If I Had A Hammer

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

That’s one of my favorite “proverbs”. I’ve used it for years and always attributed it to Abraham Maslow. But, have I been correct in doing so? Wiktionary to the rescue:

From the book Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham H. Maslow (1962):

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Similar concept by Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, (1964):

“I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

This blog post is about tools and utility and reductionism and throwing away some of life’s wonders like so much ephemera.

One of the frustrations of aging is losing your tools, not your physical tools like your screwdriver or tape measure, but finding you don’t hear as well as you once could, or see, or smell, and that wonderful tool of memory, where did I put that? Years ago a guy named Stephen Covey reduced the concept of being “highly effective” to seven habits. Number 7 was, “Sharpen the Saw”. Sometimes these days I can’t even remember where my saw is, much less how to sharpen it.

But even more tragic than losing tools through aging, is when we recklessly throw out tools—reducing the options in our toolbox by seeking simple, quick solutions—casting aside the tools of wonder, creativity, inquiry, spiritual quests, and in their place adding dogma, doctrine, principles, processes—tools that certainly have their time and purpose, but ugly and dangerous when they become the only tools we have.

If Kaplan is right about his “law of the instrument”, then I can probably look at my behavior and attitude and learn something. If I’m constantly pounding everything, there’s a good chance that I’ve reduced my toolbox to a hammer. You know what I mean?

So today, I’m taking stock. I’m thinking of my worldview, my politics, my religion, my relationships, my motives, my dreams, and I’m asking myself: what tools do I have in the box?

I read a column in the Washington Post. As I read I thought, I want more hope, that somehow we can collectively see that it’s going to take more than a hammer to pound everything, more than a screwdriver to continue to do what screwdrivers do. The proof is in the opening paragraph of the story:

There is so much anger out there in America: “Anger at Wall Street. Anger at Muslims. Anger at trade deals. Anger at Washington. Anger at police shootings of young black men. Anger at President Obama. Anger at Republican obstructionists. Anger about political correctness. Anger about the role of big money in campaigns. Anger about the poisoned water of Flint. Anger about deportations. Anger about undocumented immigrants. Anger about a career that didn’t go as expected. Anger about a lost way of life. Mob anger at groups of protesters in their midst. Specific anger and undefined anger and even anger about anger.”

I love poetry. Since our culture tends to reduce the idea of manliness to a caricature that real-men shouldn’t enjoy reading much of anything, especially poetry, I’m including a manly-esque poem, written by John Updike, author of works every guy should read. I share it because it has helped me take the measure of my tools.

By John Updike

Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools
turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer
for forty years. The screwdriver misted with rust
once slipped into my young hand, a new householder’s.
Obliviously, tools wait to be used: the pliers,
notched mouth agape like a cartoon shark’s; the wrench
with its jaws on a screw; the plane still sharp enough
to take its fragrant, curling bite; the brace and bit
still fit to chew a hole in pine like a patient thought;
the tape rule, its inches unaltered though I have shrunk;
the carpenter’s angle, still absolutely right though I
have strayed; the wooden bubble level from my father’s
meagre horde. Their stubborn shapes pervade the cellar,
enduring with a thrift that shames our wastrel lives.

IF I HAD A HAMMER. Click and listen. Makes me long for the beautiful complexity of the 60s and my first Coming-Of-Age, when my toolbox was full, even though I often tore up more things than I fixed or built. At least I was alive.