This past month, I found myself contemplating buying two different screwdriver sets.
The first is a high end set of USA-made Williams screwdrivers, which are exactly same screw-drivers that are sold under the Snap-On brand, for $60.
The second is Harbor Freight Tools’ cheapest screwdriver set, coming in at $3.
Now, do I need either of these screwdriver sets? No.
Do I want both screwdriver sets? Absolutely.
To me, there are few things more satisfying than tightening or loosening a screw. The screwdriver is such an elegant tool. It is so essential to the modern world, yet so simple to use.
I can’t explain it, but for some reason I get a unique sense of joy from the form of work that a screwdriver performs. I’ll often forego using a drill or an impact driver, and instead use a screwdriver even though it takes longer. The joy I get from using a screwdriver is worth it for me.
But lately that sense of joy has been diminished by the daunting decision of which screwdriver to use.
As you can tell from the picture at the top, I own a lot of screwdrivers. While my grandfather told me, “You can never have too many screwdrivers,” upon gifting me a twenty-five-piece screwdriver set, the economist in me knows this isn’t the case. The law of diminishing marginal returns tells us that at some point, for every additional screwdriver I get, the marginal utility that each additional screwdriver provides will begin going down.
For me, I long ago passed over the threshold of additional screwdrivers = additional utility. Now, I feel that having so many screwdrivers actually hampers me somewhat.
I equate this to the same feeling I get when I am unable to decide what to watch. I have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and Kanopy, each with virtually unlimited options of fantastic films and TV series. Yet, most of the time anymore, I end up being unable to pick a single film and end up just watching Youtube or TikTok.
Barry Schwartz calls this feeling “the paradox of choice.”
In his book of the same name, Schwartz states, “As the number of choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options began to appear. As the number of choices grow further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”
I can understand Schwartz’s choice to use the word tyrannize.
Whenever I have a job to do, I’ll often find myself debating which screwdriver to use. I’ll tell myself, “Oh, I should use this one because it doesn’t often get used” or “this one is shinier and newer so I should use it.” What should be as easy as picking up a screwdriver from my toolbox becomes a difficult decision.
It should not be a difficult decision to choose which screwdriver to use.
Despite owning so many screwdrivers, nine times out of ten I reach for exactly one screwdriver: my 6-in-1 screwdriver from Harbor Freight Tools that I paid exactly two dollars for.
I love this screwdriver. It’s multi-functional, containing a #1 Phillips, a #2 Phillips, a small, and a large, slotted bit, while also being 1/4” and 5/16” nut driver. After over three years of almost daily use, the tool is showing its age, as the metal bits have a deep gray patina and the grippy part of the handle is almost completely gone. But despite its price tag, it still keeps on going. I’ve named it “ol’ reliable.”
I have grown attached to “ol’ reliable”.
We’ve been through so much together, from replacing over one hundred light fixtures in the lodges at Kiptopeke State Park to processing scrap metal for my dad to installing a lot of park signs. I am fond of “ol’ reliable” because I have long made use of it. It has served me well as a tool.
My college professor and mentor Shawn Humphrey describes this feeling of attachment many feel for their tools perfectly in “One Tool, Many Gardens.” He has had a spade that he had for most of his adult lifetime.
“If I’m in the garden, I have my spade.” He writes, “No matter the task. We do it together. Yeah, sometimes, you’ll see me with another garden tool. Nowadays, I can afford them. But I won’t hold it long. And, not in the same way. I’m loyal. Not sure how to say this. But I’ve got feelings for it. This tool. This physical object. I care for it. Honestly, even using the pronoun “it” doesn’t feel right. Because it’s more than a tool. It’s an extension of me.”
“ol’ reliable” has become an extension of me. Whenever I’m doing a job, regardless of if I think I’ll need a screwdriver or not, “ol’ reliable” is in my pocket. “ol’ reliable” is more than a tool. For me, it is an extension of myself.
Though “ol’ reliable” is good for about ninety-five percent jobs, I must admit, I do have need for several other screwdrivers.
Like take for instance what I call my “beater” screwdriver; A large, flat-headed, Craftsman screwdriver from when they were still made in America and made to last, that my grandfather used for decades before it came to me. It is a problem solver, a prybar, a chisel, a paint can opener, a scraper, and even one time a shovel, all rolled into one.
I have a set of insulated screwdrivers for adding an extra level of safety when doing electrical work.
I have a regular #2 Phillips screwdriver that I will use if “ol’ reliable” won’t fit in a tight spot.
But do I really need five #2 Phillips screwdrivers. No probably not.
Do I have at least five #2 Phillips screwdrivers?
Of course, I do!
Altogether, by my count, I own 84 screwdrivers.
So, why do I still want to buy more screwdrivers?
The last time I bought a screwdriver was in December at my local Habitat for Humanity Restore. For $1 I got a small, somewhat low quality but in perfect condition #2 Phillips screwdriver.
Did I need another #2 Phillips screwdriver? No, but actually yes.
I added this screwdriver to the toolbox that I keep in my work truck. I call this toolbox the “I don’t want to have to drive back to the shop” toolbox. There is nothing worse than going to do a so-called “five-minute job” and realizing you don’t have the right tools for the job when you get there. So, you waste the five minutes driving back to the shop to get the right tools and the next thing you know the five-minute job has turned into an hour-long ordeal.
By having a few screwdrivers along with some other commonly used tools in my work truck, my goal is to not have to drive back and forth so much. Though it hasn’t eliminated the need to drive to the shop to get certain tools, this toolbox has saved me a fair bit of time.
Now, I keep a 6-in-1 screwdriver in this toolbox, so why the need for another #2 Phillips screwdriver?
Well, when I installed new door locks on all of Janes Island State Park’s cabins this summer, I encountered a weakness in 6-in-1 screwdrivers. Their shanks are a bit chunkier and shorter than regular screwdrivers. While this doesn’t matter for most jobs, when I was removing the old door locks, my 6-in-1 screwdriver’s shank hit on the handle making it a little more difficult to unscrew. I ended up using a regular, longer #2 Phillips to replace most of the locks as the shank didn’t hit the door handle.
This was my reasoning for my most recent screwdriver purchase. I added it to my “I don’t want to have to drive back to the shop” toolbox.
This purchase wasn’t necessary, as again I own at least five, regular number #2 Phillips screwdrivers. But I justified this purchase because it was so cheap and therefore will be a screwdriver I won’t care about if I lose it.
I want all the tools in my “I don’t want to have to drive back to the shop” toolbox to be cheap so I don’t care if I lose them. I also take this toolbox out whenever I go out on one of our park’s boats to work on Janes Island itself. So, the likely hood of dropping these tools into a murky, saltwater abyss is high. (I’ve already done this with a tape measure.)
Now, should this screwdriver be screwdriver be the last screwdriver I purchase for a really longtime?
Do I need any more screwdrivers?
So, why do I still want to buy more screwdrivers?
Because screwdrivers are cool and because I can.
This is my problem. There is an infinite number of screwdrivers in the world that I can buy and collect, and I want to buy and collect an infinite number of screwdrivers.
But this is not economically nor practically feasible.
Owning 84 screwdrivers has left me tyrannized by the decision of choosing which screwdriver to use.
So, how do I end this tyranny?
Returning to The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz identifies five ways to combat the indecisions and endless choices that modern consumerism has given us.
1. We would be better off if we embraced certain voluntary constraints on our freedom of choice, instead of rebelling against them.
Endless choice means endless choice. In the modern world, there is an infinite number of screwdrivers to buy. So, I must put my own constraints and self-control into effect if I am going to stop buying screwdrivers.
2. We would be better off seeking what was “good enough” instead of seeking the best.
All the screwdrivers I have are more than good enough to get the jobs that I need them for done. If down the road there is a job that I don’t have the right screwdriver for, then I will buy the right screwdriver for the job.
But I do not need to continue buying screwdrivers, in search of the very best screwdrivers. The difference between the screwdrivers that I currently own and screwdrivers that I might want to purchase will be minimal.
3. We would be better off if we lowered our expectations about the results of decisions.
No set of screwdrivers that I buy is going to be infinitely better than the ones I currently own. Now, there are certain quality distinctions between a cheap, Chinese made screwdriver and an American made screwdriver. Would I prefer to have all American made screwdrivers?
But, at the end of the day any screwdriver on the market will probably get the job I need it to do done.
4. We would be better off if the decision we made were nonreversible.
I need to treat the screwdrivers that I have currently like I will have them for the rest of my life. I know I can buy another set of screwdrivers if I want, and in this lies the problem.
Though I’ve never returned a screwdriver to a store, I do view each screwdriver purchase as reversible. I don’t like a screwdriver when I am a using it, then I can always buy another, better one.
But, again, no screwdriver is going to be significantly better than the ones I currently own. If a screwdriver can get the job done, then it is good enough.
5. We would be better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing.
I don’t need to have a fancy, mechanic’s grade screwdriver set just because Wranglerstar or another Youtuber recommends it. Again, my screwdrivers are good enough for the work I am doing.
Now, will I be able to implement these principles in my life, both when it comes to screwdrivers and anything else I spend money on?
Will I stop be burdened by the decision of which screwdriver to use?
Probably not, but in the grand scope of things this a very #firstworldproblem.
Will I stop buying and adding new screwdrivers to my collection?
Well, I need to stop buying and adding new screwdrivers to my collection. But hey, compared to all the dumb things I’ve collected and spent money on over the years, like Funko Pops and rocks, at least screwdrivers serve a purpose.
6/07/2023 Update: After over a year of not buying screwdrivers, I caved and bought the $3 screwdriver set. I did kind of have a justification for buying it in that I wanted the stubby screwdrivers for my “I don’t want to have to go back the shop tool box.” But mainly I bought it because I wanted more screwdrivers and screwdrivers make me happy. So $3 for some actually fairly decent screwdrivers and happiness isn’t a bad price.
11/17/2023 Update: A few years ago, I got my dad a set of demolition screwdrivers. These are screwdrivers that are specifically designed to be hit by hammers and used as pry bars. (Yes I know all screwdrivers are used this way, but demolition screwdrivers are actually meant to be used this way. While my dad loves his pair, I’ve had no reason to buy my own set of demolition screwdrivers.
Cabin Work Week this year provided a reason. For the past two Cabin Work Weeks, I’ve headed up the window frame team. This involves taking a lot of broken screen window frames off of the hinges and building new frames to replace them. Since these frames are in cabins built by the Civilian Conservations Corps in the 1930s, they are held on their hinges by something awful: flat head screws.
There is nothing in the world than trying to unsure an eighty year old flat head screw that has been painted over eight to ten times. Now there is a method to removing them. First score the paint with a razor blade and then hammer a screwdriver into the slot. But this technique doesn’t even work half the time. Plus, I realized that all the tips of my screwdrivers have worn down some. So they weren’t a snug fit in the screw, which causes cam out, which in turn strips out the screw. Thus the only way left to remove the screw is to cut it out. And thus, as they say, a five minute job becomes an ordeal.
So does this justify the need for demolition screwdrivers? Well, they have hardened, wide tips and are meant to be hammered. Could I get away with out them?
But, I bought them anyway. Here’s hoping they make my next Cabin Work Week a little bit easier.