When I had the privilege to sail with a rag tag band of misfit entrepreneurs and an incredible cohort of 630 university students as part of Unreasonable at Sea, the Dean of the voyage, Tom Jelke, shared a story with me that really stuck. It’s about balance.

A bit over halfway through the voyage, I asked Tom if he had any advice he’d like to share with the student body on the ship and our entrepreneurs in the Unreasonable at Sea program. He told me the following story.

Want to know the key to success? Learn from the world’s greatest lumberjack. Tweet This Quote

It’s a tale of two men—two men who are lumberjacks. But they are not just any lumberjacks. At one point in time, these two men were seen as the best two lumberjacks on Earth. They were both of equal height and strength. Standing at 6 foot 8 inches and weighing in at 280 pounds of pure muscle, they both towered over most everyone they came across. You can picture them, right? With large, defined jaw bones and even larger beards, wearing plaid and workman’s boots that added 2 more inches to their already towering statures?

Well, one day, the two lumberjacks decided that sharing the title of being the best lumberjacks on Earth wasn’t enough. Once and for all, they wanted to determine who was the world’s greatest lumberjack.

So, they set up a head-to-head, toe-to-toe competition. The rules were simple. Each man gets one axe, and they each have 24 hours to chop job down as much lumber as possible. At noon, on a frosty November morning, they went at it.

In a world of relentless productivity and unfettered determination, you have to know how to recharge. Tweet This Quote

In an incredible feat of stamina, strength, and perseverance, the first lumberjack chopped without taking even a second’s break. He never wiped the sweat off his brow and never paused for a drink of water. Amazingly, he was so strong that he never lost velocity on a swing; he was so skilled that he never lost precision on a chop. He cut as fast, as hard, and as precisely as humanly possible for the entire 24-hour period. His strength never compromised nor dwindled.

The second lumberjack, of equal strength and stamina, chopped at the exact same velocity, precision, and force, but instead of never taking a break, he would pause for 20 minutes every two hours. This means that within the 24-hour period, he had two hours when he didn’t even swing his axe.

Now, knowing that both men were of equal strength, had the exact same axe, and chopped the lumber at the same frequency, it seems obvious who should have won the challenge. The whole world thought it would be the lumberjack who never took even a second to rest. And yet, the whole world was wrong. Somehow, the lumberjack who took 20 minutes every two hours to not swing his axe was the winner.

Sometimes, in order to get ahead, you have to pause to sharpen your axe. Tweet This Quote

How could this be possible? When the lumberjack who had taken two hours of breaks was approached and asked how he could have possibly won, he responded with a modest smile and said, “Sometimes you have to pause to sharpen your axe.”

For me, ever since I heard this story, I’ve decided to sharpen my axe by taking 24 hours each week to be with people I love, eat good food, wake up without an alarm, and spend time in conversations beyond work. It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: How are you, like the world’s greatest lumberjack, finding the time to sharpen your axe? What activities allow you to best sharpen your axe?


A version of this post originally published in January 2014. It’s been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.

About the author

Daniel Epstein

Daniel Epstein

Daniel has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his life accordingly. Today, he is the founder of the Unreasonable Group, of the Unreasonable Institute and a number of other "Unreasonable" companies.