Shortcut to Success in Everything

Porter carrying supplies up mountain

going up?

It’s a six hour walk up a slippery wet trail – is this the best way to bring supplies to the top of the mountain? I asked why they didn’t use the 30 minute tram, at night when it is not being used by visitors, and my guide answered: it would put the porters out of work.  This provides a strong metaphor about efficiency and best practices.

Have you ever heard of an experienced golfer playing a round with the old clubs they first bought when they were learning the game?  Even while practicing at the driving range, they use their good clubs.

The easiest way to improve your golf game is not with hours of practice, but upgrading your equipment. The easiest way to improve your triathlon time is with the right running shoes, a faster bike, and a better designed swim suit. The right equipment helps to shed time from your finish– and makes you more competitive without extra practice.  What’s the best way to become a better photographer or painter?

A really good photographer or painter can probably produce something decent with the barest of equipment like a pinhole camera or a piece of calk. However, for most of us we are looking for any advantage we can find to improve our results. If you are standing in front of a once in a lifetime view, don’t you want to capture it with the best equipment. Clearly, the easiest way to improve your photos is to use a better lens. If you are spending the effort in learning to paint, the single easiest way to improve is to use better brushes, better paint, and better media. You can see it in any beginning watercolor class, hopefuls struggling with synthetic brushes, student grade paint and unsuitable paper – and with early failures, unfortunately, people give up. Sure upgrading always cost more, but calculate how much your time is worth, and consider how important your ideas are. Of course there is a time and a place for using scrap paper but if you are going to spend the time and energy to create, why hold yourself back. What’s worth doing is worth doing with the right tools. Of course good technique takes years of dedication but starting with inferior equipment makes it almost impossible to succeed. The best way to succeed in anything new is to first value your time and your ideas and start with the right tools and whatever you do, don’t be a porter.

– What do you think?



  1. David Goldstein says:

    I received several emails about this post that have interesting points of view:

    A professional photographer said “I’d say that practice makes much more of an impact on success than equipment. Try to find a copy of the book The Golfer and the Millionaire. It’s out of print but available on eBay.

    A talented photographer can make beautiful art from an iPhone and an amateur cannot make much better photos with a top of the line Nikon than with the entry-level Nikon. Same with brushes. It’s all about knowing HOW to use the tools. And you only learn that thru hours of practice. Over time, the tool becomes merely an extension of the artist and, frankly, any tool will do up to the point where the limitation of that tool is exceeded by the artist’s requirement for that tool. Take sharpness in a lens for instance…. focus is over-rated in some applications.

    Another person who trains for triathlons said that she prefers to train with a heavy bike and “who cares if its harder? I’m not going to win and I’m just competing with myself.”

    A long time artist said “I read about how you shouldn’t waste your talent using poor materials, I wanted to comment that it’s OK to exercise your talent rather than to give up because you are poor.”

    Thanks for your comments and everyone feel free to email me if you like or even better comment directly

  2. Arthur Rosenshvantz says:

    The six hour walk is the best practice if maintaining the livelihoods and/or dignities of the shleppers is an important objective and there is no particular need for alacrity in getting the supplies to the top.

    I knew someone who always used the manned toll lanes rather than the unmanned buckets (pre-EZ Pass days) so the toll collectors would not be made to feel useless by technology.

  3. Thanks for commenting Arthur!
    Your right, if the prime objective is universally accepted to maintaining livelihoods, the best practice can be to maintain the status quo – and in this case, there seemed to be no interest in changing.

    Adapting to new technologies bring benefits, often in efficiencies and increased productivity but also have costs, unintended consequences, and create gaps in service and quality. I have occasionally seen longer lines in the automated toll collecting lanes than the manned booths

  4. The beauty of humanity is that validity spans the spectrum of possible outcomes. I’m glad you shared the e-mail replies because they echo a sentiment on the creative side that I wish to share from the technical side:

    In the olden days, I owned a programmable calculator from Texas Instruments. It was called a TI-59 and used magnetic strips to store programs and data. As I loved to program, I spent hours fooling with this calculator and learned to do some pretty neat tricks – what would pass today for code injection attacks {gasp!} but were really just ways to exploit the architecture of the device.

    I did this again when the Commodore 64 came out. The point is that, just like the artist’s brush can produce amazing results in the hands of a skilled painter, so can a seemingly underpowered device be made to perform awesome results in the hands of someone who studies that device.

    My point is similar to the one made about iPhone art – but I’m applying it to analytical expertise instead of creative expertise. There is a bit of overlap, in my opinion, because I think that both the artist and the engineer tend to do a lot of whole-brained thinking.


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  5. Good point Mitch and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Even though we often don’t think about it this way, the creative experience certainly carries well beyond the arts to technical fields like engineering. So much about computer programming involves creativity.

    The TI-59 were popular, I remember they looked like bricks, and I’m sure many people used the calculator only for simple arithmetic but probably few used it to it’s programmable capacity like you did.

    What seems underpowered now, I’m thinking was state-of-the-art back then. Perhaps its about putting the right tool in the hand of the right person.


  6. Hi David,

    I just stumbled upon your blog tonight and was immediately captured by your “painting” category. I’m not an art expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I did recently start oil painting. Quite frankly I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s been a fun little ride so far. 🙂

    I have to say that I agree with the e-mailed comment above. Sure, your everyday amateur might be able to put out a decent product if he or she has the most optimal, top-of-the-line supplies, but a “true” artist will put out a mind-blowing product in spite of the obstacles. A major component to creativity is resourcefulness; that ability to create something from seemingly nothing.

    Real-life analogy: I’m a teacher, and for the past three years, we have had crippling budget cuts. I’m up to forty students in my classroom and am short eight textbooks, with the remainders falling apart. At every staff meeting I attend, many of my fellow coworkers are in a perpetual state of bitterness and resentment. They claim over and over, “We can not teach under such conditions.” But I don’t believe this. Good equipment and supplies make it easy to be a good teacher. But if these things are not present, that is when the truly great teachers emerge. These teachers will find a way to teach in spite of the obstacles; they will improvise, they will not wallow in self-pity but will actually rise to the challenge and ultimately design MORE creative learning experiences in their attempts to provide quality instruction without the proper equipment (now might be a good time to mention that I don’t yet consider myself one of these “great” teachers, but I hope to get there someday!). The same is true for artists. A lack of high-quality supplies should never hinder an artist. Rather, it should provide him with the opportunity to shine regardless of the circumstances surrounding him.

    Thanks for putting out such interesting posts!


  7. Hi Teacher Jodi,

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of resourcefulness in being creative. Making the most with available resources is a way that many people are creative and sometimes the lack of resources creates a need that leads to reinvention.

    Education is so important and Increasing class size resulting from budget cuts is certainty a problem. Sounds like you are facing a real challenge by being resourceful. Your students are lucky that you are undeterred and it’s wonderful that you are inspiring your co-workers – which in effect multiplies your efforts. So much of teaching is done in isolation and best practices developed over a lifetime by some of the most successful teachers are not transferred.

    You probably have heard of Ken Robinson – he has a lot of interesting things to say about how creativity is being driven out of our education system.

    Good luck with your painting and I hope your creative activities spark new ideas that you could bring to the classroom.


  8. Mmm… I know this argument of ‘best materials for the best work. I don’t entirely agree with it. For a start, the ‘best work’ depends partly on the skill of the artist and partly on the eye of the viewer of that work, in other words how it is perceived. The ‘best’ pigments can get pretty yucky and horribly after a period of time (in my opinion they should have a ‘best before’ date on them, but few have), the cheapo pigments basically don’t have as much covering power or aren’t particularly lightfast or they aren’t particularly vivid.

    Brushes… I stopped using natural hair brushes decades ago, I’ve no need for them. There are synthetic brushes these days that mimic the best of the natural hair brushes (though they definitely don’t come cheap).

    By the way, I’ve yet to find your paintings… where do they live?
    Paper… I’ve tried the expensive and in general I hate it, mostly because I like light to shine through and most art papers aren’t bright white enough. I use cartridge paper for drawing and some painting, getting it as cheaply as I can. (Large pads are cheaper than smaller pads, and the paper can then be cut by oneself to the smaller sizes). I use thick craft card. I use other things (if interested, keep an eye on my blog as I’ve got something coming up I’ll be posting about hopefully starting in a week or two).

    And digital (which you’ve not mentioned!) I use a cut down version of Photoshop called Photoshop Elements which is way less expensive than the full program. It does the same job.

    I understand what you’re trying to convey, but one area of life doesn’t always translate to another area of life. (Though of course, sometimes it does!)

    To me, a useless brush is one I’ve left in the jar of water for too long so that its bristles (which are usually nylon) have bent. Trying to manipulate a bent-bristle brush is very difficult unless it’s a random effect I’m after.
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    • Hi Val,
      I understand what your saying about skill but also as you said:
      “the cheapo pigments basically don’t have as much covering power or aren’t particularly lightfast or they aren’t particularly vivid.” I”m concerned that beginners sometimes give up because they can’t achieve the results they want with these materials.

      Of course it’s very subjective but I noticed a big step up in control when I switched to natural-hair brushes – and recently I have used some lesser paper and found that I was struggling to get the edges I wanted. It was possible, just a struggle that was taking me away from the higher concepts.

      Thanks for asking, my paintings, many of them can be found at

      I appreciate all your thoughts and comments.

  9. Your insight absolutely makes sense to me. As for myself, I don’t really go to low quality products to achieve better results. I can be a good photographer if I’m only using a mobile phone with lesser MP. However, on my part, an average quality of product that is within my budget will be enough for me to start with. At least, I already started everything for about 50% right.
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