Proverbs 2: A bad workman blames his tools

I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic practitioner of DIY, though once I get going I can enjoy it, even if the results are not always quite what I hoped for. Very often, though, it seems that when I botch a job it’s because I haven’t got quite the right tools to do it with. That’s when this proverb is lying in wait for me: “A bad workman blames his tools”. On the basis of this proverb, it seems that the tools will always be necessarily blameless, and I should always take full responsibility for my own incompetence. plane (tool)

After all, it may be said, I’m in charge of whether I use the tools or not. If the tool I’ve got is the wrong shape or size, worn out, or ineffective, then surely it’s up to me to get hold of the right tool? By extension, the same can be said of the materials I’m using, my own state of mind or body as I work, and even the wider context in which I choose to work. The proverb encapsulates a common experience of a way in which we often avoid responsibility, and guards against a recognised bias – often known as the self-serving bias – in which I’m likely to try to maximise the credit I take for things I did well, but blame my failures on the surrounding conditions.

But the fact that there are also proverbs saying pretty much the opposite should alert us that this is not the whole story. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” focuses on materials rather than tools, but makes the reverse point in a similar way. Your materials limit what you can do, just like any other aspect of the conditions you’re working with, whether it’s the tools, the workmates, the environment, or your state of health. You can change all of these things to some extent, but you’ll probably have to put a lot of effort, social capital or cash into changing them, and there are practical limits that can be put on any blame that should be attached to how much you fail to change them. At some point, if the conditions are against you, you have to accept them rather than trying to change them.

So, let’s take a recent real example of slightly botched DIY. I was screwing up a set of coat hooks onto a wall, but I couldn’t get the screws all the way into the wall because the resistance was too great and the heads of the screws insufficiently robust. Both a manual and an automated screwdriver continually slipped round in the screw heads when I tried to get them in further. But I got them in just far enough to conclude that the job was imperfectly done and the hooks would stay up sufficiently well. Should I have invested a great deal more time in getting it right, even going out to buy new screws and new screwdrivers, or even employing a professional to do the job? No, I think the partly botched job was adequate for my purposes.

So the Middle Way sometimes seems to imply facing up to one’s own incompetence, but just as often it means being satisfied with adequacy. A workman who blames his tools isn’t necessarily wrong.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Proverbs 2: A bad workman blames his tools

  1. I had to smile at this sympathetic account of a ‘slightly botched’ job; one which, after all, worked to requirements adequately, and whose possibly unsightly appearance could be easily hidden from sight by a coat, or better still, a hat.

    Recalling the proverb that states “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly”, I hope, Robert, that the results of your DIY efforts won’t reproach your finest sensibilities, with which I feel you are very well-endowed; or if they do persist, not for long! In any case, you seem to have anticipated that possible eventuality.

    As a fairly keen and reasonably adept DIY-er myself, I’ve learned that it’s always a good idea to mull over the plans of even the simplest-seeming tasks for a good time, unless they’re really urgent, and to visualise the steps involved, including the tools and materials to be used. That leaves time to pop to the local DIY supermarket of repute, and perhaps to solicit advice. There’s nowadays scarcely a task for which there isn’t a specific tool or materials to help even the most inexperienced person do a really tidy job; one that gives a glow of satisfaction even.

    I’m sure there’s a proverb that makes that point more succinctly, but I can’t recall it. And one that proverbialises momentary forgetfulness.

    Very good topic, I look forward to more in similar vein. I do like and often use proverbs myself, many of which other people find meaningless, as they seem to be going out of fashion. Fortunately, I’m learning some new French ones’ especially gardening ones.

    One such old-fashioned rural dictum turned heads and raised smiles last autumn when I went into a local French outfitters to buy a pair of braces to hold up my pants: By way of small-talk I mentioned “En septembre, si t’es prudent, achete graines et vetements” (“In September, if you’re prudent, buy seeds and clothing”). Being September, it seemed appropriate to the circumstances, if a bit whimsical. These well-worn examples of an older ‘oral tradition’ do seem to have a special resonance, and perhaps their power to call up thoughtfulness and a little ambivalence are part of that.

    I wonder if they will survive now that people seem to talk less, and communicate by text more, or perhaps new variants of the proverb will emerge?

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Peter. For some reason “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly” didn’t occur to me in the context of this topic – but it is a bit of a counter-balancing proverb. It’s a proverb I have to admit to rather disliking, because I associate it with perfectionism. But of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted with an extreme of perfectionism – it could just be pointing out the relative efficiency of forethought and application.

    In relation to the French attitudes to these things, I’m rather fond of the French term ‘bricolage‘, which means something like a merely adequate job using only the materials to hand plus lots of ingenuity. This term seems to have the right sort of Middle Way air to it – an air of mere adequacy rather than perfectionism, and of intermediate technology that tries to find the most appropriate solutions to problems taking everything into account in the circumstances, rather than the most technically perfect or socially approved solutions. I’d be proud to be considered a ‘bricoleur‘!

    1. Thanks Robert, I’d say that you’re a bricoleur par excellence (if that weren’t perhaps a bit hyperbolic) in the way you are developing the Middle Way in a collaborative and incremental way with other voices and opinions, including rusty relics dug up by a turn of the spade…..

      You describe bricolage very well, it’s a feature of country life here. There’s some intolerance of unnecessary waste, things that might otherwise be heedlessly consigned to the local tip are set aside for possible future use: bent nails are straightened; rusty hinges bathed in oil and carefully worked to unseize them; prunings from hedges and trees bundled up as faggots to dry out as kindling for fires. Since coming here I’ve learned that, after a morning’s gardening, it’s good to clean my garden tools of soil with a soft cloth, and to apply a little oil to their metal surfaces to prevent pitting. They may well outlive me, but they should stay keen and bright for their next use, and perhaps for years into the future, and that’s a good thought to entertain.

      Of course, the proverb about doing a job properly is open to an absolutist or perfectionist interpretation, for me it’s also about setting oneself an achievable standard that doesn’t see a task only in terms of delivering an optimum outcome, but also as something that has intrinsic value, its own worth. Is this what is understood as ‘praxis’?

      In my nursing work I was systematically indoctrinated into a level of performance of even the most mundane tasks, such as tucking in a sheet, to a high standard. It mattered not that the tucked sheet might be invisible to even the closest examination, it had to be precisely ‘enveloped’. The lesson seemed to be that neither outward appearance nor autonomous decisions of what might be ‘good enough’ were tolerable, as the intention to ‘cut corners’ might make a difference of life or death for someone, shame and ignominy for someone else: “For the want of a nail…….the battle was lost. And all for the want of a nail.”

      Anyway, it’s an interesting discussion.

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