Making Nails

A parable

April 22, 2022

Once upon a time, there was a nail-making factory during the peak of the industrial revolution in rural England. The workers arrived there every morning at 8 am and worked till 4 pm to make nails. Just plain nails. It was a risky job: the nail sharpeners wouldn’t differentiate between the nails and fingers of the workers. On average, a worker made about 300 nails in a day — with 8 hours of hard labour.

One day, the factory owner’s son visited the plant. Studying at Cambridge, he thought the task of making nails was menial, and he could do it better. He told his father, “Papa, these men are wasting your money. I am sure I can produce more than 300 nails in a day. I see the process, and it hardly takes them only a minute to make one.” His father replied, “I see. Why don’t you try?”.

The son got on a workstation and started making nails. He pulled out his shiny stopwatch to keep track of time. The first one was done in 30 seconds. The second one in 29 seconds. Third in 25 seconds. If he could continue this pace, he’d far outgrow what these workers were manufacturing. And he did.

Two hours later, he showed up to his father and said, “Papa, see, I have four hundred nails already. I’m already more productive than your workers”. His father smiled and said, “why don’t you try another two hours?”. He did. But he only got 300 nails. He showed up to his father and said, “See, I’m a little worse but still as productive as your daily worker”. His father told him to try again. This time, he only got a hundred nails.

He showed up to his father like a whimpering kid with a hanging jaw. This time, he only showed his nails and only said, “a hundred”. His father asked him to sit down and think.

If you can do a job super fast, ask yourself if it’s the job that’s unproductive or if your excitement to do it is making you productive. Would this excitement last a week? A month? A year? Day in and day out, if you would be only making nails, would you continue making 400 nails?


Added on July 24, 2022

I was listening to this podcast this morning, and the author said that grit drives most success far more than talent. She said, “effort counts twice”.

Sometimes, people think it’s all grit — talent has no role. That’s not the case. Talent is the rate at which you get better at something, i.e. develop your skill. When you apply effort to get better, you grow in skills. When you don’t use effort to improve, you don’t grow in skills. If you’re talented, the same amount of effort will make them develop in skill more.1

$$Skill \times Effort = Achievement$$

And skill itself improves with effort. So, if Skill is decomposed as Talent + Effort, then we see how Effort counts twice. Skill has to be applied to have any beneficial impact.2

Grit has two components to it. The first one is Perseverance; the second one is passion. Perseverance drives humans to continue doing what they are doing even if they face temporary failures. We want to improve in the long term and not get distracted easily in the near term. Passion is what helps us decide the act. It dictates what the job you’re focussing on would be. Many organisations and humans, in general, tend to overvalue talent and undervalue grit.

It isn’t easy to get passionate about making nails. The business owner’s son had the passion for improving but not the perseverance to keep doing the grunt work. The workers had endurance but lost passion due to the monotonous nature of the work. A person successful would do a mixture of both, a balance of both.


  1. This is my understanding from listening to the podcast. I didn’t verify the equation from the book. ↩︎

  2. Harsh from MBA times would’ve marvelled at this equation. Present day Harsh finds equations like this good for communication but otherwise meaningless. ↩︎

Posted on:
April 22, 2022
Length:
4 minute read, 689 words
Categories:
life thoughts
See Also: