A Storytelling Serial
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There once was a small screw that spent its early years with a nail, a bolt, and a nut. They lived on a workbench, in a former mayonnaise jar.
As the screw grew older, it wanted to be useful but didn’t know how. It asked the other jar residents for advice.
The nail was first to answer. “You need to talk to the hammers hanging above our bench. They’re up there because they’re smarter than the rest of us, and they always send me in the right direction.”
The bolt and the nut shrugged. “I just look for a hole to fit into,” explained the bolt, “and the nut’s sole job is to keep me there. So if you’re looking for purpose and meaning, you must find a space that fits you exactly, and something that makes sure you stay.”
The hammer approach
When approached by the screw, a solid-looking claw hammer quickly offered help. “I teach a course that details every step of the journey to usefulness. It comes with a thirty-day money-back guarantee, and I have plenty of social proof my program works.”
The eager screw looked through the hammer’s pages and pages of promotional materials, attended a couple of free events, and became convinced this was the real deal. It signed up and committed to being a model student. Everyone else in the course seemed delighted with all they were learning, but the screw had a sinking feeling it was somehow different from the other students.
Nevertheless, wanting to belong and rather embarrassed to admit to a lack of enthusiasm—much less to having made a mistake—it persisted well past the thirty-day refund period and finished the course. Despite feeling unprepared and, frankly, like an imposter, the screw followed the urgings of the hammer and fellow class members to feel the fear and just jump off the bench.
Implementing the usefulness program required the screw to nestle up against a board, precisely one inch from the end, demonstrating the all-important life principle of choosing the right place to be found. With a deep breath, the screw settled itself correctly and prepared for contact.
And because the screw had become immersed in a community led by a hammer, that contact came in the shape of a blow that splintered the board end and nearly stripped the screw’s head. In the days that followed, the screw realized how close it had come to being completely broken.
Still, the hammer’s track record and the other students’ successes were indisputable, so the screw knew it was somehow completely responsible for whatever had gone wrong. It asked the hammer and colleagues for suggestions and was told to continue doing what it had been taught and, after ten thousand hours of trying, it would get the hang of usefulness and finally succeed.
Despite deep guilt, the screw knew it could never survive continued blows and would have to admit failing the hammer’s usefulness course.
The way of the perfect fit
Battered and bent, the poor little screw returned to the mayonnaise jar. The nail couldn’t understand why the screw hadn’t stayed with the hammer; it was a program that had stood the test of time, and the screw obviously had given up too soon.
The bolt sighed. “I told you, it’s all about the right hole and the perfect fit. You didn’t look hard enough before you settled for the hammer’s common wisdom.”
The nut nodded. It always agreed with the bolt.
After a period of rest and recovery, the screw again set off. This time it was determined to find a ready-made spot that exactly suited the screw’s intended purpose for existence.
Jumping from one hole to another within the wood and metal materials resting against the bench, the screw began to feel like Goldilocks. It would slip into a slot, only to find that one too large for a good fit. The next hole would be too tight to squeeze into. But there was no just-right.
Finally, a ratchet wrench noticed the unsettled screw. “Listen, I’ve torqued thousands of bolts through thousands of holes. Your problem is that even if you find the perfect hole, you’re still missing a nut to keep you there. I’ve written a self-help book for nuts and bolts, and I lead a hardware support group. You can grab a copy of my book; this week it’s only forty-seven cents on Kindle. At the end of the book, there’s a link to my website, where you can join my support group and find a nut in no time.”
At this point, the screw was beginning to know itself well enough to understand it didn’t look anything like the bolt it had grown up with, and in the jar there had never been any connection between the screw and the nut. The screw now realized it had a point—albeit slightly crooked—while the bolt certainly had none, and the last thing the screw wanted was to be attached to a piece of metal that had no purpose apart from co-mingling.
The screw thanked the wrench and moved to a dark part of the bench to think.
There, it bumped into the business end of a Phillips screwdriver. “Hey, screw, I’m almost exactly what you need, but your head isn’t quite the right design for me to be of service. Roll toward the light, and you might see a flat-head screwdriver.”
The screw was amazed. It had never met a screwdriver until this serendipitous encounter with a contraption that acted as though assisting a screw was the most natural thing in the world. Or would be, with a little tool finesse.
The unique path
Sure enough, the flat-head screwdriver was hiding in plain sight, and its tip easily popped into the straight slot across the screw’s head. “So where do you want to go?” it asked.
The screw wasn’t sure and explained its long, discouraging quest for usefulness. The screwdriver slid back flat on the bench.
“Listen, here’s what nobody told you. To a hammer, everything is a nail. And nails don’t know any different from being a nail. Neither do bolts and nuts: bolts figure they’re useless if they don’t find the perfect fit, nuts believe they’re worthless without bolts, and both are clueless what it’s like to be anything but a bolt or a nut. And ratchet wrenches—of course they mean well, but they’re so used to their methods that they can’t see when something already works fine just as it is.”
The screw flipped on its head in surprise. Was the screwdriver saying the screw was okay and didn’t need an expert to learn usefulness?
The screwdriver seemed to sense the question. “Sure, we can all use a little help, but it has to be the kind of help that supports what we know we’re meant to do. I require a hand to help me rotate, but I already understand my function. You need me to help you fasten things together, and you must accept you’re intended to do that in your own way, different from a hammer, a nut, or a wrench. And the only hole you have to think about is a tiny starter hole; it needn’t be the right fit. Once you begin forging your path, you’ll create a hole to fit you, not the other way around.”
The screw would have cried in relief if it hadn’t been worried about rusting. It didn’t have to change its nature, didn’t need to learn a whole new program, and didn’t have to find a perfect hole. It simply had to recognize itself, so that it could match up with the best tool and then make its own distinct journey of purpose and meaning, trusting only the guidance that felt natural and made sense.
An oft-bandied internet quote, frequently attributed to the Tao Te Ching, is “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
With apologies to Lao Tzu, the teacher may not be the right teacher.
Before you seek help, search your own heart and mind to discern your values, your life’s mission, your identity. Then be selective in who you allow to teach you.
If you listen to the voice that seems to know the most or the one with a large following or the one that has had great success, you risk pressure to become something you’re not. Remember, a hammer sees only nails. And even the wise tend to perceive known categories of problems and solutions.
Make sure your helpers see you, not themselves or potential acolytes to be molded. When someone recognizes you and asks where you want to go, when the guidance they offer supports rather than attempts to change what you know is right and true within yourself, then you’ll have found help worth taking.
Have you ever listened to someone’s good advice and later realized it was wrong for you? Or felt that you learned from a teacher who tried to make you into something you weren’t meant to be? In the comments below, please feel free to share any story of a time you received help but wish you hadn’t—or a time when you ignored help and are glad you did.
4/28/2022 04:56:31 pm
This is an excellent cautionary tale about the pitfalls of writing advice/experts/gurus in the Internet Age, as well as the old-fashioned "critique group." ("Critique" has started to become synonymous with "Here's how you should revise your story the way I would have written it."
4/28/2022 07:11:18 pm
Liz, I love it that you instantly recognized the true-life connections to this fable! Thank you for summarizing it so well. As always, I appreciate your reading and your insightful comments.
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