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Situation-driven skill acquisition: Hammers vs. nails

My late thesis adviser gave me several pearls of wisdom while I was under his tutelage. In one case, he saw that I already had certain capabilities that I was singularly focused on using in my graduate work. His gentle but forward-thinking advice broadened my perspective then, and continues to act upon me now.

He said, \You could wander through the world with a hammer in your hand, looking for nails. Or, you could ask, what needs to be built? What tools should I then learn to use?\" As a result, I learned and used a wide variety of techniques, and pursued a research story that could only have emerged through the intersection of a similarly wide variety of skills, insights, and gathered evidence.

My current work role is the opposite of the proverbial 'pigeon-hole.' I am invited and often required to learn a tremendous amount of new information, and to assess its value within a given problem space. Part of my role is to perform technical assessments of work being done by industry and academia for government-funded science and technology programs. I am now acclimated to the idea that paid 'performers' under such programs frequently succumb to the temptation to become the hammer that sees everything as a nail... whether or not the target is actually a nail. They have a tool, and they are tempted to fit the world to the tool, rather than fit the tool to the world. This strategy may sometimes be good for making money, but it sacrifices the best of what our culture can produce through new insights.

The best kind of employment today is heavily based on continual learning, adaptation, and innovation. The best kind of employers are focused on making their staff capable and flexible. 'Education' is forever, under this model. 

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author.

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