Death by a thousand dull cuts

A guy is hacking furiously away at a tree. He’s sweating.  He’s exhausted.  He’s working hard.  But he won’t stop.  His family needs a tree for Christmas and he’s determined to get the best one in the lot.

A lady strolls by and stops to watch.  She notices that the guy’s saw is completely dull.   The teeth are all worn away and even the handle is wobbly.  She taps him on the shoulder.

“Hi there.” she offers politely, “Just thought I’d point out that your saw is really dull.  Maybe you should rest for a moment and sharpen it.  It might make the rest of the cutting easier.”

The guy replies, “Thanks.  But I’ve got no time to sharpen the saw.  I’m too busy cutting this tree.”

I was the king of biting off more than I can chew.  That is until my mentor sat me down and jammed the above story into my brain.  It’s a Steven Covey anecdote.  Everything changed in an instant when he told me the story.  In a blink, I realized that I was working hard at working hard.  I took on more work than I could handle so I wasn’t giving anything my best.  In my case, stopping to ‘sharpen the saw’ meant focusing on what I really wanted to do.

Avid Steven Covey reader

Pictured: Avid Steven Covey reader


For you, it might mean the same.  Or it might mean identifying your weakest trait to ‘sharpen’ it.  When you’re busy cranking away at your work, you don’t address where you might be weak.  You work harder in other areas to compensate but you never really improve what you’re weak at….because you’re too busy compensating elsewhere.  But your extra work doesn’t really cover the spread.  Smart entrepreneurs figure this out and either finds a partner who complements or she outsources the work she’s weak at.  If you’re an employee somewhere, you don’t have anybody to outsource to.  All you can do is pump in extra hours or take your work home – doing in 10 hours what you might be able to do in 3 if you’d only improve what you’re weak at.

When chatting with executives about their employees, the following three weaknesses were mentioned the most frequently.

1. Weak communicators.  They’re brilliant in every regard but nobody knows so nobody gives a damn.  Weak communicators will never be given a chance to lead.

2. Terrible time management ability.  They take on too much to try impress their bosses and quality of work suffers.

3. Arrogance.  They think they know everything and cannot possibly spot any of their own weaknesses.  (Though they have no problem spotting weaknesses on everybody else.)

1 and 2 are easily improvable.  3 is not because nobody really wants to be around them long enough to help them


But what if you’re simply in over-your-head?  What if you oversold yourself to get the job?  Good!  Here’s your chance to grow!  Here’s your chance to see a whole bunch of your weaknesses all at once.  Everybody who’s successful has oversold themselves to wedge in at one point in their career (or continue to do so every chance they get).   Every successful sales guy, executive or entrepreneur has said ‘Yeah, I can do that,’ to things they have no idea if they can deliver on.  But once they got that chance, they hyper-focused on improving their weaknesses first.  They focused on learning what they didn’t know.  They knew exactly which saws to sharpen.  Not only do they deliver, but they’ve elevated their entire game.

If somebody takes the time to point out that your saw needs sharpening, don’t take offense.  Only really good people will do that.  Only people who really care about you will tell you.

Others will just smile, tell you how great you are and encourage you to hack away with the crappy saw you’ve got.