The Toolbox Fallacy

I recently watched a video describing something called The Toolbox Fallacy. It’s about a cognitive fallacy that fights personal achievement, and knowing a bit about it reveals how we waste opportunities.

Watch the youtube video by Passion of the Nerd.

For this post I’ll transcribe, paraphrase, and write a bit about my interpretation. I set out to write this post intending to have a convincing message, but as it turns out, I’m figuring it out as I go along. Including how to write a blog post. I’m not an expert, take my conjecture with a grain of salt.

The premise

I can’t do (x-goal) until I have (y-thing)

The fallacy

  • You’ve likely substituted thinking for buying
  • You haven’t disproven alternative paths towards your goal
  • You shift your attention from the goal towards the tool
  • You’ve settled early on a tool (solution) for the job, rather than a process. You’re likely to adapt your resulting process to fit the tool, due to the sunk cost fallacy.

I think it’s important to have a trigger to remind you that you’re ‘entering the fallacy’.

If you catch yourself saying:

“If I just do/buy/get this first, it will let me….”

it might pay dividends to reassess your motivations.

From experience, and also paraphrased from the video, usually, once you have the tool you’re coveting, things still don’t change. A few examples from my own experience:

  • Purchased a second PC to use as a “server”.
    • I thought it would motivate me to study Linux, and I would use it for a host of purposes. I didn’t have much of a goal.
    • I could have technically used my existing desktop PC, perhaps with a bit more storage.
  • I buy electronics like crazy from eBay and Aliexpress.
    • Each time I think I’ll learn from playing around with the modules and equipment I buy.
    • Electronics seem to accumulate about 10 times faster than I use them.
  • I have accumulated over 600 games on Steam and recently canceled my monthly subscription to humblebundle. I was a big sucker for sales.
    • I thought if I kept buying games, I wouldn’t be bored and I’d be relevant in the gaming community (my ego identifies as a gamer).
    • I could have watched other streamers/lets plays, done research, made my mind up about the game quality, then committed to a full-price game and actually enjoyed it. Possibly even stream it.

Image result for steam sale spongebob conch

Pictured: The monkey with tiny cymbal inside my head.

Motivations

The driving force behind indulging in the toolbox fallacy is the fear of failure. It’s a form of procrastination. Fearing something motivates you to avoid it. You tell yourself that your chances of success will be greater with this tool. It’s not rational or fully conscious, but emotional. You wait to acquire a tool before acting because the tool fits with your preconceived self-identity.

Ego

You have an image or “identity of self” known as your ego. Your image of yourself, having achieved (x-goal), pairs nicely with commanding a tool (y-thing). Therefore, through a lack of rational thinking, having a tool is vital to achieving success.

In your mind’s eye, you “ought to have” useful tools once you’ve achieved your goal. It satisfies your self-image. What’s harder to visualise, however, is how you will truthfully arrive at success. There are many variables and paths.

Fear of Failure

When you buy “a key piece of the puzzle” in order to do the thing, you’re telling yourself you won’t be able to achieve success, in some shape or form, without the tools. You fear that without (y-thing) you’re doomed with (x-goal).

You’re not a failure if you’re not tackling the glorious, lofty goals with proportionally impressive tooling. Buying, or planning to buy a tool without the prerequisite critical thinking is a distraction. Break up your goals, run experiments, prototype. These are mental tools you can first acquire that allow you to see small incremental progress. You make more progress in small mindful increments than wasting time mindlessly improvising your way towards a goal – gathering tools before justifying them.

We greatly underestimate the effort involved to achieve our vision. We don’t know what we don’t know yet. We shouldn’t fear and try to avoid failure – it can be beneficial to seek it fast and often. It’s a powerful feedback loop.

Opportunity Cost

You’ve already chosen your weapon, so you’re marching off to slay the beast. This assumes a few things:

  • You’ve chosen the right goal
  • You’ve chosen the right tool
  • You’re going to succeed

Opportunity cost is the loss you incur by removing alternative choices and not enjoying the benefit associated with the best alternative choice. By settling on a tool first, you’ve already sunk your investment.

If you’re like me and work a job with high demands on your time, then you might opt to buy the “Ferrari” of that category of the tool. You trade off money for thinking. You don’t provide yourself the option of spending time, researching the right solution to your goals. You don’t appreciate an expensive tool to the fullest extent because you don’t have the time. You might even damage that expensive tool through incorrect use, because you’re tempted to shortcut learning. You experiment rather than spend time to study.

Remedies

Recording

Journal your way towards a goal from the outset. Your memory is terrible at best. Create a single starting point to identify the location of future records. Recording your thought process will set it in stone. Writing helps you clarify thoughts. You may think you’re clear until you try to define it in explicit detail. That’s exactly what happened while writing this blog post!

Reasoning

From software development:

Visualisation

Visualisation is powerful. Make yourself a project mindmap to record your decision-making process. I recently purchased mindmeister although they have a free version.

To validate your need for a tool, you ought to be able to have a conversation with someone (who is objective and constructively critical) while feeling conviction as you justify your need for the tool.

Prototype

Before buying, consider a prototype that would prove the tool’s usefulness. Lower your expectations greatly. Study and read up around the tool, is there a way you can get what you really want, deep down, without or perhaps with a cheaper or alternative version of the tool?

Recursive Questioning

Ask yourself at least five whys. Drill deep and see if the thing you want to buy connects back up to your values.

Goal Genocide

Celebrate killing your goals and ideas.

Conclusion

I think gratitude plays a large role in this fallacy. With less want for more, we might be predisposed to working with what we have, and perhaps valuing the process that takes us towards our goals, which will inevitably change.

No doubt this blog post will need some refinement. I welcome constructive feedback. I came in guns blazing and burned a lot of time refining it, with a loose definition of success. But you know what they say, real artists ship! I will endeavor to address the rationale being why I’m blogging in a future post.

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