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February 3rd, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part VI: The Smith's Hammer
At first the adage seems to be all about narrow-mindness. People who are narrow-minded only see nails, and whack them, because all they have is a hammer. But what if we tweak the way this metaphor works. Perhaps we are missing a deeper insight.
A telescope is used to see things that are so far away they are invisible to the naked eye. And the microscope is used to see things that are so small, they too are invisible to the naked eye. These are tools that we can recognize explicitly as tools. But what do these tools accomplish on a fundamental level?
They augment our perspective. They literally change what we can see.
Might we extend this to say that anything which augments perspective is a tool? Perhaps. Better though is to recognize perspective itself as the tool at hand. Microscopes and Telescopes augment that tool just as much as a new idea does.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The wisdom of this statement is contained in the idea that our tool determines our view of reality. The hammer is a metaphorical constriction of perspective itself. In other words, the perspective you bring to life is the hammer. Perspective is the ultimate tool, the first tool, and the tool we use to leverage all other tools, like telescopes and microscopes. But unlike most traditional tools, perspective is nearly infinite in its malleability and adaptability. This doesn’t mean changing perspective is easy, only that it is possible.
We have all interacted with people who always have something to complain about. Whatever happens, no matter how good, these people always seem to find some rotten speck embedded in the eye of good fortune and often bad luck seems to follow them. These are the “woe is me!” Individuals who seem to feed off the empathy of others. Such people can be exhausting to an enormous degree, but here they prove useful. Examine their perspective as separate from the person for a moment. Think about their perspective on life as the tool they are using to interact with reality. How’s that going for them?
Compare this to the optimist who is always looking for the silver lining, the leg-up, the hidden lever.
Consider this further in the context of something a coach once told me:
Realists are more likely to be right.
Optimists are more likely to be happy and rich.
Important words there are “more likely”, meaning if you’re skeptical, that’s fine. Probability goes up for different things depending on which perspective you have. But which outcome would you rather stack the odds in your favor? Being right? Or being happy?
Years ago I stopped at a florist to pick up some flowers. I started chatting with the two people behind the counter and quickly learned that they were married. I asked how long, and it was over a decade. I asked how long they had been working together. Same answer.
“Hold up. You’re telling me you two spend pretty much all day, every day with one another?”
“What do you know that everyone else doesn’t?”
The couple looked at each other and smiled.
“It’s more important to be happy than to be right.”
It’s horrible advice to tell a depressed person to “just be happy.” It’s not going to work, and if anything it’s just going to make that person frustrated, upset, and probably more depressed. But what might happen if you ask: if you were going to have an amazing day tomorrow, what would happen?
This is a trick question. It invokes optimism without telling a person to be optimistic. This is a tiny example of how questions can be used to help others expand or narrow their perspective. This question does both, it expands a person’s perspective to include tomorrow, and then narrows it into details that might be helpful, actionable and effective. But this isn’t about changing other people’s perspectives, it’s about your perspective.
If you were to characterize your perspective on life and reality, how might you describe it. Or better yet, how would your closest friends describe your perspective. Are you a victim? A realist? An optimist?
Considering this group of perspectives, which one is more likely to get lucky? Or consider that same question rephrased: which one is looking for hidden leverage? The victim, the realist, or the optimist?
A particularly insidious breed of cynicism has infected recent decades. Anxiety over climate change, war, disease, inequality, dystopian technology. The fodder for the victim mentality and the realist seems abundant and fertile. And in light of the present many dream of a nostalgic yesteryear when things were “better”. One flaw of the nostalgic perspective has to do with visibility. The benefits of the present over the past are mostly invisible. No one has to worry about tuberculosis these days, or small pox. We have virtually no experience of these things so they don’t register in our vision of the past. People could die from getting a splinter, as one U.S. President’s son did. But again, all of these improvements are invisible, so it’s easy for the nostalgist to have a rosey picture of yesteryear.
Functionally, the past and the future have swapped places for the nostalgist. Such a person ignores the eradicated ills of the past and extrapolates everything currently bad into the future. This is cherry-picking at it’s finest. But in the spirit of the nostalgist, let’s go back as far as possible in an attempt to see if our ancestors were cynical realists or nostalgic victims, or something else.
The Smith and the Devil is one of humanity’s oldest stories. Research indicates that it’s been around for over 6,000 years, where it was first conceived in the Bronze Age of humanity. It’s a Faustian bargain with a metal worker as a shrewder main character, and it goes something like this:
Why would this story persist for thousands of years? And how would you characterize the Smith? Is he a victim? A realist? Or an Optimist?
We simply wouldn’t be where we are today as a civilization and a species if it weren’t for those of us who can creatively imagine a better future and take risks to try and make that imagined future a reality. Nearly all of the luxuries and comforts that we enjoy today can be traced back to some enterprising optimist who could imagine a better tomorrow. We live in that tomorrow, as a result of their perspective and the way that perspective allowed those enterprising individuals to change reality.
If the hammer is the perspective, what are the nails for the victim? Perhaps all the bad things that might happen. What about the realist? The nails might be all of the current facts about reality that are far from ideal.
But what about the perspective of the optimist. If the hammer is optimism, what are the nails?
If all you have is optimism, does everything look like an opportunity? Is this how bad luck can lead to good things and how good things can be leveraged into great ones?
Is it fair to say that our life is an expression of our perspective?