The limited appeal of “Tools for Thought”

People don’t see their jobs as “thinking.”


One more advantage for those of us with jobs that are primarily thinking and who recognize that fact.


Yes, but my job – and arguably yours as well – is thinking to produce something as an end result. In my case, articles.

My primary assignment for my off-season job is to rewrite some software from one programming language to another (in this case taking poorly commented Java code and rewriting it into intelligible, well-documented Julia code). While the Julia code is the outcome, in terms of the effort required, it’s almost incidental. Viewing the production of that code as my job would be a mistake. The real meat of my job is to understand the Java code.

For example, I recently spent the better part of a day going through a particularly complex, completely undocumented Java figuring out what it does and how it did it (I had to resort to drawing out a test network on graph paper, writing down a bunch of variables, and going through each line of code noting how it affected the state of the system). I produced almost no new usable code that day, but in terms of moving the project forward, it was probably my most productive day so far.

I should add that I think my employer understands this as well. They chose to hire me for this role not because I’m an expert in Julia or Java (I’m just learning the former and don’t really know the latter) but because I’m a subject matter expert. The code is at the intersection of two pretty specialized domains and I’m right at the intersection of that Venn diagram.


My favorite story about what knowledge workers produce is this one from


I had just started working for a company, when the then development manager found one of the programmers drawing a flowchart.

“We pay you to program, not to draw pretty pictures”, the development manager said.

The programmer though he was joking. He was not.


I recently found what I considered to be an error in our network architecture, brought it to my boss’ attention, and he told me to think it through for a couple weeks to make sure we get it right.

I’ve long considered my job to be, not necessarily “thinking”, but “knowing” things. How to do things, what the best way to do things is, and that path requires deep, uninterrupted thought.


I hope you have another technical person in your organization that you can kick it around with. It is tough having to decide these sorts of things entirely inside your own head.


This is something I struggle with, even now as a small business owner whose primary job should be high-level thinking. I blame it on my blue-collar upbringing.

For years I had a job hand-grinding carbide drill bits. I was paid by the piece. After that, I worked in other various jobs where I was paid by the hour, but where I was required to meet a “parts per hour” standard.

It’s hard to stop equating value with the number of widgets cranked.


As a long-time knowledge worker, tools are mostly a medium to get stuff out of my head. In my case not to empty my head of them but to express them usefully.

So mostly tools aren’t to help me think but to help me express myself. So, for example, I “abuse” iThoughts to create tree diagrams, not to structure my thoughts at all.