In finance, everyone knows about compound interest. You’ve got a pile of stuff (usually money) that can grow on its own. It grows in proportion to the size of the pile. The bigger the pile gets, the more it grows. You can make the pile bigger in two ways. You can add to it yourself. Or, you can just let it grow on its own over time. For example, you can put your money in a bank account. Then, you add a little money to it every month, and the bank pays you interest for letting them hold your money. Your money grows. Even if you stopped adding your own money, the bank would keep paying you interest. Your money pile would continue to grow.
History is filled with three kinds of people: the kind who reap the benefits of compound interest, the kind who miss out on it, and the kind who get shafted by it. Remember, the bigger the pile, the more it can grow. Over time, this can make you very rich. Unless of course your pile periodically shrinks or catches fire and turns to ashes, or you blow it on something silly.
Compound interest can be slow at the start, but once it builds momentum, it takes off like nothing else. It’s an exponential process. Slow at first, but as fast as a mad squirrel on twelve shots of espresso towards the end. If your money grows with compound interest and your competition’s money doesn’t, you will eventually leave your competition in the dust. Even if they have a better start.
Compound interest works on your tools too.
You might have heard of a gentleman by the name of John Williams. He’s a film composer. When he was a kid, he learned how to use a handful of tools. He learned how to use a pencil, paper, an eraser, and a piano. And then he went off and did something absolutely remarkable, especially by our modern standards. He kept using pencil, paper, eraser, and piano for the next eight decades of his life. I know. It’s a wholly bizarre and staggering concept in our world where there are 8,000 ways to keep a checklist on your pocket-sized supercomputer.
So, this Williams fellow has written music for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Jaws, the Olympics, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List, and hundreds of these incredibly successful movies, TV shows, and even concert works with nothing but pencil, paper, eraser, and piano.
Now, you turn around and look at what we all do in the modern world. We’re always retooling. People who code keep switching to the next best thing. They change text editors, languages, keyboard arrangements, you name it. Musicians switch their music-making software, the musical instruments they play, the samples they use. Let’s not get started on productivity people and their million schemes for keeping checklists. If you write checklist/todo/task apps, you're basically in a recursive new market. Just write a new one every year or so and you'll have and endless stream of customers.
It’s all done in the name of experimenting, but really, everyone’s playing a lottery and hoping to get lucky. “What tool can I find that’ll make me successful?”
As people wade through the crap, on the rare chance that the stars align, they happen on something really good. You’d be surprised what you can find in sewers. So now you’ve also got this addictive mechanism at play. Nothing tickles the gooey grey jelly in between our ears like random rewards. You grind through a bunch of tools, and then from time to time you get a nice blast of dopamine. So you get hooked on the search. You just want to find the next dopamine hit.
I think there's something funny going on. Everyone’s playing musical chairs with their tools and, now this could just be me, but I’m not seeing anything dramatically more compelling than what people could do with the tools a decade ago, or even twenty years ago.
Yeah we’ve got a lot more power at our disposal, yeah we’ve got much better access to a variety of tools, but at the individual level you don’t see a lot of divergence. Writers today aren’t exactly out-producing a Voltaire or Lope de Vega in quantity, let alone quality. No one's coding circles around John Carmack with his quaint C++. How could they? Who's got time to write code in the midst of all the new languages they could be learning.
Again go back and look at film music. Are people writing music that’s 10 times better than John Williams? No. Some even argue the quality of film music isn’t as artisanal these days. But that’s subjective. Are people today able to write 10 more music than a man who was born closer in time to Tchaikovsky than to today? An old man who uses an archaic pencil, paper, an eraser and a piano to write his music? No. Most composers are far less prolific. And the few that are more prolific are only modestly so. Hans Zimmer has spent many orders of magnitude more money on his studio than John Williams on his. I wouldn’t say he’s orders of magnitudes more prolific or even subjectively better.
Most of us are accomplishing nothing, because we’re trapped searching for something to help us accomplish something.
The great search has great costs.
The great search can occasionally pay off. That’s not the problem. The problem is when the search doesn’t stop. The search means you find a pile of money....and then you set fire to it and go looking for a slightly bigger pile of money. Okay, it might not be that bad. Certain skills transfer, so you take some money over with you. But you never give a pile the time it needs to grow and compound. So unless you get really lucky and find a pile that’s enormous, you’re missing out on compounding effects.
It’s like you put $1,000 in some magic bank account that returns 5% every year, and after a year you say, "what the hell I only have $1,050? I’m going to go look for something that has $1,100 in it." So, you spend another three years finding and burning piles of money looking for the one that starts a little bigger and then you find it. Of course if you do the math, by the time you find the pile that’s worth $1,100, the original pile, if you’d stuck to it, would be worth $1220.
There are costs to retooling. There’s a time cost. There’s the cost of the tool itself. And importantly, you lose, if not all of your compounding effects, you lose enough to hold you back.
I imagine that in his late eighties, John Williams feels like pencil, paper, eraser, and piano are extensions of his body, mind, and soul. He doesn’t need to figure out how a pencil works or how to draw a note. There’s no confusion about what the black keys on the piano do versus the white keys. So he can be free to create, express, tinker, and experiment.
Once he gets to that point, he’s got a clear edge. The more you can experiment, the more you can tinker without being obstructed by things like “what the heck does this button do?” the more prolific you can be. You can be prolific at a much higher quality.
At age 88, John Williams is writing scraps that others can’t even dream about.
Simple tools give you more freedom.
Would John Williams be more creative and have more musical opportunities if he adopted music notation software or a DAW instead of sticking to paper, pencil, eraser, and piano? It’s possible he would do things differently. But is there something that software does that his tools can’t achieve? I’d argue not.
I’d actually argue that you have the opposite problem. Simpler tools give you far more flexibility than more complicated tools. With pencil and paper Williams can invent a whole new way to explore and write down his music. He can doodle pictures in the margins when he gets bored. He can scribble down an idea for later. The more complicated the tool, the more locked workflows there are. Complicated tools are someone else’s designed workflow. By definition, they lock you into that workflow. The best tools let you design your own workflow. Pencil and paper win there. With his pencil and paper, John Williams has a lot of freedom in how he approaches music than someone who is writing in a DAW.
That's a lot of why we switch tools. The designed workflows don't meet our needs, so we go searching for something that does. Maybe instead of searching for other designed workflows, you'd be better off stepping back and finding a simpler tool for the job?
I’m not saying you can’t stumble on something that will unleash a personal golden age for you. But it’s unlikely that you will. Just the same, I’m not saying sticking to your tools will guarantee success. But it will make it more likely.
Success is a function of performance and luck. You need to be good and you need to be lucky. Sticking to your tools improves your performance with those tools, and indirectly it makes it more likely that you get lucky. See, when you know your tools well, you perform better, and when you perform better, you can be more prolific. A person who is prolific has more chances to be lucky than a person who isn't prolific.
What the modern world does really well is expand access to tools. That means more people have access to a lot more potential. But here's the thing, a lot of that potential is locked up in compound interest. You have to stick with something to really unlock its power. Ideally, stick with the simplest tool that helps you do what you need.
It’s okay to enjoy the search.
You might be worried about being too specialized. Frankly, I would agree that people in this day and age are too specialized. But I don’t think you can call yourself a generalist just because you switch from C to Go to Swift to Java every couple of years. If you want to be a generalist switch from writing code to law or ballet. That's being generalist.
Look if you enjoy switching up your tools every so often and it makes you happy, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to keep in mind the context and know what you’re doing. There’s a lot of distractions out there. You have way more options in tools than most people have had in history. And there’s an addictive component to it. It’s good to know the upsides to retooling, it’s even better to know the downsides.
If you want to have fun tinkering with different tools, go for it. If you want to be really good at the activity the tools are there to support (writing music, coding, cooking, hunting, whatever) then take a long hard look at the downsides of retooling. Every time you retool, your focus shifts from the activity you care about to the tool.
The biggest downside is that you lose a substantial amount of compound interest on your tools. Not all of it, but enough to make a difference in the long run. In the beginning you don’t realize how much you’re giving up, but in the end, you will.