Don’t Get Caught Up in Complexity

The Magician is about using the tools you already have in front of you.

My favorite piece of photography advice comes from Clayton Cubitt:

“Three step guide to photography: 01: be interesting. 02: find interesting people. 03: find interesting places. Nothing about cameras.”

I love it so much because it’s not really about photography. Or, not just about photography.

Writing: Nothing about apps.
Podcasting: Nothing about microphones.
Drawing: Nothing about pencils.
Blogging: Nothing about websites.

The advice also resonates because I am one to fall for those sorts of traps. I love discovering new tools and learning how to use them—even when I don’t need them. My friend Mike is the same.

He and I were talking on the phone the other night and we got onto the subject of LaTeX. It’s a kind of programming language used for typesetting mathematical information, and it’s something I need to know for my graduate program. Mike, on the other hand, had no particular reason for learning LaTex (or a related language, markdown) other than his own curiosity.

latex example

And, of course, there is nothing wrong with doing something solely to satisfy your own curiosity. Rather, the question you need to ask yourself is whether you’re adding complexity to your life as a supplement or a substitute.

Whatever you want to create right now can likely be created with the tools you already know how to use. You don’t need a DSLR to start taking photos—use your phone. You don’t need to learn CSS or HTML to make a website—just use Squarespace. You don’t need to buy the best microphone to start a podcast—you just need an idea and the voice memos app. You can get started right now and supplement your work with new knowledge and new gear as you go.

But learning starts to get dangerous at the point where it becomes a substitute for work. Because learning feels productive. If you spend three hours trying to figure out LaTeX but haven’t written a single word, you might still feel like you achieved something. And I suppose you did—you figured out how to procrastinate without feeling bad about it.

Austin Kleon writes, “The tools matter, and the tools don’t matterIt’s all about what you are trying to achieve.”


As you get farther into your field, you will need to wrestle with complexity. You’ll have to learn how to use new tools and professional software. But don’t get caught up in that sort of thing before your ready, before you’ve even started learning the basics. Much better to get going and learn what you need along the way.

Each Monday, I share strategies to help you master your limited time, get started, and build creative habits that stick. Try it. You’ll like it.

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