Be the baby with a hammer

Michael Baby

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow

Conventional wisdom warns against being fascinated by a new idea and applying it to everything. But the reverse is true; we should deliberately apply new ideas more than it seems necessary.


Baby with a hammer syndrome happens when a baby gets her hands on a hammer. A hammer should only be used to pound nails. But our baby loves using her hammer so much, she pounds everything in sight – nails, xylophones, toys, even grandma’s precious crystal collection! Adults can behave like this, too. A lawyer enjoys success because she is a tough negotiator at work, so she negotiates everything, even with friends and loved ones. When dad gets a new sports car, he drives it to the grocery store, even though it is so close to home and there are no parking spots there.

I call this mindset “baby-hammering”. Many people warn against this mindset, and for good reason. It can be dangerous to be too focused on a single thing, and even smart and skilled people can be harmed by this. One example is the psychologist B. F. Skinner, who contributed to the theory of operant conditioning. This theory says that people do things more if they are rewarded for it, and do things less if they are punished for it. This is a great theory, but sadly Skinner fell in love with it, stretching it to explain everything and refusing to consider other theories:

“What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome […] he scorned opponents who had any different way of thinking or thought anything else was important. This is not a way to make a lasting reputation if the other people turn out to also be doing something important.”

Another example of bad baby-hammering is the story of Ancel Keys. He had the idea that eating some kinds of fatty foods caused heart disease. He focused on this idea so much that he didn’t seriously consider other possible causes, and produced a lot of wrong advice that millions of people followed:

 “His biggest error […] had to do with tunnel vision. Along with failing to explore reasons why fat might be linked to heart disease in a non-causal way, it seems Keys had his eyes locked so tightly on his lovely lipids that he didn’t notice the role of other dietary factors.”

We all know someone who constantly uses their pet theory for everything, with bad results. It’s easy to see why this is so tempting: it takes little effort to bash the same hammer over and over again. So doesn’t this mean that baby-hammering is bad and we should avoid it?

No! Don’t stop here, we need to explore further.

We saw that mindless baby-hammering leads to bad results. But the key word here is “mindless”. I think that when we learn a new insight or concept, we should be baby-hammering often. The difference is that we should over-use and over-apply things in an intentional way, while being totally aware of what we are doing and putting our heart into it.

Why is this good? For one thing, the dangers of baby-hammering are low if we are doing it deliberately. When we are baby-hammering this way, we welcome feedback and are willing to change course. This protects us against the biggest danger, which is tunnel vision.

The risk is also lower if we are able to use a multi-disciplinary approach. Someone who has a big toolbox with wrenches, screwdrivers, saws, pliers and spanners inside can confidently baby-hammer. He has a rough idea of the best result and worst result, and of what is likely to happen. He can use the hammer to try and turn a screw, and compare it to his experience using screwdrivers to turn a screw. He can try to use the hammer to pull out some nuts and bolts and compare it to using a wrench.

The main downside of intentional baby-hammering is the risk of looking foolish, and this is only temporary.

What about the benefits? I can see three major benefits:

Speed. Babies learn things really quickly, much more quickly than adults do. Let’s think about how a baby learns new things. She learns by trying out all kinds of things, and seeing which ones work and which ones don’t. She quickly learns that using a hammer to pound grandma’s crystal plates leads to an unhappy grandma and an angry mum. She learns how to use a screwdriver or whistle or bowling ball not by using them as they were intended, but by using them as they were not intended. People learn quickly by failing often. The baby quickly learns to use a hammer by trying out many different ways of using it, and then stops doing the ones that give bad results. This eagerness to try things out is why babies learn quicker than adults.

Learning chess is a good example. Beginners love to use their queen all the time, because the queen is the most powerful piece. Although tempting, it’s usually a bad play, because a player who uses all of their pieces will win against a player who only uses their queen. The standard teaching method is to tell the beginner not to move their queen too much, with a short explanation of why they should be bringing out their other pieces. But moving the queen is fun! How can we expect people to learn quickly if we prevent them from feeling joy? Instead, I think it’s much better to encourage beginners to move their queen as much as they want. With some gentle suggestions to guide them, they will quickly absorb this lesson and gain a deep and lasting understanding.

Creativity. Creativity is when we can quickly think of many ways of using or combining things. Baby-hammering is extremely creative, because we’re trying out things that people normally wouldn’t dare to try. Hello Kitty is a good example. Who would have thought that a cartoon cat could be used to sell dental braces or coffins? It’s highly creative to put Hello Kitty on microwave ovens, toasters, or microscopes. All of these products only happened because someone baby-hammered the Hello Kitty brand fearlessly.

Possibilities. Occasionally, you will discover a new way of seeing things that is extremely powerful. Following the baby-hammer method, you keep using this new concept as often as you can. You expect it to lead to failure, but it works for everything. Discovering something like this often leads to major improvements in your life. This can only happen if you had the courage to baby-hammer it. If you didn’t, you would have learned it much more slowly, or not at all.

Peter Thiel does this. Once upon a time, he had the idea of “flipping around” things to see if the conventional wisdom is wrong. He then applied it to everything he could think of. People say going to university is good, but what if it was a waste of time? So he gave money to young people for them to not go to university. People think that journalists can safely write whatever they want about famous people, but what if they could be driven to bankruptcy for doing so? People think conflicts of interest are bad, but what if it was good? People think corruption is harmful, but what if having no corruption was also bad? Peter Thiel is so successful because of his willingness to baby-hammer even at the risk of suffering embarrassment.

There’s always a time and place for everything. Even though I recommend baby-hammering a lot, we still have to reduce it to a normal amount at some point. When should we stop?

I believe we should stop baby-hammering when our natural curiosity is satisfied. If we have truly let go of our concerns and given ourselves the freedom to baby-hammer, then the loss of curiosity is our brain’s signal that it is satisfied with the new gift we have given it.

Please try out baby-hammering for yourself. Here are some ideas:

  • Just read an anthropology book? See if the patterns appear in your country. Can you apply it with your friend groups? How about at work?
  • Learning to play the drums? Hit every object you come across, to see what sound it makes. Try to see rhythmic patterns everywhere around you.
  • Tried Thai food for the first time? Experiment with different combinations. Green curry and chocolate. Pad thai in a bagel. Thai iced tea cocktails.
  • Took the bus to visit a friend? What if you took the bus everywhere you went? What about visiting every area in your city?
  • Had a baby? Consider all your social opportunities based on how baby-friendly they are. Only go to places which have baby facilities. Buy everything based on how useful it is for the baby.

I’m sure you can think of much more. Try baby-hammering everything. I would be so happy if you over-used this concept!

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