You are your tools

I believe that there are no miracle people. When others get the same work done as you do, only much faster, they are almost surely using better tools.

Tools are not always physical objects. In fact, most tools are not physical per se. For example, mathematics is a great tool. Word processors are another tool. Google is also a tool.

Intellectuals have tools to help them be productive. They have books. They have computers. They have software. They also have models, frameworks, and theories.

For example, I studied Physics, so I learned about how physicists think… and it is not how most people think. They have these tricks which turn difficult problems into far easier problems. The main lesson I took away from Physics is that you can often take an impossibly hard problem and simply represent it differently. By doing so, you turn something that would take forever to solve into something that is accessible to smart teenagers.

To illustrate what I have in mind… most people who have studied mathematics seriously, even teenagers, can quickly sum up all numbers in a sequence. For example, what is the sum of the numbers between 1 and 99. That sounds hard? So maybe you can look up a formula online. Maybe. But once you know the “trick”, you can do it in your head, quickly, without effort. There is no miracle involved. To sum up the numbers between 1 and 99, just pair up the numbers. You pair 1 with 99, 2 with 98… and so forth, up to 49 and 51. So you have 49 such pairs, and each pair, sums up to 100 (99+1, 98+2,…). So you have 49 times 100 which is 4,900. Then you have to add the remaining number (50), so that the sum is 4,950.

We don’t know yet what intelligence is. It is not something as simple as how many neurons you host in your neocortex… Dolphins have more such neurons than you do. It is probable that, in time, we will see that what defines intelligence is our ability to build upon new tools.

For some reason, the smartest among us have access to better tools. And that’s ultimately why they can run circles around you and I.

They can’t easily transmit their tools. It takes work, but it tends to happen. A few hundred years ago, most people could not read and write: reading and writing was a profession (scribe). Until fairly recently (i.e., a handful of centuries), the ability to read was regarded as a sure sign of intelligence. We now expect even the dumbest kids in high school to read a bit and sign their names.

Summing up the numbers between 1 and 100 in your head was, no doubt, a great feat once upon a day. Today it is something that all kids in Singapore know how to do.

You should be constantly trying to expand the number of tools at your disposal. It is a particular version of the growth mindset: the belief that you should always seek to better yourself, by acquiring new tools.

You might reasonably ask… “I have whatever tool that I learned to use, and it is good enough for what I do usually. Why would I invest in learning something new if I don’t feel any urgent need to do so?”

My answer is that acquiring new tools is the surest way to get smarter.

Further reading: Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs at the Wall Street Journal.

Relevant quotes:

We have become the tool of our tools. (Henry David Thoreau)

We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us. (John Culkin, also attributed to Marshall McLuhan)

Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. (Aldo Leopold)

Daniel Lemire, "You are your tools," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 22, 2017.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

10 thoughts on “You are your tools”

  1. A great example for a tool user is the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann who used a „Zettelkasten“ (slip box) to structure everything that he read and wrote. In total his Zettelkasten contained > 90.000 index card-sized slips of paper. He read in the morning and wrote slips in the afternoon (several hours). The Zettelkasten became his extended mind and gave him the superhuman capabilities to write scholarly books (> 70) and articles (400), many of which are highly cited (in the thousands and hundreds of citations). When writing, he “communicated” with his Zettelkasten (as he once wrote in an essay on his method). He could basically draw out a random slip and then followed links, went deeper into the details, jumped to related topics, etc. He said that he does not know what he has in his Zettelkasten, what it will come up with and that it surprised him.

  2. > When others get the same work done as you do, only much faster,
    > they are almost surely using better tools.

    While this sometimes the case, I’m not sure how universal “better tools” is as an explanation. I think it also arises when the returns are nonlinear to the skill of the participant, or when there is some threshold of talent that much be overcome before productivity is even possible. There are lots of examples, but I’ll present you with just this one:

      1. Woah, we have a time traveller here guys. Please tell us more about the thoughts and beliefs of people that were dead hundreds of years before your birth, and as requisite per the topic, unable to record such thoughts for posterity. What an amazing gift you have!

        Additionally, literacy is far from a given in any developed country, and as an educator I would expect you to know that. It’s around 86% in the US, and “the dumbest kids in highschool” are the very ones who never learn.

        You have some valid points, and obviously valuable insight to share. It’s a shame you insisted on burying the nuggets of what you know under a pile of the shit you don’t.

        1. Modern-day illiteracy is not defined as the inability to read and write. We do expect the dumbest high school kid to write his name and be able to read words. The dumbest high school kid may not be able to read and understand a set of instructions (say, a non-trivial recipe), but that’s a different problem.

          Early civilizations had professional “writers” (scribes). Of course, I am speculating when I write that it “must have looked like magic to most people and well beyond their reach…” I do not know how it looked and as you point out, we may never know. I do think that my speculation is warranted, however.

    1. How do you figure? One could argue that many on the “right” state that we have equal opportunity to everyone. By this theory, anyone can be anything. Author here states that tools make that possible.

      Seems like a right-wing ideal. Also, your thought didn’t really add anything to the discussion – maybe you need better tools..

  3. You make some good points. One of the challenges of learning new tools, though, is how much time you have to spend to learn them and whether or not they actually pay off in the end.

    Learning a new tool can burn a lot of your productivity until you’ve mastered it or at least gotten to the first plateau. I believe the most important part of the process–where you get the biggest win–is honing your ability to find and identify the right tools before investing a lot of time or effort in learning them.

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