Never imagined a day would come when I would pull off something befitting a cringe LinkedIn influencer: pull a quote from a leave-your-brains-at-home kinda movie and make a business lesson out of it.
But today is that day.
"The car don't make the driver."
Heroic chutzpah aside, the quote speaks to the idea that it's not just about the tools you have, but how you use them. Sounds like a cliche, but there's a lot of depth to it — the ability to spot which differentiates an amateur from an expert.
What is a tool?
Here's the Merriam Webster definition:
Some tools are richer than others.
A hammer has limited uses, while a program like Excel — which is technically Turing complete (like any other programming language based on logic) — has potentially infinite applications.
But notice that for any tool, however simple or complex, what is needed is clarity around the particular function it is meant to serve.
A tool is just a means to an end. It's the one who wields the tool who decides the end.
In simple systems with fixed rules, the most optimized/efficient tool will usually win. Because simple systems have fixed rulesets. The terrain is known, and what is needed is to simply navigate it in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
Think drag racing. The terrain is simple: just a long, straight stretch of asphalt. Success in drag racing, then, is largely decided by the speed of the car. The driver has little role to play in it.
Contrast that with rally racing, where the terrain is complex, with sharp turns, tough and unpredictable weather conditions, and a wide variety of navigational challenges to overcome. It's obviously more complex and having the fastest car hardly guarantees success as a rally racer.
Of course, both cars being equal, even drag racing is finally decided by the skill of the driver, but the car plays much more of an important role before the skill of the driver kicks in.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to get at is: in complex systems with many unknown variables, it's the ability to deal with chaos and adapt that makes the difference between success and failure, versus the sheer supremacy of the tool.
Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.
OODA is a decision-making process that was developed by military strategist and US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Boyd believed that in order to succeed in complex situations, we need to be able to rapidly observe our surroundings, orient ourselves to the context, decide on a course of action, and act on it.
The key to this process is speed. By being able to quickly observe and orient ourselves to the changing context, we can make better decisions and respond more effectively. This is especially important in situations where the stakes are high and time is of the essence.
But the very first step of OODA — observe — is only relevant for complex terrain where every decision is heavily dependent on the context of the play. The context itself may involve a huge number of variables, many of them largely unknown and being encountered for the first time. Think war, essentially.
And tools do not have the ability to observe and orient themselves to the context, it is only the one using them who has the ability to do so.
Figma is a tool. But by itself, it doesn't have the huge library of context the designer has in her head about the product, the users, the business goals, the cultural setting and era the product finds itself in, the expectation of the market when it comes to design, and a thousand other little but important details that go into designing. Only the designer knows that, and based on what her intent is, she can use Figma to create the output she wants.
Many amateurs make the excuse that they can't get started because they do not have the latest and best tools, equipment, and resources to do good work. This is a fallacy.
Take, for example, a field like photography.
Image quality is important, but it only matters up to a certain extent. Megapixels matter, but arguably only up to 12 MP for 90%+ use cases. Any more megapixels do not really impact the quality of your photograph if the primary medium you're going to use to display them is social media or your website. Once you have those megapixels and a decent enough lens and camera, other skills like composition, framing, editing, and your ability to communicate emotion through the photograph take center stage.
A photographer with a high-quality camera may be able to produce technically impressive and sharp photos, but it's the photographer with a creative eye and the ability to capture the essence of a moment whose photos truly stand out: one who knows how to communicate complex emotions via visuals.
Another relevant case that proves my point:
Any experienced writer knows that the output created by ChatGPT, the latest and greatest large language model (LLM), isn't directly usable.
Why is that the case?
Because as good as it may be, the tool doesn't have the rich context you're working in. It doesn't know who you're writing for, what level of detail and abstraction you wish to talk at, what cultural context do you wish to write around, what tone you wish to imbibe...
And business, along with all its sub-domains that directly interface with society and its people, like marketing, sales, product design, are the most complex terrains of all. The ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet and only the acutely observant and nimble marketer or salesperson is able to rapidly observe and orient their strategies in real time.
Such a person may use a simple (some designers may call it simplistic) tool like Canva and still do a better job than another who uses the latest and best tool in design.
In complex domains, your ability to have a high-resolution map and update it quickly matters more than your ability to use a tool or the efficiency of the tool itself. A machine, however intelligent, finally only operates on explicitly laid out instructions. It works on legible models, no matter how complex they might seem.
But the real world is an infinitely complex system where no rulebook suffices and the most valuable ability is to work with chaos.
We can discretize increasing amounts of new information on the way, but it is a never-ending process, and it starts with the ability to observe and generate better causal explanations of novel phenomena.
Good judgment and expertise still remain indispensable, no matter the tool or the intelligence it can feign. Real intelligence lies in observing the context and reading between the lines, something which tools cannot do, only humans can.
If you don't believe me, ask Sundar Pichai why self-driving cars will probably never come to India.
(Hint: India is a much more complex system where no one follows rules versus the simple block and grid layout of most cities in the USA.)