Everything Looks Like a Nail

twain.jpg“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

(The Economist attributed this quote to Mark Twain though I am trying to independently confirm the source.)

I find this quote illuminating. It explains why two people can observe or experience the same things and understand them quite differently. As humans, we view and interpret data– situations, people etc.– based on our own history, knowledge and skills. Our tools. For some the tool is a hammer but there is a vast array of tools– just check out a Home Depot’s tool aisle.

This led my thoughts back to a paper I had read about interpreting history. When trying to explain major trends or events in history the cause will always be an economic one to an economist, a political one to a political scientist or a religious one to clergy. In most cases while any one interpretation may be supportable and logical, the reality is that there were many forces at work.

I see corollaries in the workplace where lawyers, accountants, marketers, communicators or human resources professionals will see problems and suggest solutions solely from their area of specialty. It is the person or team that can integrate multiple perspectives that will be most effective.

To make this idea more personal, think of families. Husbands, wives and children tend to have different tools. Being self aware enough to recognize this and wise enough to understand the others’ tools can be the difference between anger and bliss. 

I greatly admire those, like Twain, who can find a few words to convey so much.

“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

Note to self. Work on being clever and succinct enough to have an illuminating quote that lives into the next century.

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8 Responses to Everything Looks Like a Nail

  1. Frank says:

    That would be so cool to have a quote attributed to you. Wow…good plan.

  2. 48facets says:

    Frank, I may not be able to change the world but I do have a chance at Bartlett’s.

  3. Nick says:

    I believe the quote is properly attributed to Abraham Maslow.

  4. Pingback: Why Now? “Everything Looks Like a Nail” « 48Facets

  5. Tom Ace says:

    One could say that Mark Twain simply found a really powerful (or maybe a really subtle) hammer.

  6. Pingback: The right tools

  7. Jacob Palme says:

    I have heard this quote many times in my life of work with computer software design and computer standards. The quote is usually very appropriate here, because a computer specialist usually has a very specialized set of tools – different from another computer specialist. For example, Linux developers have their set of tools, IBM mainframe developers have quite another set of tools. And depending on the tools, they will solve a problem in very different ways.

    A good developer has a good set of tools, and knows how to use them well. A bad developer will distort a problem, to fit his tool, and come up with a solution which is not userfriendly.

    Jacob Palme
    E-mail: jpalme@dsv.su.se
    Professor emeritus, Computer and Systems Science Department, Stockholm University, Sweden

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