Are you familiar with the parable about the woodcutter and his dulling axe? Several variations of the parable float around the Internet, but the basic premise is as follows:
A man is hired to chop down trees. Filled with zeal and intent on impressing his new boss, the man heads into the woods with his axe. He returns at the end of his first day having chopped down an inordinate number of trees.
The second day, however, he cuts down fewer trees. He tries harder the third day but cuts down even fewer trees than the previous day. After continuing to cut down fewer and fewer trees, the man apologizes to his boss, confessing that he doesn’t understand why he isn’t being more productive despite trying harder.
His boss responds by asking him when he last sharpened his axe, to which the man replies that he’s been so busy cutting down trees that he hasn’t had time to sharpen his axe.
The woodcutter story reminds me of an often-cited Abraham Lincoln quote: “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.”
Like the woodcutter story, several variations of Lincoln’s quote also float around the Internet. But they all share the same meaning. Both Lincoln’s quote and the woodcutter story and are meant to emphasize the importance of paying attention to those elements that make us most effective—something good teammates commit to doing.
While I get the woodcutter story and like its message, I think the moral is delivered through a flawed example. I don’t mind the dull axe, but I dislike the idea of chopping wood.
Who enjoys chopping wood? Nobody. Chopping wood is a chore. Chopping wood is not fun. I grew up in a rural area and chopped plenty of wood as a kid. I can attest from personal experience that chopping wood—though necessary—is a hard, unpleasant task.
I think a better analogy is a sculptor needing to sharpen his chisel. The same parameters apply, except that it is easier to see purpose in the sculptor’s work. The sculptor isn’t engaging in an unpleasant task like chopping wood, he’s chipping away at the stone keeping him from creating his masterpiece.
Creating a masterpiece is a labor of love.
With the approaching release of my new book, The WE Gear, a lot of my time lately has been spent in meetings and on conference calls discussing marketing strategies, early projections, and sales algorithms—none of which particularly interest me.
I don’t want to be occupied with those unpleasant tasks. I want to be out speaking to groups, visiting schools and prisons, and finding new avenues to share the good teammate message, which is why it’s imperative that I adopt the mindset of a sculptor and not a woodcutter.
If I consider the good teammate message to be my masterpiece, I must commit to chipping away at the metaphorical stone that separates me from effectively spreading the message. A dull marketing plan—a dull chisel—will make me less efficient. For me, learning about marketing strategies and sales algorithms becomes a way of sharpening my chisel.
Good teammates have the capacity to view unpleasant tasks with a similar perspective. They don’t see themselves as sharpening their axe so they can chop more wood. They recognize the importance of paying attention to those elements that make them most effective, while choosing to focus on their deeper purpose. They see themselves as sharpening their chisel so they can help their team create a masterpiece.
As always…Good teammates care. Good teammates share. Good teammates listen. Go be a good teammate.