The Woodcutter’s Tale – a Back-to-School Parable

Once upon a time, there lived a woodcutter who went into the forest to chop down wood.  He felled 18 trees that day and brought them to the timber merchant.

“You are the best woodcutter around,” the merchant said and gave him his pay.

The second day, the woodcutter went into the woods to begin his work, but by midday had only taken down 8 trees.  He worked through lunch and his breaks.  But all told, he had only 15 trees to sell to the merchant.

“Well, you are still a strong axeman and here is your pay.”

The woodcutter told his wife about this and they agreed he would eat early and get going before sunrise. 

The third day he began chopping at first light, continued through lunch and into dusk.  He cut down only 12 trees.  He was worried the merchant might not be pleased.

“You disappoint me, but I know what you can do.”

Now the woodcutter began to worry as he looked over his pay, less than he made just two days before and for more work. He and his wife decided he needed go to sleep earlier and eat more for his strength, so they scraped together extra food for him and packed a larger meal for lunch.  The woodcutter felt strong that morning.

On the fourth day even with the extra food and long hours, he had chopped down just 9 trees.  He hung his head, exhausted.  “I must be losing my strength,” he said, “and I fear the merchant will fire me.”

 It was so late he did not make it to the merchant until the next day.

“I’m sorry, but I must ask for my axe back,” said the timber merchant.  “I have others who want to work and will provide more trees.”

It was as the woodcutter feared.  He gave him his axe.

One look at the axe and the merchant said, “Is this what you have been using?  When was the last time you sharpened your axe?”

“I never sharpened the axe,” said the woodcutter. “I put all my time into chopping down trees.”

Whiteboard in our “Treehouse” of an axe as a reminder to keep it sharp

I tell this story to my children each year at the beginning of school.  Sharpening the axe as students includes things like better planning and learning how to learn. My children discovered putting in more time helps, but not always.

Thinking.

Stopping to think is the easiest and most overlooked skill.  During their year of homeschool, they met once a week to “Sharpen the axe” and discuss what each was working on and ideas for improvement and change.

Abraham Lincoln grew up with an axe in his hand; early in life he helped build his own home as well as many rail fences.  Though he did not say it, this quote is often attributed to him for his work ethic and leadership.

“Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend my first four sharpening the axe.”

Lincoln portrayed with his ax in an early 20th century painting by F.A. Schneider.

About mylinhshattan

I’m a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. I hold a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.