Being Grateful for Tools

Stop, right now, and look around. How many things in your vicinity are tools? How many of these make your work markedly easier? How many could you live without?

In an earlier article, I touched on the simple but powerful idea that all tools have inbuilt limitations. In a business, engineering, and creative context, tools are something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. They’re ubiquitous, intriguing, and valuable by design. In large part, they’re what make humans human — and often, what make entrepreneurs entrepreneurs.

In recent years, there’s been a design-driven revolution around simple-tool mindfulness. Since 2009 (which I retrace to the advent of Kickstarter and resurgence of Moleskine), pens, notebooks, watches, chopsticks, wallets, and other simple wares have seen a new wave of love and care from entrepreneurs — the same sort of love we always gave our laptops and bicycles. Whatever the motives, I see this as a huge step forward, like resource-respect and self-care. But tools aren’t limited to the realm of objects. In fact, you probably use more digital tools than physical ones.

Part of the issue is, we rarely refer to these things as “tools”. They’re apps, interfaces, utilities, workflows, websites, whatever, but that’s icing on a very fundamental cake. And yet, they make us more productive. They bring our startup communities closer. They make our products more agile and responsive. They make awesome things possible… things which, until recently, were out of the question.

Still, tools bear gifts beyond their immediate utility. Not the least of these hidden gems is the added cognitive vocabulary that comes with every new tool. Allow me to clarify: As entrepreneurs, our ability to innovate hinges on our capacity to abstract and articulate new thoughts. Like all tools, our brains have inbuilt limitations. The only fruitful means of having truly new ideas is to “grow your conceptual language”: to think in terms of what’s possible given new tools, not just the tools you or your team are habituated to.

What’s more: all of this is to say, that just as we must tend to our bodies, startups, and minds, we must tend to our spirits. Unlike muscle-mass,net profit, or mental accuity, however, evidence of the entrepreneur’s spiritual nutriment comes in one remarkable flavor: gratitude. Many of us excel at directing gratitude toward employees, family, and business partners…

Missing from that equation? You guessed it: tools.

Be careful of trivializing tools as “just tools.” There’s loads of value in a tool, in excess of the “single task” for which it may have been created. And in the cases of larger tools, like web apps, take a moment to realize — and be grateful for — all the little tools from which they’re built. Understand the time and craft that developers, designers, and entrepreneurs — like yourself — poured into each of those specialty components. After all, the best tools are far, far greater than the sum of their parts.

Special thanks to Paul Irish for the inspiration to publish this post. Questions? Comments? Corrections? Please do say hello.