My dad was a teacher-turned-mechanic for nearly 20 years. He and my mom owned a repair shop and storefront in the small town where I grew up. In the front, they sold gas, treats, and shitty coffee. In the back, my dad worked on farmers’ trucks and the local pastor’s van.
When I was tall enough, I traded my grass-stained jeans for his smallest pair of overalls. I learned how to hold a flashlight, the best way to work a short-bristled broom and the easiest way to ruin a brand new pair of Z.Cavaricci’s. I also learned a lot about fixing things. He had a toolchest taller and wider than most, filled with all sorts of contraptions. My job in the shop was to watch over his shoulder and run to the toolchest to fetch the right tool. I learned to pick out a 14mm deep socket with a half-inch drive with my eyes closed and I could approximate metric to standard conversions without thinking.
Those days in the shop taught me a lot about tools. I witnessed both the effortless way you can finish a job if you have the exact right tool and the delight that comes from improvising with what you have at your disposal.
This is part of a rhythm that governs the challenge of solving any new problem. When faced with a problem or challenge that is foreign, we have two choices. We can use the tools we have, but in a new way — we can improvise. Or we can invest in new tools. We can learn a new skill, buy a new piece of software, etc..
It is a dance we all learn. We balance mastery of the existing with the pursuit of the new and shiny. We take pride in invention but also chase those moments when everything works exactly the way it was designed to. Nice, clean and easy. New tools can be great, but I think command of the basics is more powerful than you might imagine. Higher proficiency in a smaller number of tools helps us to stay nimble and work quickly. As we embark on new adventures and are confronted with new challenges we often don’t have the time or resources to invest in new tools. We must learn to use what we have.
In this way, we should all try to be a bit more like MacGyver. For those of you who might not know, MacGyver is a TV show character who could solve any problem with just a few basics tools. He had his ‘go-to’ items and he could use them 1,000 different ways. A pocket knife, a stick of gum or a paperclip were often the only things he had to work with. He was an expert of improvisation and problem solving.
But doing more with less takes mastery. It takes a special level of self-awareness to see and understand what you have at your disposal. This is no easy task, but one I believe to be worthwhile.