Moving from Tools for Thought to Thinking as Craft

The notion of “tools for thought” is undergoing a resurgence from niche topic to something approaching a fad. Everyone’s got a new tool for making notes or a course on how to optimize their Zettelkasten. Too few of them seem familiar with the prior art fueling their work. You might want to start by adding Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology to your reading list.

The problem is that we mostly get trapped talking about tools in isolation. The folks marketing and selling tools focus on what sets their tool apart from others. People looking at a new tool are seduced into comparisons between individual tools. Discussion threads revolve around narrow questions of “how do I force this tool to behave like the tool I already have” or “how can I import my collection of left-handed, Gregorian chant, meditations”. We don’t appear to have a principled way to talk or think about how a new tool might fit into a collection of tools and how tools (plural) enable and support the craft of thinking. We slide past the phrase “tools for thought” without giving much thought to where that might take us.

There’s more to quality work than any individual tool. 4.0. My wife is a photographer. If you want to irritate her, suggest that she must use a very expensive camera. She takes better photos with her iPhone than I can with $10,000 worth of equipment.

The eye behind the lens matters more than the camera. Or the mind at the keyboard.

Talking about tools is easy. Thinking about craft is hard.

Working out how tools enable better craft is the nub. George R.R. Martin still writes with Wordstar. Anne Lamott was pushing yellow legal pads in a recent workshop. John McPhee was rearranging index cards on the floor. I don’t take any of this as recommendations to adopt their tools. But it does make me wonder how I ought to think about how tools and craft intertwine.

A starting point is to turn Sturgeon’s Law into a working strategy. Sturgeon’s Law asserts that “90% of everything is crap.” Churn out a lot of output and learn to distinguish the 10% from the 90%. Becoming a better photographer consists of throwing away most of your shots. Same for writing. Step one in getting better is producing something to critique. Over time, you can begin to wonder about producing things worthy of critique. To start, focus on pure production.

Two things become possible once we’re producing something. One, we can begin to compare our outputs with one another and with similar outputs out in the world. Two, we can pay attention to how we’re going about our production. Both of these can work as individual practices. With a bit of confidence, you can expand your comparisons to others.

I’m an average photographer at best. I haven’t put in the reps that my wife has. She’ll take a dozen shots of a scene and throw eleven away to get an image worth keeping. Most of what she throws away put my efforts to shame. Slowly, I’ve learned there’s a body of knowledge about what separates a good shot from a mediocre one.

I’ve put in more reps at writing than I have at photography. This blog post is about 600 words at this point. There’s another thousand words of notes in the window next to this one and I’ve probably thrown away another 1500-2000 so far. There’s an extensive body of knowledge about blogging in particular and writing in general. I’m familiar enough with both to know the rules and to be comfortable breaking them when it suits my purposes.

I’ve got plenty of output that I can assess and evaluate. The second development path to explore is the production process. The tools I employ are pretty easy to identify. Teasing out the process is trickier. Discerning where improvement opportunities lie is harder still. It is most definitely a work in progress.

I’m on record that knowledge work should be treated as a craft. Lately, I’ve been lamenting that there aren’t enough case studies of knowledge work in action for us to learn from. Let’s see if we can start to generate and collect some to see what we might learn from one another.