Lessons From a Knife-Sharpener

As we explored in our recent Sensemaker, the exponential explosion of information is likely having a major impact on the quality of our thinking. In the reflections below, our CEO Jeff Hunter explores some key principles for how to keep your mind sharp and grounded.

THINK

I worked my way through college, selling advertising, answering phones, sweeping floors, and delivering pizzas. The most unusual and valuable job was working the fish counter in a large grocery store. It didn’t make any sense to wash your clothes at the end of the day, because nothing was going to get the stink out. And so after a while, my jeans stood up all by themselves, removed and stored outside my rented house due to the demands of my roommates.

I was the only “college guy” working the counter, and I was hazed mercilessly. As a rite of passage, I was given the most disgusting and dishonorable jobs possible. Many quite literally led to vomiting and retching. You would think that is what really sticks in my mind about the experience: scraping rotted fish off walls when they exploded or having to put my face in toilets. And sure, those moments are memorable. But the thing that really sticks with me to this day is what my manager taught me.

It has been 35 years, and I don’t remember his name. Let’s call him Mark. Mark was probably only three or four years older than me, but he had lived a hard life and he was far wiser than me. He wasn’t a great boss, and in fact was pretty awful to the “college guy.” But I gradually earned his respect, and one day he let me know that I had graduated from one kind of awful job, cleaning, to another kind of awful job: customers.

I had been waiting for this because helping customers pick the right fish, cutting the servings to size, weighing, wrapping, and delivering, seemed far preferable to the Dirty Jobs experience I was currently having. I was wrong of course. I had only graduated into more stress and more risk.

On my first day “working the counter,” Mark started training me. His first lesson was seared in my brain: “This is a large butcher’s knife. You will use it many times an hour. It is your most important tool for success. You must remember these two things and never forget them: if you pick up the knife, pay attention to it and only it;

“Always, always keep the knife sharp.”

He looked dead serious, and I paid attention. But as is often the case, hearing something is a less powerful way to learn than seeing something. A couple of weeks later, during an insane rush at the counter, Mark failed to take his own advice. Working with a dull knife, yelling at people behind the counter to move faster, he ran the large butcher’s knife clean through his hand. I remember his words of wisdom. But I remember the image of six inches of knife sticking through his hand more.

I think about Mark and his lesson often, because I don’t think he was teaching me about knives. I think he was teaching me about the mind. If you are using it, pay attention to it. And always keep it sharp. If you don’t do that, your mind is dangerous to everyone around you, but mostly to you.

Keeping a knife sharp is never, ever about adding to it.

You can’t add metal to a knife, and you don’t keep it sharp by keeping metal on it. As you use the knife, you ruin it. At first, the edge starts to bend or curl a little. If you use it to chop through something, you develop little chips on the edge. And if you just use it regularly, the edge starts to dull. It goes from a point to rounded.

To fix these problems, you grind the knife against something hard. You do this carefully, maintaining the right angle of attack, the right amount of pressure, the right cadence of strokes. Doing this repeatedly and well removes enough metal to expose the edge that always exists but is hidden under the imperfections introduced through use.

When novices first hear this, they are shocked. After all, you can pay a lot for a good knife. You want it to last a lifetime. How can it be that removing the essential element of the knife itself does anything other than take something precious and reduce it to nothing? But the master knows that sharpening, if done well, always extends the life of the knife. A well-maintained knife lasts a lifetime. An unsharpened knife becomes harmful, eventually being of little or no use. Removing the metal is the only way to get the knife to be excellent as long as possible.

As you use your mind, you dull it.

In the worst cases, it gathers chips and defects. We call these blind spots and uncertainties. But even with regular use, it becomes dull and dangerous. Spending time on the latest social media post, getting upset about the election, harboring secret plans to get back at your boss: all use that dull the edge of your mind.

But use the mind, you must. It is the most valuable tool you have. So, here are some tips to keep it sharp:

You Are Not Your Knife – When you hold a knife, you are aware of the subject/object. You (the subject) are different from the knife (the object). Few people think they are a knife. They understand where they end and the knife starts. But when it comes to your mind, you lose sight of this fact. You are not your mind. Your mind is a tool. It is not you. Imagine believing that you are a knife: you would cut things indiscriminately and without purpose; you would only perceive what a knife can perceive. You would limit and reduce yourself. Your mind is the same way. When you confuse your identity with your awareness, you limit the use of the tool. Each of us has the ability to see that we are not our mind, as we can reflect upon our own feelings, experiences, and actions. Most importantly for the purposes of this article, a knife won’t sharpen itself. Your mind cannot sharpen itself. You need to see your mind as a tool, not as who you are.

Pay Attention to the Knife – Imagine you have a knife in your hand (don’t actually do this please, just imagine it). Hold it, feel the weight of it. Now start cutting something. The knife moves through the food easily. Now, start holding a conversation with someone while listening to the news in the background. You no longer hold the knife. The knife holds you. It is going to cut indiscriminately. It is now dangerous. The knife is not dangerous by nature, it is dangerous because you aren’t paying attention to it. Your mind is the same way. Start a meaningful conversation with someone you care about. You are present, helpful, in flow. Now start thinking about buying groceries, or the work you have to get done. You stop paying attention to the conversation. In the midst of the confusion, you say something hurtful or negligent. Your mind is now a dangerous weapon. It is cutting indiscriminately. It has gone from useful to harmful. The knife is still in your hand, but now it is using you.

Remove Just Enough – The beginning knife sharpener always removes too much. Their purpose becomes to grind, not to find. Remember, the edge exists in the metal that remains. You aren’t creating it. You are discovering it, like a sculptor who knows that shaping the perfect statue is the process of removing unnecessary parts, not creating something from nothing. Your goal with sharpening is not to grind. It is to discover. So we want to remove just the dull parts. We call these dull parts “the confusions.” The things that trouble you, that agitate you. The grievances you can’t drop. The fears you can’t stop. We want to remove the confusion to uncover the first level of sharpness.

Attend to the Knife Every Day – I see people go on retreats, vacations, and adventures to get away. And I think, “they are going to sharpen. They are going to give themselves the time to uncover the hidden edge. They won’t do it purposefully, so it may not be completely effective. But it will make the mind sharper.” But one thing you learn when sharpening knives is that, if you only sharpen once in a while, you end up with a dangerous knife. Your most valuable tool requires your most valuable attention every day. A chip in the knife must be attended to immediately. There will be a lot of metal to remove. A dull edge can develop quickly. At the very least, you must use a sharpening steel to set the edge straight again, before every use. Waiting until your monthly knife sharpening time to attend to its care may lead to accidents. Almost as bad, it leads to poorer cuts and mushy food. Even if you cannot sense the danger of your dullness, you should attend to the quality of your work. So, every day attend to the sharpness of your mind. Laughing, loving, and learning are gifts we can give ourselves each day. Pray and celebrate. Tell someone you are grateful for them. Pay attention to your feelings. All of these actions remove the dullness that our daily use of the mind accumulates.

Like sharpening a good knife, the act of sharpening your mind is a deeply gratifying and centering practice. Your mind is the most valuable tool you have. You must use it. But before you use it, keep it sharp. Thanks, Mark from the fish counter.

REFLECT
  • Can you tell the difference between yourself and your mind? How?

  • What do you do to keep your mind sharp?

  • When have you experienced your mind getting dull? What were the consequences?

TRY
  • For this week, set aside 10 minutes each morning for “mind sharpening.”

    • Take a moment to notice your thoughts, and that you are the one noticing your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves.

    • Look at your schedule for the rest of the day. Are there fears or worries that come up? Things you’re counting on going well to feel good?

    • Take a breath and see if you can let go of those positive and negative anticipations.

    • Pick one or two parts of the day that are particularly important to you. Commit to being fully present during those times—no phone, no email, etc.

  • Notice how you feel, how you think, and what you’ve done by the end of the week.

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