If Humans Were Tools, Which Would We Be?

Do you know someone that displays the shovel-like tendency to dig themselves into a hole? Some people have easy-to-find similarities, but what tool would we use to represent the whole human race?

The question was asked of behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, Irrationally Yours, and The Upside of Irrationality. He answered to the tune of a Swiss Army Knife.

And what a noble comparison. We are not one-dimensional, we are versatile, capable of responding to myriad problems in diverse ways. We owe many thanks to opposable thumbs and frontal lobes.

But the Swiss Army Knife is not without its faults. Ariely is brief in mentioning the pros and quick to point the cons:

“First, it is useful for many different tasks. Second, the Swiss Army knife gives us a lot of tools, but none of them (no offense to the Swiss) are that great. The knife is small; the screwdriver is hard to use; the can opener is OK but time-consuming to operate. And third, everything we do with a Swiss Army knife takes some time—we have to figure out which tool we want, find it, dig our nails into its little notch and yank out the desired tool.”

You don’t have to look far to see this in effect. In school we learn how to write, count, and calculate; what are these if not tools that we must dig out from our minds to pass tests and solve-problems?

When a group of friends split the bill, they pull out from their mental toolkit the mathematical processes of addition and subtraction, just like they would grab a bottle opener to get at the Cabernet.

This comparison helps display the benefit of continued education—the more you learn, the more equip you are to deal with what lay ahead.

It reminds me of a quote from Bo Dahlborn, which was printed in philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking:

Intuition Pumps“You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.”

With continued use these mental tools also become easier to find and use. At some point in the language learning process you stop having to translate and start thinking in the new language, just as you need not count when asked rudimentary addition problems. With enough practice, the skill becomes effortless, a habit capable of being done on autopilot.

So if you want to remain a sharp and purposeful tool, keep learning and keep using what you know.

Want to install some new tools in that mental workspace? Pick up your copy of Connecting the Dots here.

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