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A true story about me.

During my summers in college I was a firefighter for the La Grande Hotshots. A Hotshot fire crew is an elite team of 20 wildland firefighters, the most highly trained in the country, which are prepared to battle the most serious fires nationwide.

This was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done. Imagine hiking for five, 10 or 20 miles through the wilderness to reach a fire that no one else can get to. You’re packing tools, water, clothing, food – pretty much everything you’ll need to spend a couple of weeks in the middle of nowhere. When you finally reach the fire you’re exhausted. But this is when the work really begins.

Once you reach the fire, you build a “fire line” which consists of the crew working together to create a boundary between the forest fire and the part of the forest (or town) that’s not burning. This process involves cutting down trees, clearing debris, cutting away roots, logs, and brush and essentially building a 20-30’ wide road on the side of a mountain.

The length of the fire line is determined by the size of the fire. It might need to be a mile long or 5 miles long. It all depends on the severity and size of the fire. And the fun part? Well, sometimes the fire ‘jumps’ the fire line and you have to start all over again.

The fire line must be built quickly and effectively. One weak spot in the fire line could compromise the entire process. Failure is simply not an option.

The discipline, intensity, and single-minded focus that’s required to do this can (and usually does at some point) break you. And when that happens, there’s no time to ‘process your feelings’ or talk about your ‘impostor complex.’ You simply must get your shit together and get back in the game. Because that’s the only option. Each person on the team has a job to do and one person not doing their job (mentally, physically, and emotionally) compromises the entire crew and the mission.

This experience taught me a lot about resilience, focus, teamwork, and the power of working together to achieve a common goal. None of us could possibly achieve on our own what the entire crew could achieve by working together.

Slowing down to speed up

In the world of business and entrepreneurship, some of the most consistent statements I hear over and over again are…

  • “I can’t’ slow down because if I do, my business will come to a halt!”
  • “I can’t afford to take a break! If I don’t do it, things simply won’t get done.”
  • “I can’t afford to take a break.”

All of these phrases are ultimately excuses that people are telling themselves to stay stuck in a predictable rut of overwhelm and busyness. And the more they repeat these excuses, the harder it will become to see other options and change the unsustainable and destructive cycle of constant overwork.

Wanna know the biggest secret I learned as a Hotshot Firefighter?

The ONLY way to speed up is to slow down.

This might seem like the most counter intuitive thing in the world, but if an elite crew of firefighters use this principle, so can you.

Despite the urgency of the situation, every couple of hours, our entire fire crew would completely STOP for 15 or 20 minutes and sharpen our tools.

The axes would get sharpened.

The chainsaws would get sharpened.

The shovels would get sharpened.

Everything got sharpened and we had a chance to rejuvenate our physical, mental and emotional state of being before returning to work.


Because over time, the tools would get dull. And dull tools are dangerous and harder to work with. The effort required to cut down a tree with a dull chainsaw is three times harder than with a chainsaw that has a sharpened blade. And a dull chainsaw is incredibly dangerous and can easily injure the operator.

Our crew was disciplined to come to a complete stop several times a day to sharpen our tools so that we could perform optimally and not get hurt.

In our modern work world, everybody, everywhere seems to be busy. Most people are just too busy “doing” and trying to achieve that they do not take the necessary time to STOP and renew themselves, to learn and grow – to sharpen their “tools”.

How do you sharpen your saw?

We overwork ourselves amidst the overwhelming tasks at hand. We feel drained, exhausted and our productivity declines. Do we simply take a break, rest and relax? That isn’t sharpening the saw – that’s just putting the saw down.

The blade will still be dull after your break.

Yes, the Hotshot firefighter needs to rest, but it’s only when she sharpens her blade, learns new techniques, trains up her strength and stamina, that she becomes more effective and productive.

Dr. Stephen R Covey defined “Sharpen Your Saw” to be: increasing your personal productivity, by having a balanced strategy to renew yourself in the four aspects of life: Physical, Social, Mental, and Spiritual.

  • Physical: Eating well, sleeping well and exercising well.
  • Social/Emotional: Having a good social life. Building meaningful connections with others.
  • Mental: Learning something new, reading and writing.
  • Spiritual: Expanding spiritual self through meditation, spending time relaxing in nature.

Renewal doesn’t just happen. You must STOP and intentionally create time to strategically plan your business and change in your life.

I realize that most of you will read this and nod your head in agreement but most of you won’t take any action. And taking action is how change happens. Change happens when you challenge yourself to be uncomfortable and do something different than you’ve done before.

Einstein said it best. “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

My challenge to you is to figure out how and when you’ll STOP and sharpen your saw.

Remember that it’s up to you to recharge, renew, and refine yourself. No one is going to give you the permission to do this but YOU. Devote some time to sharpening your saw instead of chopping away doggedly: start working smarter instead of longer and harder.

Live bravely,

Michael (Take Action) Knouse

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