What Calculators Taught Me About Purpose

This blog post is about purpose, but I will start in an unexpected place. Lately I’ve been getting into calculators. HP calculators specifically. With their RPN entry method, solid reputation among engineers and financial analysts, and the fact that I love collecting stuff it was inevitable that I’d pick up a few along the way. There was a moment I had to ask myself “why?” when engaged in an aggressive eBay bidding war over a 30+ year old calculator. Also, it’s interesting to note that the eBay market for old HP calculators seems to be red hot and bidding wars are very common. There are models that frequently sell for over $100, and some that fetch over $200. Wild stuff.

HP 12C Programmable Calculator
Source: Wikipedia

One time I bought a calculator a few years back to use for my home finances. A friend exclaimed, “You have a calculator on your phone!,” obviously confused as to why I would use what seemed like an antiquated method for crunching numbers. After all, cell phones have included built-in calculator apps since the early days. This experience made me think a bit about why I wanted that calculator – why I felt like it would be better than the app on my phone.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this post is about purpose. After some reflection, I began to see that I really like things that are purpose-built for a particular task. I wear watches that are not “smart” (Casio is my current go-to brand). I use calculators. I have a laptop and desktop, and seldom use a tablet. I still think the old Palm Pilot PDAs had the best organizer software. I still use a pen and notepad to take notes. Some might think I’m out of touch with current tech and trends but that’s not a fair assumption. I just really appreciate things that are designed for a particular purpose and built well.

I find that it is best when a product doesn’t try to be too many things at once. Focus leads to clarity in design. My calculator doesn’t have to be a good phone too. It can just be a calculator and crunch numbers reliably. My phone’s calculator gets an update every couple of weeks or so to fix bugs. Which one would I like to rely on for something as important as my own finances? Do I want to be constantly distracted by notifications popping up while I’m trying to add up expenses for the month? No.

I’ll pivot here to my own career. As a Business Analyst, I have often referred to myself as a “Jack of all trades.” I used to feel that was a strength. Now I find that it actually might be a weakness. By not specializing, I’m like today’s smartphones – I can do a lot of things but I’m somewhat limited in each of those things because I feel as though I have to master many skill sets. That’s not a perfect analogy as there are plenty of good apps out there, but I’ll extend this to apps as well – the best apps are those that have a clear purpose and are designed accordingly. Now that I’ve been working for over 5 years, I want to seek areas of specialization, places where I can become an expert. Being a generalist is not good enough.

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