The Right Tools for the Job

Last week I talked about my first day of school in a new country and my trip to a magical stationery store. I got a pencil case so I could fit in with my five-year-old classmates and put my pencil, pencil sharpener and eraser inside so they wouldn’t get lost.

What does this have to do with you?

Knowing that you have the right tools for the job.

What are your tools? drawing

So much of what we do requires tools and the skills to use them. I’m typing this on a laptop using software I had to learn to use. Yesterday I was making some yarn on a spinning wheel. We cook our dinners with kitchen tools and we garden with gardening tools that have changed little since the middle ages—because they were well designed to begin with.

When it comes to tools for our work, we are often given standard-issue equipment. Mostly it works well enough. But what if we looked at tools in a broader sense? Tools are often about what choices we make. Should I send this person an email? Call them up? Arrange to meet in person? Send them a handwritten note? The point is, the choice might have a strong impact on the outcome. “Management by walking around” is a style, but it’s also a tool.
My own professional tools are markers, paper, and boards I set on tripods. I choose German Neuland markers because they come in a huge range of colors, they’re water-based (non-toxic), and refillable. I choose layout paper because it’s smooth and takes ink well and because the smell of it takes me back to the inside of a stationery store in Madrid on a September afternoon.

What are your favorite tools, and how do they help you excel in your work?

When I was four years old, my family moved from San Francisco to Spain. I had my fifth birthday in a Madrid hotel. We moved into a house north of the city, and almost right away I found myself in an English-speaking school. It was technically British, but it hosted children from dozens of countries. I didn’t know any of them and walked around the playground during “break” (recess) whispering to myself, over and over, “I gotta bring a snack,” as I watched the others munching away. Back in Miss Thompson's basement, my classmates all had fancy pencil cases. I didn’t. I figured I had to have one of those, too.

In those dusty days, Franco was in charge, sheep still had the right of way in downtown Madrid, and stationery stores were dream palaces. Fresh new notebooks, bottles of French ink, German pencil sharpeners and erasers—and, of course, pencil cases—were stacked high to the ceiling. I still remember that smell — fresh paper, full of promise, shiny covers newly printed. The shop owner stood behind the counter like Mr. Ollivander, the wand maker, and you had to ask for what you wanted. My mother’s Spanish was still rudimentary, but I could point, and I did. I got my pink and green pencil case. I cradled it all the way home, like a passport or a wallet. It was my key to belonging (now that Mum and I had ironed out the break-time snack).

Drawing of a mother and daughter inside a stationery store