Last night I made some time to do some wood carving. I haven’t had much opportunity to carve anything since October, and I’ve missed it. There’s something supremely meditative about it: just you, a few blades, and a block of wood.

Good tools definitely help, so last year I invested in some nice gouges. They’re really sharp, well balanced, and just very comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The “really sharp” bit is probably the most important though; it’s remarkable how easily a truly sharp blade can cut through wood. With just a tiny bit of pressure, the gouge hisses softly through the wood, and the shavings curl up over the blade like little pillbugs playing dead.

Sometimes, though, I’ll hit a tougher part of the wood, where the grain is thicker or less even. Or I’ll need to cut across the grain, which requires a little (but not much) more force to do. So I push a little harder, and with a soft whisk the blade does its magic just as before. Push, whisk, push, whisk, push whisk... Hypnotic, almost. Very meditative.

Because I’m always adapting, almost unconsciously, to the different grain directions and densities, it’s so easy to forget how easily the blade cut through the wood when it was newly sharpened. I find myself thinking, “it’s still plenty sharp, I’ll go a few more minutes and then hone it.” Always just a few more minutes. One more cut. Just need to finish this one section…

When I finally sit down and run the blade over the strop, it only takes a few passes to hone it. Four or five trips down the leather, maybe about thirty seconds total away from the project. But what an amazing difference it makes. Those four or five runs across the strop are enough to bring the blade back to its original keenness, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the blade cuts through the wood, compared to just before stropping. I thought the blade was plenty sharp before. I had forgotten just how sharp it could be, and what a difference that makes.

Now, let’s jump back four years. Four years ago (almost exactly! January 27th, 2005, in fact) Jason and David invited me to come to the Building of Basecamp workshop in Seattle. I was working for BYU at the time, but Jason and David were doing their best to show me a better way.

I was comfortable at BYU. I had responsibility. I was involved in technology decisions. I was capable. I was able to push through the fibers of my career without too much trouble, I thought.

But then I attended Building of Basecamp. It was relatively short—a few hours in a room, listening to Jason and David talk about Getting Real. What they had to say was simple, to which anyone who has ever attended a Building of Basecamp or Getting Real workshop can attest. It was, for me, a few brief passes over the strop. I came out the other side sharper, renewed. I wasn’t satisfied to be merely a career programmer; I remembered the passion and delight I originally had in writing software.

(It was just a month later that I quit my job at BYU and started working at 37signals.)

This concept is not new. (Stephen Covey talks about it in his Seven Habits book, where he calls it “sharpening the saw”.) But it’s still valuable. All too often we can get stuck in a rut, thinking the resistance we feel to life or career is normal, forgetting the thrill we felt when the blade was new. All it takes is a moment to step back and remember the strop; the time spent will more than pay for itself in the long run.