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.