Mechanical stresses are ever present in the cellular environment, whether through external forces that are applied to tissues or endogenous forces that are generated within the active cytoskeleton. Despite the wide array of studies demonstrating that such forces affect cellular signaling and function, it remains unclear whether mechanotransduction in different contexts shares common mechanisms. Here, I discuss possible mechanisms by which applied forces, cell-generated forces and changes in substrate mechanics could exert changes in cell function through common mechanotransduction machinery. I draw from examples that are primarily focused on the role of adhesions in transducing mechanical forces. Based on this discussion, emerging themes arise that connect these different areas of inquiry and suggest multiple avenues for future studies.