Note: This is a guest post from Kristoffer Carter of This Epic Life.
How much of our creativity is in our hands versus in our tools?
This question comes up for me more and more often as my arsenal of music gear gets intentionally downsized or pushed out of the house by more kids.
I am a former touring bassist, and now Dad and kriya yogi. Music gear has always been important to me. But meditation forces me to examine and pare down undesirable habits and unnecessary material goods. As a musician, my fear can sometimes be: “…but what if this guitar (or pedal) has my signature tone in it?”
On our best days we remember that our tone, our art, our work resides in us—in our hands, not in our tools.
Tools are important. They are a means of getting the job done. And certainly some jobs require more tools for specialized functions. (NASCAR pit mechanics & painters come to mind.)
But artists can become overly-reliant on their tools. Tennis players and golfers fidget with different rackets or clubs. Photographers believe the next lens will magically improve their photographs. And musicians are famous for masking insufficient talent beneath a mountain of gear.
But the best musicians I’ve ever played with can sound like themselves on any instrument. Their tone shines through from their soul because they have honed their craft.
He’s not a friend yet, but let’s consider U2’s The Edge.
In terms of playing style he’s incredibly minimal, yet also one of the most respected and successful guitarists in history. His parts are memorable because he uses just a few choice notes with layered effects.
In the documentary It Might Get Loud, Edge’s style is contrasted with other musicians.
In the opening scene you see Jack White welding together a ramshackle guitar. In the next, you have The Edge standing in a room with hundreds of pristine guitars, amps, and processors. Both are living legends, but they have very different approaches to how they leverage their tools in creating their art.
During one show in Barcelona during U2’s massive 360 tour, The Edge used 21 guitars and 4 amps for 24 songs.
But both he and his guitar tech credit only 1 amp as “the basis for his sound.” (It’s a 1964 Vox AC30 for any of you gearheads.)
What does Dallas Schoo, The Edge’s guitar tech for nearly 30 years, say is the true differentiator? “The Vox AC30 is the basis of Edge’s sound. Live, and in the studio—well, aside from what’s in his head and his hands, and the magic he brings to what he does.”
Pretty interesting, coming from the most tenured guitar tech for the largest touring production in history.
Edge, in the book “U2 at the End of the World” had a remarkable quote. It’s at the heart of what I feel so many creatives miss:
Notes actually do mean something. They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You just don’t throw them around. I try to find the one’s that do the best job, and that’s what I use. I suppose I’m a minimalist instinctively. I don’t like to be inefficient if I can get away with it.
The stats, and his quote speak to the paradox that exists for many of us minimalist creatives.
Although he’s minimalist in notes, The Edge can’t cut corners on a multimillion-dollar show where people are paying thousands of dollars for some seats.
So how do we know when tools are improving our work, or when they are making us more inefficient instead?
As artists, we need to keep the quality of our work at the core of what we offer, and not the tools we use to get the job done.
Whenever a project makes me think I need more gear, I start mindlessly scrolling through Amazon or eBay for deals. I regain focus by asking myself a rather painful question:
“Am I shopping for more gear, or a better performance?”
Marketers love to hammer our pain points, then politely offer to hold our wallet while we writhe in our inadequacy.
It is not a marketer’s job to care about the quality of our work. They just want to sell us more tools.
It’s our job to care about our work, our art, or our tennis game. You want to become great, and develop a signature style? Find a few tools that are ergonomically correct, then start pursuing mastery—not in the pursuit of more gear, but in the honing of your craft.
Life and art rarely benefit from layering on more complexity.
As an aspiring writer I’ve stacked far too many empty moleskins in every corner of my house. That was, until I heard this lyric from Paul Simon in his song Hurricane Eye:
You want to be a writer? Don’t know how, or when? Find a quiet place, use a humble pen.
I can see now how trimming back the distractions and focusing on my craft has led to creating the art I always dreamed of. No new piece of gear or collection of fancy pens was going to ship my work. That was my job.
To focus on choosing better work over more tools, I have begun to embrace the following principles when it comes to my art:
1. Instead of choosing more tools, choose yourself. (tweet that)
2. Instead of investing money in the promise of better output, invest time, focus, and patience in creating your best impact. In my music, marriage, speaking career, distance running, and especially in my meditation practice I realize there are no shortcuts.
3. Tools can sometimes hack proficiency, but you can’t hack mastery. Period. There’s only showing up, and trying our best to do good work. Day after day, year after year.
4. Keep it stealth. Fill both sides of every page before upgrading your journal. Travel light to your writing retreats, trying to recapture simpler days before we had to stop constantly to recharge something. Don’t bail on a tool at the first sight of frustration, push through it. You may need a new tool, but maybe you just need to walk through the valley before reaching the mountaintop.
5. Whenever you find yourself needing an upgrade, ask: Do I really need more tools, or do I need more time to hone my craft? It’s important to address the root cause, instead of adding more complexity that will only delay the impact you’re trying to achieve.
6. Pare down to the essentials. Which of your basic tools create your most high-leverage output? There are some phenomenal photographers and cinematographers out there using only smart phones. Laptops may be our window to the universe, but a decent pen and a single moleskin can pull something distinctly more human out of us.
A true practitioner of yoga needs only a relatively quiet place to seek The Divine. Similarly, the artist in each of us may be desperately calling out for more space, not more gear.