How the relentless pursuit of optimization could descend into oversimplification.


I own a lot of backpacks—too many, perhaps—and for the longest time, I’ve been hunting for the perfect, one-size-fits-all alternative to replace most of my carryall collection. The only problem is that a perfect, one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist for my packing needs. I’ve been in hot pursuit of an impossibility.

It might not seem obvious, but my struggle with backpacks has far more to do with mindset than about finding the right bag. It’s a symptom of oversimplification.

When we try to solve everything with one thing, we leave out of the equation all of the beautiful complexities that come with any one thing. When we accept that disparate elements require different approaches, we can embrace the potential that lies in each and accept that a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t as ideal as we might have initially thought.

I’ve relied on backpacks for photography, hiking, tech gear, travel, sketching, and local excursions for many years. If something matters to me, I have a desire to try to bring it along with me. On one hand, I’m lucky to have so many interests I enjoy enough to want to bring with me wherever I go, but on the other hand, trying to bring so many of these elements along with me at one time prevents me from going deeper with any one category. By trying to force everything neatly into one category (or backpack), I’m limiting the potential of any of these elements to really shine.

This tendency can present itself in many different ways and can distract us from focusing on solutions that look at differing circumstances independently and honoring different styles for their own individual strengths.

I’m a minimalist and it bothered me to have so many different types of backpacks. A couple of years ago, I was so determined to scale down that I sold nearly all of my specialized backpacks and replaced them with what I thought would be a great, one-size-fits-all replacement. Since then, I’ve had to learn the hard way that my amazing photography backpack is a terrible hiking companion, and that my perfect nature journaling bag is lousy for travel.

I’ve had to accept there’s no perfect one-size-fits-all solution and sometimes, to do something well, what we need most is a one-size-fits-one approach. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room to optimize or experiment, but it does mean we need to be cautious of a tendency to throw out excellent options in the pursuit of simplification.

My white whale was the perfect backpack but it’s different for everyone. I wonder what your equivalent might be. 🤔

Afterthoughts for my fellow backpack geeks: The Peak Design Everyday Backpack (20L) is my all-time favorite camera backpack. For tech equipment, The Authority Backpack by Timbuk2 and its myriad of thoughtfully-designed compartments has been my go-to since ~2016. For a good combo-carry when you need a lot of room for lots of different things, The Roll Top Mini (or The Roll Top in its regular size) by Stubble & Co has an impressive amount of space and flexibility for a wide range of use cases.