Museum of nostalgic gas pumps

I recently made a comment about photography, referring to a saying I (and many others) have used when people talk about their gear: "nice camera, but now let me see your photos." This is because people too often get obsessed with their gear and they forget about using it.

For several years, I've been a serious photography enthusiast. In the beginning there are so many questions. You want to know which is the best camera, the best lens. You look into the power output and refresh rate of lighting. Those are all good things to be interested in, but none of them make your photos better.

Over time, I noticed that the guys whose photos I respected were never involved in those discussions. In fact, most of the guys whose photos I liked were using cheap cameras and expired film stock. Several were using nothing more than a flashlight to light their shots. And one guy was even cutting, scratching, and burning holes in his negatives before making a print. Wow.

Gear lust

But what's interesting is that in the forums, and on the web sites, and in all the mailing lists, no one was ever talking about why any of that stuff worked so well. Most of the people were talking about resolutions and DPIs. Megapixels and focal lengths. Refresh rates. Bokeh. Contrast. Gag. Puke.

You see the same thing when people talk about computers. I've been dragged into countless arguments about gigabytes and megahertz, sound cards and coprocessors and bus speeds. But it seems like no one ever mentions shoddy construction, frustrating customer support, or quality of components.

Yesterday, I unsubscribed from a mailing list that I had just excitedly joined only a few months ago. At first it was pretty cool — people with inspiring stories, discussions about passport and visa issues, tips for travelling as a family, resources for people thinking of becoming "technomads", etc. But for at least the last month, it's been nothing more than gear lust: people talking about which backpack is better, which power converter is better, which solar charger should you use, which underwear should you buy. Ugh.

I see gear lust all the time. People arguing over the number of megapixels in their cameras, the number of apps in their smartphone, the amount of RAM in their laptop, and the number of miles-per-gallon they can get in their car. As if any of these things made a difference. They don't.

Language gear

When I first did the real work of learning Spanish, I bought books. I bought CDs. I had Spanish grammar books and lesson books. I agonized over getting the right "program" so I would learn the best, and I got sucked into debates with others about whether Betlitz or Instant Immersion was better.

Eventually, I finished the basic program, and I finished the advanced program, and I was regularly having conversations in Spanish with people around me. But I still had more to learn and there was no more gear! There are tons of books for beginners, and there are quite a few for advanced learners, but there are no books for people after advanced, so I couldn't find anything else to buy and my study stopped.

I was in gear lust. I was making the mistake of equating my skill and my results to the level of the gear I could purchase and use. I was guilty of the same thing all of those photographers and computer users and travel forum subscribers were doing: obsessing over gear. But more importantly, I was guilting of not doing the same thing they are not doing...

Using it

You see, the guys who have used the cameras have a lot of answers about the cameras they've used. But they also develop a style and a workflow, and eventually they find the camera that fits the way they work. People who really make use of their computers get to know and understand which features they need and which make no difference, and in time they understand which one to buy next. And people who spend a lot of time living out of backpacks figure out pretty quickly what they need and what they don't.

The people discussing gear are almost never the ones who are actually using it. When you get in there and use it, the gear you need becomes as obvious as the gear you don't need.

The next book after advanced is not super-duper-advanced... it's a book in Spanish! I needed to be using my Spanish, not just lusting after more learning results.

And that's what's important: don't listen to someone who tells you that you need more verbs, or more flashcards, or more conjugation drills. This guy says you need to listen more. That guy says you need to speak more. One person says get more books and another says quit spending your time in books completely. They're all wrong.

The only person who knows what you need is you. But you don't know that unless you're using the language! If you try to talk to someone and they don't understand you, then you need more practice with speaking or pronunciation. If you try watching a movie and you can't understand the dialog, speaking isn't going to help, you need more practice listening!

If you don't understand a lot of words, you need more vocabulary. If you can talk all day about your family, but you don't know how to order dinner, you're not going to find the answers in a book — you need to spend more time in a menu.

When people argue about iPhone vs Android, or Windows vs Macintosh vs Linux, or Canon vs Nikon, or Rosetta Stone vs flashcards, or input vs output, or books vs humans, the only thing they're proving is that they aren't spending enough time actually using the thing they're discussing. And if you're reading it, or listening to the argument, then it's clear that you're not spending enough time using it either.

Once you're using the language, you will know right away what you need, and you won't need any salesmen or coworkers or bloggers to tell you.



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