If The Only Tool is a Hammer…

“He that is good with a hammer (and only has a hammer) tends to think everything is (and sees every problem as) a nail.” –Abraham Maslow

Also see:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There are many formulas for learning and models for self improvement, and there are many people selling information.  A lot of what is being sold (and the apparent formulas–also for sale, that make up the systems being sold) seems to be descended from tried and successful methods of the snake oil salesmen: whatever ails you will be cured by the shaman’s elixir.   I’ll give you some examples of this:

A man has a headache.  Seeking a cure, he  goes to see:

A doctor of internal medicine who prescribes a chemical, which will make the uneasiness (disease) of his headache “seem” to go away;

A chiropractor who notices some spinal “adjustment” is needed;

An optometrist who sees eyestrain as the culprit, and prescribes new lenses to correct the problem;

A dentist who sees the cause as poor bite adjustment, so grinds down a few teeth, and for a fee will refer him to an orthodontist;

A psychiatrist who diagnoses tension (all related to unresolved childhood traumas) as the root cause and prescribes a series of therapeutic sessions;

*  A minister who is certain the man’s “heart” is not right with the Lord which will be remedied by appropriate “sacrifices”;

* A Nutrition expert who is sure his intake of the right kinds of foods is not in proper balance, and a particularly expensive dietary supplement (which they happen to have in stock) will do wonders for his discomfort;

A car mechanic who says the lumbar support in the driver’s seat needs to be adjusted for better posture, and tinted windows would cut down on the glare from the sunlight;

* A Heating and Air Conditioning technician is sure the problem is that his vents and ducts have a poor filtration system causing his breathing to be impaired by dusts, molds, viruses and other microbes and demons–all likely to cause headaches;

A motivational speaker who points out a need to move away from stress and tension by a (formulated) set of action steps (five? six? twelve? thirty-two? one?) that when successfully completed should bring about specific attainments with a by-product of personal happiness. Thus, headaches just disappear.

(Hey!  Keep reading!  This is not attacking your profession!)

Was the man’s headache ever diagnosed correctly? It doesn’t matter.  The point is that presumptions were made by some in the hopes that revenue could be gained by applying the only tool they had, and hoping he would buy it.  All of them saw the problem in light of the work they do.

A secondary hope may have been that once their tool (method) was applied, the man might feel better.  Often it is the illusion that “success = happiness” that is at the root of the matter–always in search of a nail that needs hammering, and hope somebody will pay to have it done.

(Note: I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for professionally skilled people when they are put to work to solve a correctly diagnosed problem.)

I think I understand it.   Sometimes people see only the square peg and the round hole, and try to make the fit out of what they believe to be necessity.  They will try (at least sub-consciously) to put a mask on either the peg or the hole in order to make the fit seem plausible.

I know people (myself included) that have often hired out as a hammer. Then they’ve been used (and abused) while driving (often imaginary) nails. Some have been fooled into thinking we are hammers, but some of us are probably not: some of us are more likely to be monkey wrenches.

You can drive nails with a monkey wrench, but there is some loss of efficiency.  Personally, I’ve been exposed to lectures, reprimands, sent to seminars, and workshops all of which were intended to help me be a better hammer.  Some of you who have more than once thought you missed your calling, or at least have thought of better ways to address problems (if your “boss” would just allow it) will understand.

As soon as those who have been driving us to drive nails realize we are not really hammers, we are put aside.  Not in any place where useful tools are intended to be readily available, but more likely thrown away (as they’d never have need of such an awkward tool that doesn’t efficiently drive nails).

Then, the “employer” again conducts a search for a proper hammer.  They will interview all manner of screw drivers, wedges, inclined planes, gears, wheels, pulleys, calipers, and wrenches each of whom will have a “proven track record” and resume’ handy to declare themselves convincingly to be good hammers.  This is particularly apparent when the only available employment seems to be for hammers in a culture that applauds hammers and nothing else.

Right now, you may be asking:

“But what if the problem actually IS a nail?”

Sometimes, that is the case.  But there are many different kinds of hammers, as there are nails.  The issue may be fitting the tool to the job. But even when the nail is the problem, you may not need a hammer: you may need a crow-bar or a nail puller; you may need a good disinfectant, a bandage and a tetanus shot.

Those who feel they have ever been miss-employed must admit it occurred often because we asked for the work.  We know that employers who perceive all problems to be nails, and do not understand the business of pipe fittings; nuts and bolts are not likely to pay as much for a monkey wrench as they would a hammer.

Consequently, like so many others, I have often done my best to act like a proper hammer when told to, because hunger does not agree with me.  This might be harder to recognize (and may make little sense) for those who have successfully found their niche and are gleefully employed pursuing their childhood dreams.

But many never see themselves in the a light of a “perfect niche”.  It may be more common than many will be comfortable thinking about.  That it may be common may often be the result of so many “settling” for something less than their potential; more often due to “belief disorders” associated with what those potentials are.  Further confusion occurs with the ambiguity many feel about what they “think” they want out of life.

Because of beliefs and confusions, many set their goals too low; others set them unrealistically high.  Either way, tension results, and it is apparent if you just observe the behaviors of so many people that make their way into newspaper stories.

By seeing people often unhappy and ill-suited for their work, it is no wonder that quite a few folks look around them and think we live in a sick society.  Well, maybe there is something sick about people struggling and unhappy in the pursuit of meaningless goals only (apparently) attainable by a series of meaningless activities.  It also isn’t very wise (and perhaps not even sane) to try to  so painfully strive (and suffer) to get something you don’t even really want, all the while forcibly trying to keep a positive attitude about it!

Once a person has a clear picture (visualization?) of what they truly want and should aim for, they still have to consider the correct and effective methods and practices: once found, you should want those practices  to become habit.  Click on:

Attitude + Action + Results (once you’re in that site, poke around a bit.  Go to the “about”, and click on his portfolio to see some of his applications.)

But be real!  Be careful to consider what kind of a cookie the cookie cutter says you are supposed to be, especially if you are not cookie dough!  It would be foolish to fault a jackass for not being able to sing like a canary any more than you should expect the canary to carry your burdens for you for long distances over rough terrain.

Further, the anteater shouldn’t commiserate too deeply about being neither a canary or a jackass.  To do so might interfere with his finding a nutrition-filled termite mound.  The anteater shouldn’t waste time attempting to convincingly imitate a jackass–leave that to the professional politicians.

“Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” -Albert Einstein

While you should strive to reach your potential (as Maslow encouraged us to do), there is no failure worth worrying about if you cannot become something you are not.  But do not get that confused with worthy aspirations: do not lower your own threshold of self-expectations in sight of something you really do want bad enough to do what it takes to get it.  This is especially true when what you want is really attainable.

Please consider “attainable” as one thing you should measure by, but there are others.  I offer these sights for your consideration knowing that some elements of “snake oil” might be suspected.  Just because somebody is selling a concept doesn’t make it true, and conversely, it doesn’t make it false, either. But, I do like some of these.


(note: “M” is for “Measurable”.  That this person wants it to also mean “Meaningful” and “Motivational” can become distracting from the importance of measuring something specific in terms of the “how much”, and “when” you want it.)

The oldest reference I know is: Doran, G. T. (1981).  Management Review, Volume 70, Issue 11(AMA FORUM), pp. 35-36.   http://www.ncdhhs.gov/humanresources/pms/pm/smart.pdf

Here is one of the more comprehensive uses of the template.  Many consultants  & writers have used these ideas:   http://rapidbi.com/writesmartobjectives/   which expands the model to include:

 Specific – Strategic – Sincere

Measurable -Meaningful -motivating

Attainable – Achievable – Appropriate – Assignable

Realistic – Relevant – Rewarding

Tangible – Time bound – Trackable

Additionally, Annette Richmond says:  http://www.career-intelligence.com/management/SmartGoals.asp

With all of these models, I personally prefer “Tangible” to “Time-Framed, or  Based” because time can be considered redundant with “Measurable”.  But more importantly, “Tangible” implies your goal needs to be real–otherwise a person can fall into the trap thinking “Happiness” is their goal, but that needs some clarification.

But of course happiness is the goal!  The very pursuit of happiness is the whole point, isn’t it?  But how can you get there without getting what it takes to make you happy?  So by such a simple measure, happiness is not so much the goal as it is the by-product of accomplishing or getting what you want.  In time, through processes of living and learning, you can find that happiness is not so much the destination, but the mind-set you can choose to use to get wherever it is you are wanting to go.

Simply put, you can have what you want if what you want is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and tangible.  But to have it, you must do what it takes to get it.  Happiness then, seems tied to some conscious and willful direction in your life.  The road that leads up to your back is the road you just paved.  Engineer and design the road to go where you want to go, and enjoy the trip–it’s called “life”.

Happiness isn’t where you are going: it has to be where you already are; it has to the part of you that helps you decide what you really want.  If that isn’t true, you will run the risk of being miserable while you chase after things you think you want, and things you think will make you happy.

But if you do not want or choose happiness as a present state of mind, you may never be able to discover the pathway to it in the future.  By doing so, you might be attempting an impossible journey.  People who believe they will not and cannot be happy until they get to Heaven are not likely to ever get there.

That their destination seems illusive could be associated with the fact that they do not recognize themselves; cannot identify any purpose other than whatever they’ve been taught to believe, and quietly struggle with the fear of being a misfit in a world that applauds the successes of well managed hammers.

Try as they might to be good hammers, the chance that they are monkey wrenches, or some other wonderful tool is worth some consideration.  Until they stop and look at themselves, they might continue desperately trying to find nails to drive, and hope it will make them…”happy”.  It is sad but funny too, that folks often follow the leadership of guides who they themselves aren’t really hammers either.

When true happiness remains elusive under such circumstances, people will slip further and further away from reality.  They will cling desperately to illusions of happiness narrowly framed in little pockets of wishful thinking they call “truth” because it is the only truth their belief systems allow.

They hope their “truth” will help them dull the pain and misery of meaningless and futile drudgeries associated with unhappily chasing an illusive happiness down a pathway going nowhere (or at least going nowhere they truly want to be).

You can see the sad reality of it in the faces of the so many addictions that plague humanity.  Ironically, quite often the very same emotional “drugs” people can come to depend on drag them further away from happiness–all the while searching for happiness (which might be right there under their feet if they will just look).

I suppose if you have a headache, and the cause of it is not diagnosed correctly, the proposed cure may not do any good, will it?  But even when a diagnosis is accurate, you still have to consider the cost of the cure and whether you’re willing to pay the price.

As I look back at the words written here, I must laughingly consider the prospect that, though I may not actually be a hammer, I have somehow managed to hit the nail squarely…on the thumb!

And to the cause of my own headache?  Ha!  I can see the label on that bottle just as clearly as if it were sitting right here on the table before me.  Just like many others, and perhaps even you, I will not easily forego habits as long as I believe they can make me happy (and even when I know they won’t).

For many people, the fear of any change that could be at the risk of what we wear as a mask of happiness must be kept at bay.  By so doing, it is often that finding our true selves (and the happiness associated with it) is also kept at bay.

Though masks may not be the real images of our true selves, many subconsciously fear what lies beneath them.  Could it be that the fear is caused by a greater illusion than the mask itself?

Take a look at who you are; what you are.  Are you happy with what you see?  But take a look at something else while you’re at it.  Stare at the other reflection–the one you think projects the image you are showing to others.  Is it really you, or is it someone you just hope others will see?

One of the hardest things to do in the process of self-realization is to recognize the habits that keep us away from being ourselves.  Why is that so hard?  The need to feel safe, as Maslow pointed out, is paramount.  Some of our habits hold up the walls of a fortress around the illusion of who we think we are, creating the illusion that we are “safe” inside that image.

We can come to believe that these imaginary walls protect us, and keep us safe.  Well, in a way, they do: they protect us from ever having to look at the truth about ourselves, and truth in general.

When you look at these fortress building bocks–these habits and honestly know what they are, a chance for a new freedom will be born.  Until that is done, most people will have absolutely no honest intention of giving up any of those old habits.

So what is it then, that holds us back?  Is it the fear that our real self will become at risk?  No, it is our illusions were protecting: not so much ourselves personally, but our beliefs–our entire belief systems that we need to secure, and keep safe from any and all attacks.  For it is without those illusionary structures, we might all have to take an honest look at who and what we are.  The subconscious fear of doing that can be paralyzing.

The irony is that the fear of becoming unhappy keeps happiness just out of reach for many people.  The problem has been recognized and addressed by others.  Books, speeches, and sermons have centered around topics of letting go of the things that hold us back, and find a way to come to ourselves–come to our senses, so to speak.  But buying the books is not the same as reading them; hearing a speech or sermon does not mean we are listening.

This is how I see it.  Feel free to let me know how you feel about it.

Additionally, you might want to read:


Dan’s book is a great tool to unearth the wonders of focusing on what you can do instead of what you cannot.  It just might become the springboard you need to launch ideas from mere dream status to real goals.

and also:


Steve’s book is profoundly valuable.  His focus on learning how to find your humor self rather than expecting circumstances to drive your reality is so important.  It can help with a (very spiritual) transition from facing what happens around you, to how you intend to deal with it.

Besides being full of some very good advice, these books are fun to read (unless you are a gloomy, pessimistic log of deformatory timber bent on lying helplessly in the bottom of a swamp waiting for rot to set in).  I’ve met and talked with both of these authors.  See them live if you get a chance–you’ll love it!  But in the meantime, read their books.  If you do, you are likely to tell others about them.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by DT on January 18, 2011 at 5:33 am

    (From e-mail) Nice posting, all the way around. I really liked the theme of “proper diagnosis” and am honored to be one of your options for alternative medicine. As always … your friend and fan


  2. Posted by Butch on January 20, 2011 at 9:22 am

    (from e-mail)Thanks Van. I enjoyed this, and passed it on.


  3. Posted by WDP on January 20, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    (From e-mail) Van, an excellent reflection! Your list of varying diagnoses reminds me of Hippocrates’ famous words: “It is the physician’s role to entertain the patient while nature runs its course.”

    I was broken of using a hammer for everything when as a kid my dad saw me using a screwdriver to chisel some wood. Being a man of few means, and bent on making everything last his lifetime, he proceeded to take the screwdriver from me and threaten me with a beating if he ever saw me using a tool for a job for which it was not intended. He was a carpenter at the time and had a tool box full of all the then-known tools. Your dad may have been of the same persuasion.

    On a similar note, I was once accused of providing “pastoral care with a sledgehammer” when I presented a case study during my chaplaincy training. My supervisor explained how I was bent on making a poor patient talk about what he obviously did not want to talk about.


  4. Posted by Betty on January 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I almost never have headaches!! I think maybe Smokie does, tho…..
    I’ll try to be nicer to him!


  5. Posted by JL on January 21, 2011 at 9:16 am

    (From e-mail) Van,
    I really enjoyed this blog! How people think (assuming they do) are motivated, and interact with other has always been of interest to me. Your “headache” example is one I’ll use in discussion in the future – Thanks. You may want to also read the book “Too Soon Old – Too Late Smart” by Gordon Livingston. A simple, easy read.


  6. Hadn’t had a headache in ages until I read this. I now have a headache; but hope to cure it by taking the aforementioned hammer and whack myself in the head.


  7. Posted by Bill Davis on February 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Hey Van, you’re deep… maybe it’s getting deep is the applicable term. Just kidding. I’ve enjoyed your musings in their various forms over the years. Regarding the hammer analogy: I use that as an example when the opportunity presents itself since the hammer/nail tendancy is often the root cause of a problem.

    BTW – another saying I like is to define some reccomendation as “a solution in search of a problem”. I have to admit that sometimes I am the one offering such a solution.

    Keep the faith.


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