The mind, the toolbox


It’s always nice to have that one tool in your toolbox you’ve used so often you’ve worn comfortable grooves into the handle. When a task requires you use it, you’re relieved – the burden the task presented grows just a little milder. Indeed, tasks which can be dealt with using such a familiar approach can almost be a pleasure. Any task which doesn’t require the familiar tool is just a little more irritating.

And that’s when you really wish you had that familiar handle, that well-known balance. Because the proper tool slips out of your hand, or jerks and damages what you’re working on, or it just breaks. Now you really wish you could have used your favorite tool. That would have made everything go just right.

So you pull it out of the box, grip slipping right into place like hand and handle were made to fit each other. You go to work, expecting success, comfortable and confident. That’s when you realize you’re trying to take a hex nut out with a hammer, and you wonder exactly what you were thinking and where your life went so, so wrong.

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

Maslow was talking about the mind and human thought processes, as psychologists sometimes do. One thought process, one approach to problems, can get so comfortable you forget your brain can do a million other things, at least some of which could be more appropriate for the situation. You can grow to have difficulty adapting and changing up thought processes to meet different challenges. You slip into a groove in your thinking and don’t want to leave.

Everyone does it. Working-class people do it – they call it “being practical,” while ignoring other practical options. Academics do it – they call it “being logical,” though it’s only one logical process. I do it. You do it too. And why not? Routine is comfortable and confidence feels good. The inverse is true too; the strange and unknown are uncomfortable and sometimes scary.

Actually, it’s really bothersome when academics fall prey to this thinking rut. Higher education is supposed to be a place where more advanced and creative solutions are not merely encouraged but demanded. And yet I see so many people developing their thought processes to be more and more fancy and specialized hammers. Yeah, sure, the claw can fit into a flat-head screw, and that other bit could probably loosen a bolt with a little muscle, but it’s still a hammer, and you’ve got a screwdriver and a wrench right there.

A thinking brain is a complex thing capable of solving a huge array of problems in a huge variety of ways. The brain is a toolbox full of tools with adjustable fittings and boxes of different attachments for everything – the sort of toolbox even professionals dream of.

Sure, it’s so disorganized there’s an academic field and a handful of professions dedicated to figuring out where everything has gotten to. But enough of the parts are there and can be found with a little searching that it’s easy to come up with a couple of solutions to any given problem and maybe even find a dozen or so useful combinations that, with a little tweaking, can solve a wide array of problems in different ways.

Keep that in mind next time you find yourself banging your head against a hard task and getting nowhere. Your head’s a toolbox, not a hammer. And if you can’t find the right fitting in your toolbox, you can always see if someone else has something that will work.