There’s a guy named Hugh MacLeod. He’s an artist and writer who riffs (or used to) mostly on creativity. I don’t know what he’s up to now, but he used to do these pithy doodles on the back of business cards I always enjoyed.

I remember reading something he wrote a long time ago about the connection between a person’s talent and the equipment they owned. Actually, it was about the lack of connection between a person’s talent and the equipment they owned.

It was his contention that fancy stuff – laptops, phones, cars, clothes, whatever – were props behind which mediocre people hid their mediocrity. The more props they had, the more they were trying to hide.

At the same time, people who were good at what they did, didn’t need all those shiny objects in order to do it. In fact, most of the time, those shiny objects got in the way of what it was they were trying to accomplish. Thus, if you wanted to be successful, the best thing you could do is recognize a prop when you saw it and avoid it.

Back when I read that, my career was just starting to pick up steam, but MacLeod’s words seemed like good advice, so I took them heart and made a point of always asking myself “is this thing really what makes the quality of work better?”

As the years went by, it became obvious what MacLeod had written all those years ago was right. The people who had to have those fancy tools, offices, cars, etc. were almost exclusively second-rate talents leaning on objects like psychological crutches. If the quality of their work sucked, it wasn’t because they sucked, it was because the equipment wasn’t good enough, or powerful enough, or new enough, or whatever.

This is why so many people who are crap at their jobs today have all the latest, state-of-the-art stuff and hang out in cool places and do cool things. I’m sure you can think of more than a few of these people in your own life. Hacks loaded with props are everywhere.

At the same time, people who are good at what they do, are very good at doing it without all the props. In fact, the most talented and successful people I’ve met tend to rely on fewer things rather than more. They know what works, and they stick with it. There is no correlation between their creativity and fancy equipment.

Yes, we all have some props (mine’s a wheezy 10-year-old laptop that barely runs a word processor). We’re human. We’re not designed to be prop-free. But, we should always be aware of the difference between something that’s a necessity, and something that’s a prop that’s supposed to magically to obscure a shortcoming.

When there’s nothing to hide behind, you’re forced to sharpen your skills. And that is what will set you apart from all the mediocrity around you.