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The Craftsman or the Tools: Which Matters Most?

The Craftsman or the Tools: Which Matters Most?

December 15, 2023

You may have heard the old adage that "a craftsman is only as good as his tools." Today, I'd like instead to explore the converse of that statement, that tools are only as good as the craftsman who wields them. I'd argue that even the best tools are often only worthwhile in the right hands. 

My partners and I have all witnessed firsthand how sophisticated tools and instruments, while powerful, can fall short of delivering the desired results if not wielded with knowledge and skill. The effectiveness of tools (financial or otherwise) goes beyond their inherent capabilities and can be, in fact, intricately tied to the expertise of the user. 

To illustrate the point: who do you think wins in a game of golf? Me, with the best set of clubs money can buy, or the top-ranked pro player with a set of hand-me-downs? In games of skill, the skill typically matters a lot more than the equipment. 

Advanced tools & equipment (think: software or medical devices) typically have an impressive array of features that make them well-suited to certain use cases, but that still leaves an awful lot of room for either misapplication or underutilization. 

I think it's useful to break down the reasons why this is true into three primary buckets: 

  1. Specialized knowledge unleashes full potential 
  2. Context matters 
  3. Dangers of misuse 

(1) Specialized Knowledge Unleashes the Full Potential 

Consider a high-end camera, designed for the use of taking high-quality photos, with a range of settings and options that can be adjusted to achieve the desired result. If you don't understand how to adjust the aperture or shutter speed to control the amount of light entering the camera, or how to focus the lens properly to capture a sharp image, then you'll be leaving a lot of capability and potential on the table. In this case, even the best camera will not help you to take great photos. 

Often, this extends beyond the ability to achieve basic results with an advanced product, and this takes shape in different ways in different spheres. The most expensive guitar accomplishes little extra for a person who can't play in the first place, but even one who can play may not be able to tell much of a difference without the ability to display a sufficiently advanced level of technique.  

Software we interact with makes this apparent. Time and time again, beginner users (likely all of us, in some contexts) can get a piece of software to achieve its most basic result, but then can't explain what half of the features are or what to do with them. Capabilities in such cases are left entirely on the table, which may cause the software to underwhelm in the eyes of the user. "I don't know why this is was so expensive," says the hypothetical user who uses 10% of the capabilities in pursuit of an edge case. 

But it gets even more complex than this, when you consider higher-level strategy and design. 

(2) Context Matters: Tools Within a Broader Strategy 

Professional-grade design software is undoubtedly powerful on its own, but it can only approach achieving its true potential when integrated into a broader creative strategy. Anyone with sufficient funds can gain access to the professional features of Adobe, Canva, or even DALL·E.  

But a true professional creative person's ability to understand client needs and artistic nuances does more than enhance the software's impact or merely allow for full usage of available features – it completely changes the course being steered in the first place. Prompts can create images, but the most highly skilled will provide the best prompts. And more than that, incorporating images into an emotionally-driven campaign or artistic series has essentially nothing to do with software capabilities. 

Returning to the high-end camera example above, perhaps an expensive camera could have a high probability chance of "coming out," even in unskilled hands. In skilled hands, it's likely the content being shot will "come out" better. But in selecting the subject, composition, and emotional or messaging content of the shot itself, the result is in a different universe between an artist or strategist and the novice. 

Frequently, strategy involves determining the weaknesses of one component, and offsetting them with the strengths of others. There's no place for this in cases where the focal point is on deploying one tool or element in isolation. 


(3) Dangers of Misuse: Learning from Experience Isn't Always Benign 

Certain tools, accessible to many, can be perilous if mishandled. Chainsaws and ladders are relatively affordable, and either one can be used to accomplish clear goals around your home. The issue here isn't that either is impossible to use without advanced training. It's that the cost of a mistake can be extremely high, or entirely irreversible. 

While the allure of speed-to-results and low cost-of-entry may attract many, the potential for significant losses can be exceptionally high. Learning by experience in such cases can be physically, financially, and/or emotionally devastating, as the consequences of misusing these tools may be challenging or impossible to undo. 

Of course, sometimes these problems converge. Industrial machinery, designed for efficiency and productivity, can be hazardous when operated without proper training. The consequences of misuse may not only lead to costly damages but pose serious safety risks. In this case, lack of specialized skills combines with risk to make problems even worse. 

The Best Tools Still Matter: 

Of course, the original expression still holds true. Having the right tools for the job, and tools of the highest quality, absolutely matters. Those with hammers wind up treating everything like a nail, so they can make use of the only tool they have.  

A wedding photographer with a cell phone or disposable camera would likely prove disappointing, and digging a trench with a toy shovel would leave everyone involved quite a bit worse off.  

Trying to do a professional job without state-of-the-art tools will leave you lacking.

It's essential to success both to have the full array of the best tools available to you, AND to know how to use them properly. 

Decision Making Time: When does it matter the most? 

It's essential to recognize that the efficacy of tools goes beyond their inherent features. The best tools are enablers, not magic solutions, and their successful implementation relies on the expertise and strategic map of the user. 

I'll leave you with one last insight that may not seem fully related at first glance, but actually makes all the difference in the world at applying the concept. 

In decision-making generally, it's advisable to consider the (1) importance and (2) reversibility of a potential outcome when deciding how much time, energy, and expense to commit. Overthinking a small decision or one for which a do-over is insignificant would be a poor use of resources.  

Conversely, trying to get away with the most facile solution to a problem, or whichever one you can do yourself, can be a huge mistake if the outcome matters a lot, can't be changed after the fact, or both. 

Underutilizing software for a hobby actually isn't a problem worth expensively correcting for. Taking a bad photo may not be the end of the world. Having bad photos taken for a once in a lifetime event in your life, the stakes get a little bit higher. Trying to save a little bit of money working around the house at risk of losing a probably get the picture. 

Often, applying this to the world of finance, just knowing the list of tools and attempting to DIY might not make as much sense as it first appears. The outcomes in this space are often BOTH consequential (your ability to spend money for the rest of your life) AND irreversible (lost earnings, growth, or decades of time value). 

This can be a helpful rubric for determining when it's OK to be a novice, and when it might make sense to ensure tools are being wielded by a skilled practitioner. As another old adage goes, "If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur." It's best for all of us to exercise the self-awareness to recognize which one we are in a given context.