You Are Not Your Tools
You can make great things. Your tools are only there to help you.
It was a crisp afternoon, late in 2003, long enough ago that we cared to check the mailbox daily, but recently enough that the mailbox was already empty, more often than it was full. That was seldom a cause for worry, though, since the mailbox was at the end of our wooded driveway, a slab of asphalt rolling downhill perhaps 200 meters around some of the best of East Tennessee's fall colors — the perfect place for a walk where one could collect their thoughts and unwind. Growing up with 7 younger siblings in the house, the quiet and aloneness of the walk, combined with the sounds of nature, made it quite the reward itself, regardless of the contents of the mailbox, and the uphill walk back home. There's many a chore I've avoided through the years, but that mailbox walk is one I cherished.
As rewarding as the journey was, in its own right, some days were more rewarding than others. Such was the day when I opened the mailbox to discover a newsletter from the American Museum of Science and Energy, announcing their upcoming annual bridge building competition among other upcoming events. Beats me how I noticed it, but suddenly, that contest was the most interesting thing in my life.
Now, I'd never designed a bridge before — never even thought of wanting to do such a thing; and, every boxed model I'd ever made — other than the 2-piece glider planes — had been left half-finished, or worse. But there, standing on the side of the road in the afternoon sun, 15 seconds after learning there was such a thing, I knew I had to enter the bridge building competition.
My grandfather, Raymond Guay, is an architect. He'd designed the hospital ward where I was born, the church where my parents were married, and more. I knew him as Pepérè, the granddad that'd always had an insane number of batteries for Christmas toys. But then, he'd take us into his office, decorated with surprisingly realistic drawings of the buildings he'd designed with careful pencil strokes, in the days before CAD/CAM software was the standard, and suddenly, he was Mr. Guay, The Architect. A designer, a craftsman. The plain rolls of paper that we grandkids would draw pictures on as children could, on his drafting table, be transformed into the blueprints that would turn a barren tract of urban sod into an unforgettable landmark.
For most of my memory, Pepérè has been retired — but that didn't stop him from being a craftsman. Instead, he refocused his energies on woodturning, crafting everything from chess pieces to plates out of discarded chunks of wood on his lathe. We'd escape downstairs while the adults talked in the dining room and beg Pepérè to show us what he was working on, even when we'd already seen the lathe in action countless times. He'd grab the chisel — the perfect one for the task — turn on the lathe, and turn the wood into art.
I'd developed a love of woodworking on my own — minor wood-burning and carving projects — but I can't help but think that Pepérè's work had first sparked my interest in wood. It's not too surprising, then, that one Christmas around that time, Pepérè gave me a set of hobby and carving knives. There were blades of all shapes and sizes — larger ones for bulk cutting, smaller ones for precision cuts, V-shaped blades for chiseling, and more.
Building a model bridge from thin sticks of basswood for the first time isn't an easy matter, especially when your first inclination is to make a classic arched suspension bridge. But I, for whatever reason, was confident I could do it. I pored over stacks of library books, sketched out ideas, and tested them in the West Point Bridge Design Contest's app (and subsequently got myself into another contest — one where I only ever got into the top hundred results). It, still, was a stab in the dark, and my design was more aesthetic than structurally sound, but I had the blind faith to turn my dream into a reality and get a bridge in the competition.
Paper and digital designs will only get you so far, especially without 3D printing, so getting a bridge in the contest meant trips to Hobby Lobby to find wood and glue. But that's all I needed, thanks to the set of knives Pepérè had given me. I was rather confident that I had the perfect tools to make a winning bridge.
And so, I lined up my knives for their intended purposes according to the woodworking books I'd found, got a pot of water boiling to steam wood so I could bend it, and set to work. Everything was set: I had the tools I needed to commence work. This knife for bulk cutting, this one for trimming, and this one for shaving off the excess glue. What could go wrong?
A few weeks of trial and error, and one too many fingers glued together, and I had a bridge ready for entry. The correct knife for the correct job, plus a ton of determination, had produced what I could only imagine was going to be a spectacular entry in the competition.
Life has a way of growing you up faster than you'd expect, at times. Such was the morning of the bridge competition. I set out, bridge and knives and spare wood in toe, ready to win. I proudly handed my bridge in to be cleared for entry, never expecting that there'd be any reason for disqualification. But there was, of course. A change was needed here, this was too long, and these pieces of wood are glued together where they shouldn't be. We had an hour or so to get our bridges competition-ready, by the book, and so I quickly set to work.
You know what happens when you try to work too quickly? Everything goes wrong. Seriously, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I cut the wrong spots, broke pieces of wood, and snapped knife blades. Amid the panic, the other contestants were scrambling to fix their bridges, and there I stood, with an open set of 20 knives, minus the two I'd broken so far, of course. Inevitably, one after another, people asked to borrow knives, and before I knew it, I was stuck working with one of the longest blades in the set, the one blade that was decidedly not the best tool for the job. It was awkward, unwieldy — but it got the job done. My bridge was finished, ready to pass the stringent entry requirements, and wonder of all wonders I ended up getting 2nd place.
That day taught me an important lesson: the best tool for the job is the one you have. It might not be the absolute best tool in the world for that job, but it's the tool you've got, and it'll work. Keys sure aren't the best screwdrivers, and credit cards aren't designed to scrape ice off your windows, but they both can be the best tool for the job when they're all you've got. In all honesty, all I needed to make a bridge was a $5 Boxcutter, and anything more than that was extra. The important part was what I did with the knives — not the knives themselves.
It's far too easy to blame our lack of success on a project, or our procrastination on starting projects, or on our lack of the perfect tool. We obsess over having the perfect everything. And yet, success is ours to take, if we'll just put the work in. The job is up to us, not our tools.
When I did woodburning as a kid, I was rather convinced I'd be able to go pro by getting a fancier woodburner and extra burner tips. Kitchens and garages are filled with odd tools and gadgets designed to help us do stuff that we'll never likely end up doing anyhow, despite having the extra tools for it. It's the very same in tech: we look around for better text editors, faster external hard drives, and the best camera lenses, but don't put to use the tools we already have.
Being creative isn't about the tools we have. If it was, we wouldn't have beautiful architecture, music, and paintings from hundreds of years ago. Books would've never been written until Google came around, and Google wouldn't have come out until larger hard drives and faster processors had been invented. The first dairy farmer would have never made cheese or yoghurt if they'd had to wait for a dozen specialized tools to be invented first. Instead, being creative — and getting stuff done in the first place — is about taking what we have, and putting it to use. It's about us far more than it is about our tools.
It's not bad to strive to have the best tools. A Leica will take better photos than your iPhone, and a brand-new knife will carve far better than my half-rusted decade-and-a-half old blades. But a skilled photographer — one who's simply done the job for years and years and honed his skills with experience — will take better photos with the iPhone than most of us could with a Leica. And you'll likely cook a far better meal with a simple skillet and spatula than you will with a full assortment of the latest and greatest cooking aids.
If my grandfather could design buildings on a drafting table with a pencil, years before CAD/CAM software had been invented, then I'm rather sure the rest of us can do our best work with whatever tool we have lying around.
So go do that thing you've been waiting to do. Write a book in the free Notes app on your iPad or TextEdit on your Mac or Notepad on your PC. Take the very best photos you can, using whatever camera you have around — even the one on an ancient phone from back when we called them camera phones. Make a budget on paper, or in a spreadsheet, or even in your head. Go plant something in your yard, or fix that broken thing around your house. You've got the tools to do it, even if they're not the best tools.
The only thing left is for you to do it.
Originally published in Techinch Magazine Issue 2
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