It’s Not the Tools

In my junior year of college I took a watercolor class. People talked about two main things concerning this class. One was the teacher, an extremely skilled Chinese man with an awesome goatee, who some students feared and some students loved. The other was the cost of all the materials you needed for class: paint and brushes and paper, among other things. It was one of the most expensive courses to take.

I remember the lecture that our teacher gave us that first day of class, one that he referred to for the rest of the course. The crux of it was this: even though we invested in good tools for our painting, the tools themselves would not make our painting better. “The brush will only do what you make it do. You are in control of the brush, right? The brush is not in control of you?” If ever someone struggled with getting the technique correct, he would remind us sarcastically and humorously, and also right on point,“Oh, it must be something wrong with your brush. That’s why you can’t do it.”

I really was bad at watercolor. Like really, really bad. Like Highlander 2 bad.

It was hard to swallow for some people (I always thought it was kind of funny, even though I was terrible at watercolor), but this statement was simple and true. You control your tools. Your tools themselves will not make you better at what you do. You can have the most exquisitely made paint brush in the world, but it won’t make you a good painter. I do believe in buying good tools, and I think that quality in your tools is important—a computer that constantly crashes will get in the way of your work—however, they will not in themselves make you better. That is up to you.

Likewise, learning how to make cooler textures in Photoshop won’t make you a better designer, and buying a Mac and TextMate won’t make you a better programmer. Your ability to learn new things, to think critically about what you do and who you are, and to do things you already know better and better are what counts. Regardless of your craft, your skill rests in your own hands.