Blake Smith

create. code. learn.


why i use a crappy computer

Consumerism has taught us that buying and owning more stuff will lead us to greater happiness. We’re also told repeatedly that the magic formula to getting what we want out of life involves purchasing more stuff. We get bombarded with these messages everyday; marketing companies telling us what to think, or telling us what we want. It becomes too easy to believe that the purchasing pill will make the rest of our problems go away. They won’t.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to apply this same principle to new skills and hobbies. Want to be a skateboarder? Buy the same skateboard that Tony Hawk uses. Want to play basketball like Kobe Bryant? Buy his shoes. Want to be a great cyclist? Buy that expensive carbon-fiber bike frame that Lance Armstrong has. We see these people, and we want to do things like they do, to be like they are - and we think that the quick and easy route to achieving their success is to purchase the equipment they use. When we stop to think about it, deep down in our hearts we probably know it’s a bunch of baloney, but the allure of quick results distorts our thinking. The quick formulaic solution feels like the right answer.

This is why I’m content to use my 4 year old Dell that’s beginning to fall apart at the seams. Having a better computer will not make me a better programmer. It really won’t. In many cases, having a better computer might make me a worse programmer. Instead of focusing on learning, experimenting, and trying new things I would be infatuated with the need to constantly have the latest and the greatest. As if having a different piece of silicon in front of me is going to somehow inspire my mind to work better. It’s ludicrous. I’d rather be a person who is creative at finding new ways to make a lot out of very little.

Here are two quotes from Ken Rockwel in this post where he speaks to this tendency in photography. (Photographers are notorious for thinking better cameras and more lenses make better photos):

“You finally realize that the right gear you’ve spent so much time accumulating just makes it easier to get your sound or your look or your moves, but that you could get them, albeit with a little more effort, on the same garbage with which you started. You realize the most important thing for the gear to do is just get out of your way. You then also realize that if you had spent all the time you wasted worrying about acquiring better gear woodshedding, making photos or catching more rides that you would have gotten where you wanted to be much sooner.”

“Your equipment DOES NOT affect the quality of your image. The less time and effort you spend worrying about your equipment the more time and effort you can spend creating great images. The right equipment just makes it easier, faster or more convenient for you to get the results you need.”

What if we could spend all our brain cycles we’ve wasted on trying to answer the question what should I buy next to make me better? and instead focused on how can I focus on improving my skills so much that it doesn’t matter what kind of tool I use? What would the world look like? How would it be different?

Now, I’m a big believer in the notion that tools are important. It’s important to understand that the pros often use the best tools available to them because they are the tools that are the best at getting out of the way. They are tools that allow the users’ creative energy to flow with least effort into their work with minimal energy loss in the transfer. The problem of object lust comes not just from our desire to take shortcuts, but because the tools are what we most readily see. When Yo-Yo Ma plays a song on his cello, we can’t get at what’s going on inside of his head. We can only try to interpret what we see and hear. In the case of Yo-Yo Ma, the most readily thing we see is his cello, and so it becomes easy to attribute his virtuoso music skills to this mostly boring and lifeless inanimate object.

This is why I think it’s so foolish how many people in the Ruby on Rails community make such a big deal about owning Apple computers (if you go to a Ruby on Rails conference, 95% of the attendees will be using a Mac). Sure there are benefits to a group of people using similar tools, but Rails applications can be developed on a Linux or Windows laptop just fine. This extends to Rails itself. Writing a web application in Ruby on Rails will not make for a better web application. The best benefit that working in a web framework can give you is it’s ability to get out of the way and let you get to work and get stuff done. If you feel most productive on a Mac that’s great: by all means use it, but don’t expect it to make you a better thinker and developer.

I really do enjoy Apple products, I have an iPhone and have even considered buying a Macbook Pro when my current laptop dies. But this constant need to purchase more and to think it’s going to make me a better person is unhealthy. I am not my computer (or my khaki pants). I can’t get smarter by writing a check. I can’t solve tomorrow’s problems by buying Apple’s newest gizmo. Instead I should focus on channeling these energies into new creative endeavours and knowledge, and using the tools I already have in powerful ways.

Stop worrying about what kind of computer you have, what kind of car you drive, or how many camera lenses you own. Instead focus on getting better at your craft, helping others, and solving problems that will make a difference. When you do these things with great passion you’ll realize that it’s your character that makes you who you are, not the possessions you surround yourself with.

about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer at Sprout Social.