Earn Your Tools

If anyone’s flattering enough to ask for my advice on pocket knives I tell them — if they don’t have one — to start with something like the Gerber Ripstop.

Jeff Hunsberger half-agrees with me in The Slippery Slope of Knives:

If you’re looking for a cheap little frame-lock knife, it’s hard to go wrong at the price but I’d recommend stepping up to a better knife right off the bat. What the Gerber Ripstop was good for, for me, was clueing me into the fact that I would actually end up using a folding knife a lot more than I thought I would.

This is precisely why I’d recommend it. It’s an incredibly cheap way to get into the pocket knife game: only ten bucks, if you have Amazon Prime. But why not just drop some more cash and get something better?

If you’re using the infinite money cheat, stop reading now.

OK — reason one is that getting the cheap option and sticking it in your pocket is the best way to prove to yourself that you’ll use a knife enough to warrant getting something better. You’ll probably be amazed by how many times it comes in handy. If you aren’t: well, you’re only down ten bucks.


There’s a less prosaic underlying philosophy to this approach — one that applies to much more than pocket knives. In my mind it’s wrapped up in some kind of High-Fantasy concept of guilds and journeymen and masterpieces.

It’s something like this: it’s important to become deserving of a tool. It’s essential to building a skill that you pick tools that you’ll grow out of. So start with the thing that isn’t super-professional-advanced-level, and if you can put in the time and effort for long enough that you’re really starting to chafe under the constraints it places on you, then you’ll know it’s time to graduate. Here’s some examples:

  • Cameras. For heaven’s sake, don’t run out and get a $2000 camera kit as soon as you decide that you want to get into photography. First see if you can really push the limits of whatever you have (or whatever secondhand camera you can find cheap). That way, not only will you really appreciate the great camera when you finally get it, you’ll have stretched yourself as a photographer, too.
  • Writing apps. Spend as much time as you can working within the constraints of the default text app on your computer. Once you’ve managed to cultivate and keep a habit of writing, then you can pull the trigger on the expensive writing app.
  • Knives. Seriously.
  • Musical Instruments. You can only barely form a couple of chords? Practice on an old beater till you can do something more than just look soulful.
  • Skis, bikes, pens, tents, etc. The list goes on.

There are some exceptions, of course. I don’t think you should actively seek out things that won’t properly accomplish whatever they’re meant to do. I wouldn’t recommend buying a netbook, for example, because I genuinely believe you’ll end up paying more over time that way. I would, however, recommend getting a second hand Mac that isn’t completely maxed out with memory, as opposed to the new Mac Pro.

Some things you have to earn twice. Once when you make the money to buy them, and again when you build the skill or experience to deserve and appreciate them.

Don’t be that idiot with the shiny new thing who thinks he’s bought himself into the ranks of the talented. Be the idiot with the ancient, scuffed thing who knows he has to work his way out of it.

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