If The Only Tool You Have…

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem will look like a nail”

This statement is often used to argue for the conclusion that we should expand our toolbox and widen our horizon. That we should learn more. This is good to some sense, not understanding the problem from a variety of perspective may blind us to alternative interpretations. However, last week I heard a pretty nice restatement of the prior message. It was this one:

“if the only tool you have is a hammer, start looking for nails”

I think this message is even more powerful than the previous one. In a world where everyone is highly specialized, it is very important to understand that you can’t be great at everything. Knowing what your strength and weaknesses are is essential. Also, true mastery usually takes a long time to develop.

In a book by Malcolm Gladwell, he argues that it takes 10 000 hours to achieve mastery. But this is not entirely true. The study that Gladwell is quoting is from a scientist called Anders Ericsson who have studied expert performance over the past decades. He has found that people that people that master a specific skill have spent a considerable amount of time. But sometimes less or more than 10 000 hours.
What really matter for expert performance and mastery is not so much the time spent as the act of the way people practice, argues Ericsson. He has coined a term called deliberate practice which is a very intense type of practice that requires the person involved to go beyond one’s comfort zone and really work hard on pushing one’s skills to a new level.

For now, what I want you to take home is this – developing skills are hard.

So what does that leave us with?

Well, if you already have a hammer then maybe you shouldn’t go out there and find another tool for yourself. But maybe you should try to find nails instead?

This is what I mean. If you have a skill, leverage it. Double down on your skills.

In the job hunt, it might even be contra productive to state every single skill you have on your CV and cover letter, because the recruiters might look for someone that is amazing in four skills and don’t care about if you have 3 other skills. Maybe that will just look like you are more spread out. People often get critiqued for having all of their experiences and education on their CV if they are not fitting with the role.

So, how can we apply the: “if the only tool you have is a hammer, start looking for nails” quote, we have to think about a couple of things:

What is our hammer(s)?

In other words, what are our skills? Think about your previous work. What have you been praised for before? What did you like doing in your previous work and education? What do you like doing in your spare time? Do you have hobbies? What have you spent time on in your education?

Just go over your life and collect things that you have done. Things that you made happen and value that you have brought to organizations, groups and yourself. Is there a common denominator?

If not, that is okay. You know what you are looking for. You are looking for your hammer(s). You probably have more than one. Ask your friends, former colleagues, former class mates, and family. Try out some different things and let this take time.

Where are the nails?

If you know what your hammer is, then it is time to start thinking about your nails. What kind of problems can you solve with this skill you are having? Think about the people that have the most severe problems with what you are having. What type of companies or people have the problems? How can you help them with their problems?

You can find this out by looking for other people that have the same skills as you. Read their memoirs if they have them. Read their blogs, Twitter, Facebook and look at their work life history on LinkedIn. See where they have been. That is probably a good indication of what you can do.

I did this all the time when I was a career coach. I used to take the person’s LinkedIn profile and search for people that are similar at LinkedIn. Then I would call those employers that person has been at previously and sell in this person that I was helping.

Are there enough nails to make a living?

In the internet age, the answer is probably yes. In the book The Long Tail, the author is talking about how the internet have created small niches. There are so many small niches today, so there is probably someone that needs your skills. The tough part is finding them.

Which other people also have a hammer?

Who also have this skill? How competent are they? For your career, this is one of the most important questions. If most people have only spent 10 hours learning whatever skill you have, then it will be easy to be better. However, if you are in a super competitive field you will have to put in probably more than 10 000 hours.

So, I urge you to think about these questions and please let me know what your answers are.


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