It started with a YouTube video. This one, in fact, which for whatever reason drew me in like a moth to a flame. It looked so fun, so satisfying to take a small block of wood, pare it down on a lathe, and presto! – out pops a beautiful wooden ring as unique as a snowflake. I eagerly bought the necessary tools and followed the video’s instructions to a T, so why was I failing?
In my basement with lathe whirling and sawdust flying I’d carefully do exactly as instructed and bam! At some point the ring block would shatter. Bits of wood flying everywhere and my colorful expletives right on their heels. I tried different tools, different lathe speeds, and different angles but suffered the same frustrating result.
“Damn it!” I said to myself. “I really want to learn how to do this but I’m stuck.”
And given my impatient nature I knew I had to figure this out soon or this endeavor was going nowhere.
When you’re stuck on a problem, where do you turn? I tried the same avenues you might: Google, YouTube, even called a couple vendors who make woodturning tools but as you may find when turning to the internet or customer service lines, the responses were confusing and of little help. So I went to the one resource often overlooked but usually full of answers: old guys.
In this case, Fred Hill, a retired (yet vibrant!) professor who’s been perfecting his woodworking skills longer than I’ve been tying my own shoes. Fred has three valuable traits that you and I may not have yet earned: wisdom, experience, and patience.
Fred and I met last weekend in his woodshop, where we embarked on a quest to make the wooden rings that had alluded me. And while we blocked several hours for this lesson, within five minutes Fred discovered the root cause of my angst.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Your tool. It’s dull. Needs sharpening,” he repeated.
“C’mon, Fred, these are brand new tools. The tools are fine.”
Fred, without saying another word, approached me, gently pulled the tool from my hand, and spent sixty seconds honing its edge on his grinding wheel. And from that moment forward, Fred and I cranked out the most beautiful rings you’ve ever seen.
You see, it wasn’t about the best tools or the strongest grip or the highest quality materials; the secret lay in how sharp the tool was. Even the slightest flaw on that cutting edge and the rings were sure to shatter. And for some strange reason neither the internet nor the tool vendor nor I, the impatient rookie, had called out this most obvious flaw.
How often do we set our tools to our work – our nose to the grindstone, if you will – without first ensuring our blades are as sharp as they need to be? Like me, how often do you give a presentation or hammer out emails or make a sales call without the slightest consideration for the style you’re using or the grammar you’re employing? Or muddle through the same old workout with sloppy form?
Next time you’re falling short of the result you desire, think of my new friend Fred. Would he, or his senior counterpart who’s spent a lifetime mastering the discipline you’re pursuing, take one look at your flailing attempt and declare, “Needs sharpening”? Just a little extra time sharpening our tools might be all it takes to transform failure into fulfillment.
Abe Lincoln said it best: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
My time with Fred reminded me that in this COVID era we’re losing our most seasoned mentors at an alarming rate, including my stepfather-in-law, a military pilot and prolific storyteller who survived getting shot down in Vietnam and a fight with cancer but couldn’t overcome this blasted virus. Every time we lose a senior who’s still got lots to give, which is just about every one of ‘em, we lose a pool of wisdom and insight that’s yet to be fully tapped by those of us who need them.
Where in your life are you not getting the results you want? Beyond the fitful, muddled world of Google, how much effort have you made to meet the real-world senior expert in your community who could guide you to success? Seek them out. Befriend them. Thank them for sharing their guidance. And for God’s sake wear a mask.