Power Tools: Are You One?

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I’m not exactly proud of this story…

In fact, looking back, I’m a bit sickened by my behavior. We all do stupid things when we’re young. Thankfully, with reflection and considerate action, most of us evolve. But, I need to share what happened, because I still see a version of it unfolding in people’s lives every day. Yet on a far bigger, far more insidious scale.

When I was a kid, there was a member of our crew who’s nickname was Tool. He never really knew why everyone called him tool, he was just happy to be hanging out in our little group and not be the one everyone was betting would end up either dead or in jail. Truth be told, Tool’s nickname came from the fact that most in the group considered him a tool. Someone to be used. A hanger-on who was there to serve us. If we wanted to hit Burger King at midnight, but nobody had wheels, we’d call Tool to drive us. If we were hungry, we would stop by his house to empty out his snack drawer.

We were happy, because we got chauffeured around and fed. He was happy because he’d become an accepted, seemingly prominent member of the crew. Someone who kicked around with us and was called upon for important missions. Or so he thought.

In reality, Tool’s place in the group, his perception of power, was an illusion. Because, at least in our teenage minds, he didn’t add much to the mix that couldn’t be easily replaced.

And, I’m sad to say, when it comes to the way most of us earn our livings…the world today is filled with Tools.

We spend so much of our lives in a quest to gain prominence in a ny number of communities and organizations. With each advance to the next rung on the communal ladder, we accumulate what we believe to be an increase in power. From assistant to manager to director then VP. From pledge to sister to Grand Poobah. From rookie to slugger to captain.

But, in the end, if that path has been bound by a set of rote tasks, responsibilities and actions that facilitate another person’s or organization’s agenda without you expanding, evolving or improving the process, without you moving the line of what’s possible forward, without you adding in some unique way to the very fabric of the tribe, you’ve got to wonder….

Have you become a power source…or a power tool?

Because if you’re not defining or expanding a pre-existing role in a way that nobody else before you has done or nobody else after you can, if you’re not creating, your power is fleeting at best. You’re replaceable. Fungible. Dispensable. No matter what illusion of control you’ve come to believe you have, you’re not a power source, but a power tool.

Or maybe even, just a tool.

There to be turned on and used to accomplish someone else’s agenda…then turned off at will.

That doesn’t mean we should all run out and start our own businesses. Or that we should abandon a path, a job or a role tomorrow. But, it does mean we should seek to contribute in ways that move beyond the tight constructs of what we’re told to do. Ways that change the game. Ways that expand, rather than conquer the market. Ways that make patently obvious our unique contribution. Ways that make us irreplaceable.

Not because we want to feel secure, thought that will be a likely fringe benefit. But, because we want to add value to the experience of those we serve in a manner that touches them profoundly. And, in doing so, elevate our own experience of work and of life.

So, I wonder now, looking at your own path…

Have you become a become power source…or a powerless tool?

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22 responses

22 responses to “Power Tools: Are You One?”

  1. Dave says:

    January 2002 was when I jumped out of the tool chest, and I haven’t looked back.
    Had climbed the ladder and made it to VP level in a large internet company, where I promptly realized the ladder was on the wrong wall. Traveling for work most weeks, living in hotels and airplanes and seeing lots of conference rooms that all started to look the same, doing whatever needed to be done to keep the stock price up.
    Money and titles don’t mean much when your j-o-b sucks the soul from you.
    In a twist of fate, the internet bubble burst, and the company was sliced up and absorbed by our customers. I was actually sitting in the office of the president of another company, interviewing for what would have been basically the same sort of gig I was just in, when I realized I’d rather rub a cheese grater across my forehead than do that any more.
    Politely told that company thanks, but no thanks, and haven’t had a boss, j-o-b, or soul-sucking existence since.

    Thanks for the great post Jonathan,

  2. Love this post – and the name “Tool” How many people can we name that? Have often have we been used as the tool?

    I remember someone referring the a worker as a “machine” – and I guess it was the same thing. The “machine” could get the job done – even it they were performing work that had little ultimate meaning.

    And what is sad is that so many get their meaning from being the TOOL. They feel important. They feel needed. But they do not realize that tools are easy to replace.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Labeled or not, there’ve been plenty of times I’ve been the tool in my own life as well. The challenge is always to be able to see when it’s happening, then change the paradigm

  3. Anne says:

    When I read this I thought of an recent instance in my own life, albeit very small, where I refused to be “the tool.”

    My teenage son has been playing saxophone in our local home-school band for several years. With this type of band things are always in flux with kids graduating or, at times, developing other interests.

    The parents who had been running the group for the last seven or eight years graduated their daughters which left a leadership vacuum. I was the only person on the board with enough experience (and time in) to take on the position of president. Some might think this carries a measure of prestige (and sure I’ll add it to my “home-school resume”) but frankly to me this job is simply WORK.

    I had not wanted this position but when it was thrust upon me I was determined not to simply do it the way it’s always been done. Matter of fact I spent a couple of nights just culling paperwork – I threw away approximately 75% of the paperwork that had been handed to me (oh, I had become the default “secretary” as well!)

    I made significant changes to our handbook and the way the group operates i.e., I have delegated, delegated, delegated. I plan some more changes for next year which will be my second, and final, year as president. I didn’t “sign up” for this honor (?) so am already planning my exit, but I will leave the organization, I believe, stronger and more stream-lined and more about the mission which is, ultimately, providing the opportunity for home-schooled students in No. Florida and So. Georgia to have the opportunity to learn and perform music in a group environment.

    Anne @alivenkickin

  4. Joe Dallas says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Interesting post. I have been in places where sometimes I was the tool and other times I was the tool user. Neither place is all that great. Making advancement at the expense of others never feels quite as satisfying as that which is honestly accomplished.
    Just as an aside. I do not see a credit to the photographer of the drill shot above. I checked, the metadata has been stripped from the image. So as a content provider who likes to protect usage and copyright I think you can see my concern.
    Either a photo credit or a photo source to show you have the right to use an image is always a good thing for any writer/publisher to do even if it is only used on the internet, blog, website and so on.

    Joe Dallas
    jk Dallas Photography

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Joe – I purchase nearly all of my images (including the one above) from istockphoto.com royalty-free and abide by their policies. There is no metadata because I also crop and edit each photo, so the image you see is not the source-file.

      • Joe Dallas says:

        Thanks for clarifying. Respect for intellectual property has taken a steep drop off the cliff on the internet where so many expect so much (or everything) to be free.

        I really enjoy your posts…carry on.

  5. The differentiation between power tools and power sources speaks to another binary set of labels that I like – “radiators” and “drains”.

    Radiators are those people who give off energy through their willingness to share, commit to creative and generative activities, and support those around them in their quest for success. They are a positive influence on those with which they come in contact, helping them feel buoyant and enthusiastic.

    Drains, on the other hand, are exactly that. They are often emotional vampires, sucking the energy and enthusiasm of those around them. They create a negative sphere of influence that neutralizes others’ ability to strive for success. They leave the world gloomier and more frustrating.

    We can all play each role, and sometimes we need a reminder to pay attention to the way we are in the world. Unless we do, we may not recognize the impact we are having on those around us, or the havoc we are leaving in our wake.

    Thanks for sharing this great personal story, Jonathan, a great reminder to be conscious of how we are.

  6. Loved the analogy, Jonathan!

    I came across the same exact situation at my internship a while back. I had certain things that I had to do: a to do list per say.

    I did not have to do anything else. Yet I felt dumber by the day as I was doing those tasks. So I decided to create something on my own.

    Boy, did that make a difference. I had more energy during the day and I was excited to come to work because I was creating.

    Maybe that is why I am still looking for a job where I can be a power source rather than I power tool.

    On a side note, I do not think that power tools last for too long because they are cheap and, just like you said, replaceable. I think this concept can be applied not only to work, but to our personal lives: family, friends, etc.

    Hmmm…I jotted it down for further thoughts…

    Thanks, Jonathan.


  7. Hugh says:

    Although “tool” is a word no one wants to admit that he is, I guess we’ve all been a tool at some point in our lives. I am an employee in a small business and I believe I do my job pretty darn well. Because it’s a small biz, I don’t consider myself as much of a tool as, say, someone in a large corporation. Although I’m good at what I do, it’s not what I want to do. I aim to create in 2010 and build something of my own.

  8. Awesome post Jonathan.

    I think that being a tool in the corporate world is dangerously seductive.

    Why? Because most big businesses are geared towards rewarding toolish behaviour with slaps on the back, minor pay increases and meaningless promotion.

    A real innovator (power source) of an employee will first be met with resistance and criticism… then rewarded bigger and better, but much much later.

    The system makes it easy and appealing to be a tool. That’s why we have to really cherish the power sources, when they do appear every now and then.

    – Pete

  9. Does that mean that your job MUST include marketing how much you add to that job’s value? Because tooldom is perceptual, so I would guess you can’t just improve, expand etc without making sure people know about it. It’s a bit too late for them to find out once you’re gone!

    • I think that it can be a lot more than “perceptual” in that you can actively make a difference in whatever you’re doing, by coming up with ways to improve whatever your job is, proposing new ideas, snagging new clients, proving ways to save money, going above and beyond. Anything that has enough effect on the bottom line, whatever that may be, will speak for itself. No?

  10. I only started reading you since your interview with Danielle Laporte and I am soooo glad that I found you. I love your perspective and really relate to most/if not all of your opinions that I have read so far. You have an excellent way communicating complex ideas and concepts so that they seem simple and easy to digest, (ie. people reading don’t get defensive and not get the point, which all too often gets in the way of people absorbing new perspectives) I think that because of this incredible skill, you have the ability to make a huge difference, to influence a lot of people. I will definitely be following your blog!

  11. The beginning of the post reminded me of a song:

    “We had a friend, a talking man
    Who spoke of many powers he had
    Not of the best of men, but Ours
    We used him
    We let him use his powers
    We let him fill Our needs …”
    David Bowie – Cygnet Comittee

  12. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by twittybean: Power Tools: Are You One? http://bit.ly/4yD7qy

  13. Mick Morris says:

    Hi Jonathon,

    I really loved this post… having spent a very large chunk of my life working in paramilitary hierarchical organisation, it is interesting to watch as people struggle to achieve promotions and then find themselves completely disenchanted because they have simply become “tools” and have lost their passion for what the job was (to them.

    I’d love to share this around a few of them to get them thinking, but …….

  14. I don’t mind being the Tool as long as it’s contributing to a win/win agenda. In other words, I need to have an understanding of what a Tool is, to be willing to be a power source, and to be willing to stop being a Tool when it does not help myself as well as the Tool user. Thanks for the comments on expanding the market versus competing with it, and of providing service and value to others.

  15. Leah says:

    I love this post.
    It makes me reflect on where I might have been a tool in my life.
    It also makes me think about the value of really tapping into your own unique talents and what makes you different so that you stand out from the rest of the tools. We all have something unique to offer, but so often we hide it because we want to “fit in”. I can see what makes you different and unique as being your “Power Source”. I identify this as your “inner-freak” and to me this is where your super powers lie. This is where YOU can be found and tapping into this part of yourself always amps things up a bit.

    Rock on!

  16. Dom says:

    hi Jonathan –
    Great post, I could really identify with this from my days at a big law firm. So glad I got out of that trap and set up my own fitness business.

    Just read your Career Renegade book – it’s packed full of useful information that I’m already putting into action.

  17. Chris Dillon says:

    I was a tool in high school. I managed to turn it into a career of doing the job that no one else wanted to do. Now I plan to use that experience to fix broken systems.