Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

You are your tools

I believe that there are no miracle people. When others get the same work done as you do, only much faster, they are almost surely using better tools.

Tools are not always physical objects. In fact, most tools are not physical per se. For example, mathematics is a great tool. Word processors are another tool. Google is also a tool.

Intellectuals have tools to help them be productive. They have books. They have computers. They have software. They also have models, frameworks, and theories.

For example, I studied Physics, so I learned about how physicists think… and it is not how most people think. They have these tricks which turn difficult problems into far easier problems. The main lesson I took away from Physics is that you can often take an impossibly hard problem and simply represent it differently. By doing so, you turn something that would take forever to solve into something that is accessible to smart teenagers.

To illustrate what I have in mind… most people who have studied mathematics seriously, even teenagers, can quickly sum up all numbers in a sequence. For example, what is the sum of the numbers between 1 and 99. That sounds hard? So maybe you can look up a formula online. Maybe. But once you know the “trick”, you can do it in your head, quickly, without effort. There is no miracle involved. To sum up the numbers between 1 and 99, just pair up the numbers. You pair 1 with 99, 2 with 98… and so forth, up to 49 and 51. So you have 49 such pairs, and each pair, sums up to 100 (99+1, 98+2,…). So you have 49 times 100 which is 4,900. Then you have to add the remaining number (50), so that the sum is 4,950.

We don’t know yet what intelligence is. It is not something as simple as how many neurons you host in your neocortex… Dolphins have more such neurons than you do. It is probable that, in time, we will see that what defines intelligence is our ability to build upon new tools.

For some reason, the smartest among us have access to better tools. And that’s ultimately why they can run circles around you and I.

They can’t easily transmit their tools. It takes work, but it tends to happen. A few hundred years ago, most people could not read and write: reading and writing was a profession (scribe). Until fairly recently (i.e., a handful of centuries), the ability to read was regarded as a sure sign of intelligence. We now expect even the dumbest kids in high school to read a bit and sign their names.

Summing up the numbers between 1 and 100 in your head was, no doubt, a great feat once upon a day. Today it is something that all kids in Singapore know how to do.

You should be constantly trying to expand the number of tools at your disposal. It is a particular version of the growth mindset: the belief that you should always seek to better yourself, by acquiring new tools.

You might reasonably ask… “I have whatever tool that I learned to use, and it is good enough for what I do usually. Why would I invest in learning something new if I don’t feel any urgent need to do so?”

My answer is that acquiring new tools is the surest way to get smarter.

Further reading: Stop Using Excel, Finance Chiefs Tell Staffs at the Wall Street Journal.

Relevant quotes:

We have become the tool of our tools. (Henry David Thoreau)

We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us. (John Culkin, also attributed to Marshall McLuhan)

Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. (Aldo Leopold)