Tinkering and Long-Hauling

In 1890 the American psychologist William James described habit as being an “enormous flywheel of society”, a force keeping things regular, comprehensible and ordered. Behavioural momentum is another term that people use to express a similar sentiment.

Recently I was doing the annual PPE inspection for a local company and was struck by two very distinct and different approaches to how you do things – and also by the way that this is reflected in a person’s equipment.

In his book Arborist Equipment, Don Blair sets out to portray two different archetypes of arborists: the Oak Man and the Euc Man. I am paraphrasing here, but essentially, the Euc Man is the guy who turns up at a job site in a clapped out old jalopy with country music blaring loudly out of the open window – as he gets out you see he is wearing his spikes, probably did not bother to take them off yesterday! Oak Man is like the Yin to Euc Man’s Yang, he turns up to the job site in his Toyota Prius, playing something cultured on the stereo, with all his gear neatly arranged in the boot of the car.

I feel one can add a further layer to this image… I would like to introduce the concept of the Tinkerer and the Long-Hauler.

The Long-Hauler is one of those persons who is not an early adopter of techniques or tools. They have their habits, their comfort zone in which they feel comfortable and in which they are able to safely and competently perform their work. They will stand back and watch as new techniques are being discussed, slightly to one side. Only when they have considered the matter very carefully and really understood the matter profoundly will they adopt it into their tool box. The way in which new techniques are absorbed is very gradual and selective. These guys are in it for the long haul and do not feel any compulsion to be part of a cutting edge.

Unlike the Tinkerer. Tinkerers are constantly changing, mixing up or modifying their gear. They will incessantly be trawling the internet for the newest innovation or concept, the next day attempting to emulate it at work. Their kit bag will be filled with miscellaneous bits of hardware and cordage, DIY prototypes and cannibalized products. For this type of person, absorbing new gear and techniques is a fluid and easy process, the  integration is very much learning by doing, building understanding as they go along.

In a web diagram this might look like this…

The diagram above describes two people: the red shape is a person with pronounced tinkering Oak Man tendencies, with few Euc Man or Long-Haul traits. The blue shape describes a person with strong Euc Man tendencies, prone to a more habit-bound behavior with little tendency toward trying all that new-fangled stuff or classical music 🙂

All sorts of permutations of this model are conceivable – and of course in the end it remains just that, a mere model.

During the PPE inspection I mentioned above I could very clearly distinguish between the gear of the Tinkerer and that of the Long-Hauler. The latter’s equipment had hardly changed since last year’s inspection, with barely a karabiner added in here or there – whereas I almost had to completely rewrite the former’s three (!) inspection sheets. I was almost a bit surprised there was not kitchen sink hidden somewhere in the depths of the kit bag!

These reflections are free of value judgement: habit can indeed, as William James says, ensure consistency and order. It can also become stifling and stale. The same is true of tinkering: amazing ideas can emerge from constant tinkering, yet it can also lead to potentially dangerous situations. Some things people cook up can be pretty sketchy, to say the least.

In the end, the Tinkerer and the Long-Hauler are as much an aspect of the personality mix in a team as are Oak and Euc Man. Often as not it is down to personalities, some are more comfortable with one, whilst others tend another way, both can lead to highly competent behaviour, or to slipshod performance. Ultimately it is the mix that creates stability within a team, the different approaches acting as checks and balances, ensuring there is space for innovation yet also sufficient reflection and dialog to ensure that techniques and tools are safe and offer sufficient safety margins.