Money, business & how to avoid magic pill thinking

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Creative Commons License photo credit: me and the sysop

Oftentimes we get hung up on a perceived need for fancy tools when simpler solutions would work just fine.

Consider the nappy disposal unit I bought before my son was born.

Was it a complete waste of money? Why yes, yes it was.

Turns out that storing loads of used nappies together smells far worse than you just throwing them straight in the bin and no amount of expensive, deodorising bags will help. At the end of the day, all I had was a larger bag of smelly nappies to get rid of. That I’d paid extra to acquire (those deodorising nappy bags aren’t cheap, you know!)

So why did I buy such a ridiculous thing?

Simple. I was 24, living in a shelter for homeless pregnant women and desperately trying to prove to myself that I knew what I was doing.

For some strange reason, a nappy disposal unit seemed like the perfect answer to all my problems.

It wasn’t.

Here I am, pregnant and terrified.

Kirsty Hall: Pregnant, 1992

Several months later: note the ‘holy shit, what just happened?’ look.

Me with a very fresh Kidlet, 1992

Yeah, I don’t think a nappy disposal unit is going to cut it, babe!


Fast forward 18 years. Nappies are no longer an issue; instead I have a teeny tiny business to tend.

I find being in business a challenging proposition. Definitely not as tough as being alone, pregnant, on benefits and homeless but still pretty tough.

I’m chronically ill, which makes it hard for me to sustain the energy and momentum needed to run a business. But more importantly, the language of business either bores me rigid or terrifies me. If you start talking about ‘target markets’ and ROI, I go into ‘hiding under the desk’ mode. Plus my Starving Artist Self comes out to play and it’s not long before I’m hissing things like ‘shun the unbeliever’ and looking around for some garlic and a stake.

And then bad things happen. Mostly involving tears and chocolate.

Because businessy stuff scares the bejeezus out of me, I often find myself fixating on unimportant details or falling into the trap of thinking that I can spend myself out of stress.

So I’ll start believing that if I can just find the ‘perfect’ software system, then my disorganisation will miraculously be fixed. Or I’ll convince myself that I’ve bought the ‘wrong’ accounts book with the incorrect number of columns, so I should waste £17 on the ‘right’ one or the Inland Revenue will descend upon me and beat me with sticks.

In both these cases, I’m looking for fixes for the wrong problem.

The problem is not the accounts book: the problem is that I have a lot of anxiety around numbers, filling in forms and money. And no amount of software is going to magically fix my ADD tendencies.

It’s magic pill thinking.

What do you need to have a business?

Something to sell, somewhere to sell it and people to sell it to.

Er, that’s it.

Sure, there are plenty of twiddles you can add – you can systematise and optimize out the wazoo – but those are the three basics.

It’s true that some systems and tools are smart investments that will make things easier, cheaper or more efficient. Unfortunately when you’re a beginner, you don’t know what those things are. A lot of solutions are going to be over-engineered for where you are right now. And a lot of the things you think are solutions are actually your anxieties playing silly buggers with you.

Ignorance, anxiety or excuse?

We all find ourselves suckered into purchases that we end up not using. Sometimes it’s ignorance. Sometimes it’s a response to anxiety. Sometimes it’s an excuse.

We all know the person who has all the latest, greatest equipment for a hobby but doesn’t seem to spend much time doing it. Perhaps they have a mental image of themselves as someone who plays a musical instrument but they’re not committed enough to put in the hours of practice needed. So they buy yet another tuning device or the latest how-to book. And then never use it. They’ve confused buying with doing.

If you find yourself saying “I can’t make art until…” then stop & ask yourself if that’s really true? Maybe you do need a certain amount of funding or a studio space or a particular piece of equipment. Or maybe it’s resistance or fear talking.

If you find yourself stalling on starting your business because you’re writing a 40 page business plan or because you think you need new office furniture, you’re getting overly hung up on the details. You don’t need to wait for small lemon-soaked paper napkins before taking off.

Do you need a studio in order to paint? No, unless you’re working on a large scale, you do not. You might work better in a dedicated studio. However, if a studio is impossible right now, work out some other solution. But don’t use lack of a studio as an excuse not to paint.

What do you need to paint? Paint, brushes, something to paint on and the time and energy with which to paint. Does space help? Yes, it does. But not having space doesn’t completely rule out painting. Work smaller. Work in quick drying paint. Is it ideal? Obviously not and I sympathise if you’re stuck in a difficult situation where you can’t make the work you long to make. However, finding a compromise is better than not making art.

Do you need a ton of expensive equipment? Depends on what you’re making but often the answer is no. If you do, then owning it is not the only solution. Perhaps you can hire that specialist equipment, especially if you don’t need it every day.

If I wanted to make prints, I wouldn’t go & buy a printing press, I’d join the local print co-operative and use theirs. Or I’d use hand-printing techniques. But if I knew I wanted to make prints every day and I had the technical knowledge to properly maintain it, then I might consider buying and setting up my own printing press.

Do you need a £2,000 website? Almost certainly not.

Do you need expensive software? Maybe. But maybe you’re just looking for that magic pill. I recently tested out specialist content management software but decided that my existing spreadsheet programme would work just fine.

Stop. Rethink. Do you really need that thing or are your naughty ducks giving you grief again?

Spend smarter: 5 questions to ask yourself when you’re considering a new purchase

1) Why do I think I need this?

2) What tools do others in my field recommend?

3) What will this cost me in time, energy & money?

4) Is this an investment or a liability?

5) How could I achieve my aims without this thing?


Start small and work up. Don’t burden yourself with debts you don’t need. Don’t put artificial barriers in your way. Quit sabotaging yourself.

In short, watch out for nappy disposal units.

This post was inspired by Adam King’s post about why he became a minimalist woodworker piece. You should read it, it’s good.

Please leave a comment
Have you ever bought something through ignorance, fear or anxiety? Conversely, which tools have been great investments for your business? Got any other tips for avoiding magic pill thinking? Let me know below…

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

16 thoughts on “Money, business & how to avoid magic pill thinking

  1. Love this post. It applies not only to businesses, but to hobbies too. I've been seeing it lately in my wish for seriously expensive running shoes. I want these shoes because they are supposed to help with ankle and knee pain when you run, and they're terribly expensive. The whole reason I have ankle and knee pain is that I need to do more strengthening work, but that's hard and painful and the shoes seem like an easier quick fix.

    Thanks for reminding us that sometimes the old fashioned approach is better.


  2. Thanks for commenting, Holly, I'm glad it helped. :)

    I think hobbies are a real magnet for this kind of thinking. Knitting is one of my hobbies and the idea of buying stash as a substitute for actually sitting down and knitting is well known in the knitting community.


  3. Yep, I think that's one reason I've always been leery of selling, Katya: in my head it's associated with marketing towards insecurities and anxieties and I'm not ethically OK with that. I finally realised that just because other people do that, doesn't mean that I have to. Instead I can put out stuff that has value and market it with integrity.


  4. I love your comparison between having a baby and starting a business. They are, in fact, eerily similar! I bought all kinds of things in anticipation of my baby's arrival, only to discover that all you really need are boobs and diapers. I feel silly every time I give a gift at a baby shower now.

    Likewise with the business, I love your statement about what you really need: Something to sell, a place to sell it, and people to buy it. I think a lot of service professionals especially get hung up on putting up a spiffy website, rather than trying to actually land a client.

    A saying I heard that has stuck with me: “Time to quit saddling up and actually go for a ride.”


  5. I always give clothing, Sue. I figure you can't go too far wrong with that, especially if you give older sizes that they'll grow into. Extra special babies get hand knitted items. :)

    I used to think that my being afraid of business was a huge disadvantage but I'm slowly working out how to do it my way. Part of that is ignoring traditional business tools & approaches if they doesn't resonate with me. For me, it has to be fun or I know I just won't do it. I daresay I'll make lots of stupid mistakes but fortunately the internet makes the barrier to entry so low that I'm unlikely to bankrupt myself.


  6. LOL, yes, babies do eventually need clothing. Mine was born in summer, so in the beginning, he didn't even need that.

    I am having a good time experimenting with how far I can go on a very limited business budget. It's amazing how many free services are available online these days, and in my line of work, there aren't many physical items I really have to have.


  7. Great post Kirsty; very insightful; in my case it is fear that tries to manipulate me into doing something other than paint, like go looking for new brushes (I do love me a new brush) – anything to keep from having to face another failed canvas. It's an avoidance issue, thinking some “thing” (I like your “magic pill”) may pull me out of the miry pit. “Need” is a funny word; heck, artist Brice Marden paints with sticks! (


  8. Yes, fear plays a huge part, doesn't it. Believe me, I know the lure of a shiny new brush or a new ink pen as my bank account and local art shop can attest. :) And there's nothing wrong with buying materials, except when we use it as a distraction from doing our work.


  9. Loved this post! My diaper disposal bins are food shopping and adding ridiculous unnecessary stuff to my to do lists. My monsters do love it when I get overwhelmed. It gives them something to do!


  10. A few years ago I bought my first digital camera, a big brand new Nikon DSLR with tons of menu options. I was thrilled! But then I became overwhelmed with the whole thing, it was too much camera for me, it was too complicated for this low-end tech head. The joy of shooting flew out the window and I found myself wrestling with it rather than enjoying it, so there it sat, in its spiffy black bag, unused. Last fall, I bought myself another camera, this one a cheap plastic toy film camera. I absolutely love it and it’s become my camera of choice. Just goes to show, big isn’t better… and cheap can be fun.


    Kirsty Hall Reply:

    There’s an old photography saying, ml – ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’. I’d like a nice digital SLR but I know I’d end up never using it because it would be too heavy to stick in my bag.


  11. What you say here is a lot of good sense. I paint in the kitchen & my stuff is all laid out across the wood-burning stove (until it gets cold & we have to use it for its intended purpose! Then I’ll move to occupying the table.) Of course it’s not ideal especially when a teenager wanders in to make his breakfast etc; But the best thing is to try to make the most of things when you can isn’t it? Even the teeenagers – (one of whom was also born, like yours in 1992.)


    Kirsty Hall Reply:

    Hi Sonya, thanks for commenting. Honestly I find I work better when my work is embedded in family life and just part of the scenery rather than confined to a single special place but the rest of my family might not agree that this is such a good idea!


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