crappy can be dangerous and give the wrong impression. For example, if you give a kid a crappy musical instrument (as I had at one time), it can make it too hard to hear and produce good sounds, etc. So you want to give a kid a decent, but not top-of-the-line, starter instrument, rather than a piece of crap. Same goes for cooking: start off with a decent knife, not a blunt piece of junk that will not at all help in developing proper technique and results. So by all means, it is not necessary to start with the fancy stuff (and most of us never need the truly fancy stuff, even after getting much better at something), but it is also important to avoid junk.

  6. Adam
    August 30, 2012

    This seems right to me. We are often tempted to substitute an (easy) monetary exchange for (hard) time and effort. Runners fall into this trap most obviously w/ shoes. Shoes are clearly important, but once you’ve decided you need a $200 pair of Salomon Senses so that you can run like Kilian Jornet (who probably can’t remember the last time he had to pay for a new pair of shoes), it’s clear that your time and money would be better spent training harder. We see a similar form of this phenomenon w/ gym memberships and exercise equipment. People are far more likely to make the simple purchase than they are to do the difficult work of actually exercising. How many people do you know who have memberships to gyms they hardly ever visit, and treadmills and stationary bikes sitting around their home that they never use?

  7. francois
    August 30, 2012

    I think you are missing on the fun factor there.

    I am with you on your friend’s bike choice because her requirements are known. But if the guy buys a $10k bike, it’s probably because he has more fun out of it (note that I did not mention performance) and could afford it in the first place, or enjoyed working harder because he had the bike in sight to keep him motivated. Or not, you’ll answer. And we’d be both right I guess, it really depends on what gets you up in the morning. We all weight in the pros and cons and find our way to the fun.

    On the wine thing, just oh so wrong an example you picked there. A majority of people say they can’t tell the difference between a $10 bottle and a $300 one, but most of the time they assume that because they have had $50 wines that were indeed not so different from the $10 ones. I personnally (although my experience surely doesn’t count as proof) first got overly excited over wine when i had a sip of a fantastic bottle, when 1) i didn’t know anything about wine and 2) didn’t know the wine i was drinking was supposed to be any good. But it just was, and i knew it right away.

    I’m with you on most examples, but the wine example, no no 🙂 Drinking tons of shit wine is probably a good training to discern the cherry here, the minerals there and whatnot, but it’s also not very enjoyable (it’s shit wine after all) unless you prefer technicality over pleasure. Which you shouldn’t always. You don’t need the performance to have the fun.

  8. Chris Hurst
    August 30, 2012

    dude, seriously thanks for sharing your thoughts. as an army officer and occasional rock climber, i’m surrounded by geardos (pronounced ‘gere-doe’). in conjunction with my wife, i think we try and pare down what it is we really need when we make a purchase and try to figure out how to use what we already have. such a tough thing to do sometimes, but a major life skill. thanks again.

  9. ZoeB
    August 30, 2012

    I agree that casual users or beginners shouldn’t spend outrageous amounts of money on gear, but I would argue that quality does make a difference for committed use (I’m just defending my Giant).
    I’ve occasionally seen parents of little kids in the school band or at the communal music school (woo, socialism!) who spend a lot of money on an instrument for their kids, but they still sound ear-splittingly terrible because they just haven’t reached the stage where the instrument can effect their playing, get de motivated, and quit. And then, of course, there are the people who think that a wooden instrument is only good for kindling after 5 years. That just makes me laugh (my clarinet was made in 1952, and is still a really great instrument).

  10. Corey
    August 30, 2012

    Instead of buying expensive shorts, why not just learn the skill of not having your crotch chaff ?

    Your argument here is completely bogus.

    • John
      August 30, 2012

      I have known many runners in which chafing is a huge issue. Not a problem for me (I don’t chafe), but I can understand that Jason would need at least a little comfort in a 100 mile race. A friend of mine completed the PainZone 6 day race and his inner thighs chafed on the second day (with 4 to go). If an “expensive” pair of shorts would cure the problem, then why not spend the extra money? Sometimes one has to venture out of the box and make an exception, especially if he has 20+ hours of running at altitude…especially if cheap (or crappy) shorts lead to chafing.

  11. John
    August 29, 2012

    My wife has been “de-pillar-ing” me for a while now, the most pertinent of which is to get me to stop lusting after a motorcycle pillar. I have two bikes: One, a 250cc Ninja that gets 65+mpg, and the other a 900cc Vulcan, that carries two adults, stuff, and gets 52mpg. Both bikes have a combined 32,000 miles on them. They run fine. We do not need to replace them. I don’t need a 180bhp supersport, and I don’t need a 135hp “poser-cruiser”. I ride both very well, have no accidents, have not fallen since I dumped my Vespa at age 13 (I’m 42 now). They start when I push the start button. They run when I put them in gear and give ’em gas. The cruiser is faster than 99% of the cars in a straight line. The baby Ninja is fun. I also wear cheapo Wal-mart sunglasses, a cheapo nylon running hat I bought at Kohl’s for only $6, and have had the same 2 pair of Sporthill shorts ($5 each) that I bought 3 years ago. However, the wife insisted that I get some Under Armour shorts for better coverage…but unlike other UA shorts, these cost us only $12. I buy Five Fingers only when I can get 30% off or more. I thank my wife for de-fusing the bachelor bomb, and I thank her moreso for helping us knock down those annoying, cluttery pillars.

  12. Henry A
    August 29, 2012

    Shocking, two articles in a row where the argument falls apart where minimalist shoes are concerned. It is impossible to find cheap, good minimal shoes.

  13. Ben W
    August 29, 2012

    I agree with your basic premise….the more you know, the less you need.

    And it’s an obvious truth that people, including myself at times, spend too much on stuff at the beginning stages of investigating a new area of interest.

    But, sometimes, spending some money on the right tools is the way to go. I teach 4th grade, and it makes me really angry that our schools buy such crap tools for my students. Do you remember those old school scissors or those lame ass watercolor brushes?

    Now, as an adult, I can get some results out of those tools, but if I were to actually let my students use them, they would really get in the way.

    I still remember the joy of going to college and finding a paintbrush that actually comes to a real point and the delightful ease that painting became.

    Sometimes, these pillars actually hold up a roof. Therefore, when in the know, I think it is our duty to recommend the best tool for the job, on a case by case basis. If we are novices, forums like this one can really make the learning curve a lot shorter.

  14. Ehd
    August 29, 2012

    “The elites have probably taken the time to improve their actual running skills instead of trying to find shortcuts by purchasing fancy watches, hydration packs, clothing, and shoes.”

    Are there people who believe any of that stuff, except shoes, is a shortcut to better running performance? More likely they are “Keeping Up With the Jones’s” type people and think they need all that stuff to look like a “real” runner. In regards to shoes, as you know, there is a huge industry of shoemakers and running experts telling us all that it’s critical to buy the “right” shoe before even attempting to run.

  15. Trail Clown
    August 29, 2012

    I wish I didn’t always buy “this year’s model” of trail shoes…but I just can’t help it. I’m just always intrigued by the novelty, and I want to see first-hand if it is the latest and greatest. I always know in the back of my mind that I can buy last year’s model for half the price, but I still can’t help myself. Gotta go with the new…

  16. Mark
    August 29, 2012

    I do know a thing or two about wine (have judged in Paris, France wine shows), and the reason that Chateaux Margaux costs $300 is 1) he is in a high end restaurant, and 2) there are a lot of people buying the name. There are a number of $20-$40 wines from the Alexander Valley of California that beat Margaux for taste…personally, I spend $12-$30 and enjoy great wines — it is both what and who you know…

    That being said, I am a minimalist/Spartan by nature, and repelled by big name brands that “everybody” is buying. I do go for what works for me. And learning technique is a challenge and the first goal. I have been at it for 2 years, and I still have plenty of refinement left — there is no gear that can help me with that — just me, my body, and the road…

  17. Brandon E
    August 29, 2012

    I got sort of knee jerk to your post yesterday, but didn’t post, because I know when I get knee jerk, there’s usually something going on inside me rather than the thing itself that elicited the knee jerk.

    I’ve since read the comments on your post from yesterday, and this post today. The knee jerk was because, like you said, I was attempting to resolve the cognitive dissonance. I tend to be minimalist in lots of things, but cycling, with all its flashy toys, has a strong pull, and I’ve fallen for it a bit since starting seriously last year.

    I did have the sense to get a Craigslist bike, rather than buy new. I got a great deal compared to retail, but still spent a lot more than a wal-mart bike. Overall I’m still happy with that decision, but the Nashbar catalog still calls my name sometimes.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  18. Bryan
    August 29, 2012

    A friend of mine used to do triathlons and bike races with a pretty shitty bike. He always said, “It’s not the car that matters, it’s the engine.” I’ve always liked that way of putting it and have had that philosophy myself. I’m cheap/poor anyway.

  19. Ken S.
    August 29, 2012

    It is amazing how many people want to replace effort and dedication with expensive equipment. How many runners out there are trying to find the perfect pair of shoes that will magically make their injuries go away, rather than putting in the effort to fix their running technique?

  20. Kenneth D
    August 29, 2012

    In my opinion, all of the people that you described at the very beginning fall into the “people with more money than sense” category.

  21. Juha
    August 29, 2012

    Well, I have lots of running related stuff and will buy a lot more. Some stuff enhance performance and some make running more comfortable, but in addition, there’s one thing more – running related stuff boost running motivation always a little bit. Not that there really is any lack of motivation, but hey, boosted motivation is good, probably worth more than same amount of money in the bank. I can always throw extra stuff away, or sell them really cheap..

  22. Malva
    August 29, 2012

    I meant to comment on the bike post yesterday.

    The saying goes: Friends don’t let friends buy bikes at big-box stores.

    If you need a bike, Craigslist or other online adds are definitely your best bet. You can get something lighter with quality parts for the same price you’d pay in a big box store.

  23. Wiglaf
    August 29, 2012

    I’m starting to doubt you actually worked at a bike shop, Jason. Bike shops usually hate working on bikes you get at places like Walmart. Those bike manufacturers do silly things like riveting the front rings together rather than using screws.

    • Biglaf
      August 29, 2012

      *Usually* is the key word here.. My local bike shop is awesome as will work on any bike as it brings them business.

      • Wiglaf
        August 29, 2012

        Sure. Sometimes with awesomeness comes doing things you hate to do.

    • Jason
      August 29, 2012

      I should have clarified- it was a bike rental shop. I know what you mean, though. We had a few bikes that were constructed in a way that made it impossible to use replacement parts.