For half a century, Andy Rooney has been an outspoken and opinionated journalist. For most of that time, his stories were written on his beloved manual typewriter.

It is only in the past few years that he’s relented and switched to a laptop computer. His ancient typewriter is enshrined in his office where it remains a symbol of a long and creative career.

Andy Rooney is not alone. Watch someone masterful at work and you’ll notice that there’s almost a reverence given to the tools of their trade.

On the days when Eric Clapton performs, he chooses not to see or touch his principle guitar. He says that as he prepares to go onstage, he walks to get his guitar and it’s like going to meet a lover.

There is no work that I can think of which doesn’t involve some sort of tool or prop or machine. Whether it’s a computer, a ladder, a camera or a chisel, humans continue to devise tools to elevate the quality of their work.

Tools also provide valuable clues about whether our work is our passion or merely a way of filling time.

Although we hear alot about the role of technology, almost nothing is said about the role that tools (technological and otherwise) play in our success. Tools are never mentioned as a vehicle for self-awareness.

And yet they’re a nearly foolproof method of getting in touch with how we feel about the work we do with them. Far too many people do not experience anything close to the feeling of going to meet a lover when they pick up their telephone or dental drill. 

On the other hand, people who love what they’re doing regard their tools in an entirely different way. Besides keeping them in superb running order, they often personify them, giving them names and talking about their tools as if they were a partner. 

Paul Hawken was touring British gardens when he learned about the personal relationship some folks have with their tools.

He writes, “As I watched the gardeners work I studied their tools. I hefted a spade, the tool of choice. It seemed unusually heavy and it was sharp as an ax.

“The gardener saw me looking and came over. That was not merely a spade, that was his spade. I asked him if it wasn’t heavy and tiring to use.

“With a smile he invited me to give it a try. I toiled away as he grew increasingly amused. In his Lancashire accent he said, ‘Let your tool do the work. That’s what it’s made for.’ He showed me how use the weight of the spade, how to make the tool an extension of my arms, how to move my body.”

Hawken was so impressed with the lesson he’d learned that when he returned to the United States he tried to interest some companies in importing English garden tools.

No one was interested. Eventually Hawken realized that this idea belonged to him and the successful mail order business Smith and Hawken was born bringing the tools Hawken loved to a new market. 

Our relationship with tools is important—and maybe even a bit mystical. “I’m always looking forward to opening the ovens in the morning,” says glass artist Dale Chihuly. “Glassblowing is a spontaneous medium that suits me. I’ve been at it for forty years and am as infatuated as when I blew my first bubble in 1965.

“We use the same tools they used 2000 years ago. I know if I go down to the glass shop, I’m going to make something that’s never been made before. That in itself is an inspiration.

“I used to think it was the glass that was so mysterious, but then I realized it was the air that went into it that was miraculous.”

2 Responses to “Tools Tell a Story”

  1. Barbara Saunders

    So true. I recently had a contract that required me to change computer operating systems. I felt like I was fighting my own computer every day! I had become accustomed to a seamless experience, a sense that the computer is an extension of my own mind. So, I’ve added to my list of criteria for working conditions: get to choose my hardware and software tools.

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