Sharpening the Saw

By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO iVIBES

I'm sure you've heard it at least once before. You know, the anecdotal tale of the woodcutter who works tirelessly sawing wood for days on end, becoming increasingly less productive because the incessant sawing dulls his blade. The simple solution to his declining productivity is to occasionally sharpen the saw.

It seems straightforward enough, but I'm always surprised by the number of people who don't understand what this means in reality. The saw is an analogy for various aspects of life. It could refer to your family life, your health, or your career. The key is doing something that will enhance your productivity and enjoyment of these various facets of life.

OK, let me give you an example. A couple of weeks ago, a client walked into my office, visibly frustrated and more or less at his wits' end. After taking a quick inventory of his appearance - not as well composed as usual, defeated body language, and eyebrows pinched so close together that they almost formed a unibrow - I decided to overlook the fact that he'd shown up without an appointment, and I just listened to him vent.

He was frustrated because a dodgy investment he'd made, against my advice, went south, and he had hoped that the payoff would give him the liquidity he needed to invest in a technology startup that some analysts think could eventually dominate the market. He is still working a full-time job that he hates. He's been there for 11 years - 8 years in the same position, at the same salary. I guess you could say he's stuck in a time warp. 

After his rant, I simply smiled and said, "Sharpen your saw."

He said, "Yeah, I did that. I took a one week vacation off the coast of Mexico. It didn't help. Nothing's changed."

I replied, "That's because you didn't sharpen your saw. You just put down the saw for a week and came back and kept cutting with the same dull blade. You need to sharpen your saw."

The puzzled look on his face told me all I needed to know. He's an accountant who hasn't learned anything new since he graduated from college. I asked him how confident he was in his Excel skills, if he could capably build a dynamic financial model. He said, "No." I asked him if he knew anything about data analytics. He said that he'd heard of it, but didn't know anything about which programs he could use to analyze data in real time. Then I explained to him that his frustration with his job was more or less self -inflicted. He'd been at the company for 11 years, and he hasn't learned to do anything beyond his basic job function in the entire time. As a matter of fact, because his Excel skills are mediocre at best, it's compromised his efficiency at work (macros can save you lots of time with repetitive tasks), and that's why it takes him so long to get things done. I'm sure his boss is probably as frustrated with him as he is with his job. He had a great time on vacation, but he's just as unproductive and unmotivated as ever. It's time to sharpen the saw.

I've got ADHD, so I don't sit still for very long. As a matter of fact, I couldn't even if I wanted to. When I feel like I need a reboot, I'll join a new gym, change my diet, come up with a new business idea, or find a weekend workshop to attend. Have you ever noticed the sharp rise in motivation and enthusiasm people have after attending a particularly beneficial seminar? They'll still be on an emotional high weeks later.

I directed my client to a short course for financial modeling, and I made a couple of phone calls and got him a discount on a new membership at my gym. It's only been about two weeks, but he's visibly happier already, and his new-found Excel skills have already helped make him more productive at work.

Take just a minute for introspection. Are the various blades in your life still sharp? If not, which ones are dull, and what are you willing to do to sharpen them so that you can live your best life?