The futile quest for the one true tool

One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them;
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

J.R.R. Tolkien _The Lord of the Rings_

I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings back in high school and read it multiple times before I graduated. I’ve reread it from time to time since then. It’s a good marker of my basic nerd-cred.

The quote has been on my mind lately as I try to make sense out of what feels to me to be an odd trend in adopting personal software applications. The most recent example that I’ve encountered is the application Amplenote, which pitches itself as an “attempt to unify four apps that smart people scatter their ideas across.”

I don’t know enough to either endorse or critique this particular application. What I am trying to understand is this neverending quest for the “one true tool.” I sort of understand the appeal from a marketing perspective. It’s the argument for Swiss Army knives and Leatherman tools.

I have several of each, but they don’t constitute my entire toolkit. What leaps to mind first when I come across these pitches is Dan Akroyd pitching the Bass-O-Matic

What I don’t get is why you would want to subscribe to this line of thought as an aspiring knowledge worker. At the early stages of a knowledge work career, it is possible to think of yourself as an expert in a particular tool or technique. It’s possible to label yourself as an Excel jockey, or an SEO expert, or an options trader.

The presumptive default path forward is to move from individual contributor to management. Rather than do knowledge work, you manage others doing knowledge work.

I think there’s another path that hasn’t received enough attention. That’s the path from knowledge work apprentice to journeyman to master of the craft. Two excellent entry points to thinking about that path are:

These are less about the particulars of acquiring specific technology skills and knowledge (although that is a worthy goal in its own right) than they are about a particular mindset or orientation. Instead, they offer insight about how to pursue a parallel strategy of solving problems and building your capacity to solve bigger problems.