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The World of Warcraft ArmoryIf you’ve ever played any character in World of Warcraft, you know about the diminishing returns of gear. If you’ve never played Warcraft, it works something like this: once you’ve reached the top level of growth for your character (currently level 80, soon to be 85), any gains you get to make your character better come not from “leveling up” but from getting better gear, better armor, weapons, etc.

In the beginning of your gear quest, vast improvements in your character’s capabilities are easy. Going from a green “uncommon quality” item to a blue “rare” item can add more power, more strength, more valued attributes to your character in great leaps. Your character can perform far better in the game in these early jumps in equipment.

However, as you keep gearing up, going from blue “rare” items to purple “epic” items, the items get more costly (or more difficult to obtain) for statistical improvements that are orders of magnitude smaller.

After a certain point, you reach diminishing returns, where the gear’s improvements are so small that the comparatively large efforts to get the gear simply isn’t worth it for the average player. Where a blue “rare” item might take half an hour’s worth of work, a top, best-in-game item might take weeks. Granted, it’s a game, so as long as you’re having fun there’s no penalty towards getting that gear, but it’s still significant diminishing returns.

After you reach the point of diminishing returns on gear, the best thing you can do as a Warcraft player is to spend time learning how to play your character’s skills with the gear you’ve got. Gear, after all, merely magnifies your skills. Learning the various ways your character can behave in combat, learning to fine tune your use of the right skill at exactly the right time – these are the things that will not only make the most of the gear you’ve got, but in some cases will negate any gear disadvantages you have. Anyone on a team in the game knows that it’s better to have a slightly undergeared, excellent player leading your team than a highly geared, incompetent buffoon running the team.

So what does all this have to do with anything? Well, life is exactly the same. Take photography – after a certain point, you’re just spending money on lenses and other gadgets with fewer and fewer returns. That first zoom lens makes a big difference in your photography. The jump from a 55-200mm to an 18-200mm isn’t earth shattering, just convenient. Photography gets to diminishing returns VERY quickly – better to learn how to compose and shoot with the gear you have after the entry level improvements. Better pictures come from better skills – gear magnifies skill, but doesn’t improve it. Only learning and practice improves skill. I’ve got a Nikon D90 with a few lenses, and when talking to Marko Kulik (a photography expert), he basically said I’ve got all the gear I could possibly need for years – now I need to learn how to use it well.

Look at marketing. The first analytics software you start using is an incredible leap from no analytics at all, or guesswork based on server logs. After that, you get diminishing returns on the quantity of information you get from web analytics – and the real juice to be had in web analytics is not learning what numbers you have, but what they mean and how you can change your business practices to serve your customers better.

Accounting? Lots of businesses run quite well on Microsoft Excel, not because they don’t want to buy an accounting package, but because their accounting staff is sufficiently skilled enough in Excel that the gear upgrade won’t make a difference in their performance – and might even diminish it.

In the end, gearing up is important only to the point of diminishing returns, whether it’s marketing or Warcraft. The lesson is the same across nearly all professions, trades, and hobbies: gear magnifies skill. Gear up to get past entry level limitations, then focus your time and energy on the skills you need to tap the potential of that gear.

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