Sharpen the Axe: the Dark Side

Abraham Lincoln once said "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.". This has become pretty popular as a meta-principle, showing up in places like The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People and Extreme Programming where it shows up as Sharpen the Saw.

In general, it's a great priniciple. Folks like me who have made tool-making a big part of their life lean on it all the time. Sometimes, too much. There are a couple of dark sides: the one that people talk about most is that it's important to actually finish sharpening the axe and get back to chopping. Often tool building is far more fun than actually doing the job at hand.

But for me, the big problem with "axe sharpening" is that it's recursive, in a Xeno's paradox kinda way: You spend the first two thirds of the time alloted to accomplishing a task actually working on the tool. But working on the tool is itself a task that involves tools: to sharpen the axe, you need a sharpening stone. So you spend two-thirds of the sharpening time coming up with a good sharpening stone. But before you can do that you need to spend time finding the right stone. And before you can do that you need to go to the north coast of Baffin Island where you've heard the best stones for sharpening come from. But to get there, you need to build a dog sled....

Xeno's paradox is resolved because while it is an infinite sum, it's an infinite sum of exponentially decaying values. No such luck in this case. The tool building jobs just get bigger, and you pretty quickly can lose sight of what it was you started to do.

In other words, I don't have a clue what I'm doing, but I'm having fun on the road to getting whatever it was done.

January 4, 2005