Long before Mayweather-McGregor, long before King-Riggs, long before Lincoln-Douglas, long before Cain-Abel—well, OK, not that long ago—the greatest showdown that ever took place took place.
In the woods surrounding Lake Tahoe.
Two lumberjack outfits, one from the Pacific Northwest and one from the Rocky Mountains, found themselves toe-to-toe and axe-to-axe on a patch of grass where California meets Nevada. Each wanted what the other wanted: to clear the path along the southern end of the lake, a path that would eventually become a trail, a trail that would eventually become Highway 50.
The forest, you could have said, wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
Now, it could have gotten ugly, what with all that testosterone and all those blunt instruments, but cooler heads, as they occasionally do, did prevail. It was decided that the best lumberjack from the Pacific and the Rockies would square off, and whoever cut down more trees before sunset would determine which crew would finish the job.
They called it the “Lumber-Off.”
Because everyone giggled like teenage boys when they called it the other thing.
The Pacific crew picked Big Jack, who, un-ironically, was big. Huge. Like a Sequoia. He made Paul Bunyon look like a 98-pound weakling and Babe the Blue Ox look like a piglet.
“Do you know where Big Jack got started in this business?” the leader of the Pacific asked the leader of the Rockies.
“No,” he said, staring up at this monster before him.
“The Bonneville Salt Flats.”
“Wait a minute,” the leader of the Rockies said. “There aren’t any trees in the Bonneville Salt Flats.”
“There were before Big Jack got there!”
While the Pacific crew was hooting and hollering and high-fiving, one man stepped forward for the Rockies team. At least it looked like a man. Pale, scrawny, with pipe-cleaner arms and a Friar Tuck halo of hair on his head.
Skinny Jack was his name.
Had this been winter, and had the Pacific crew laughed just a few decibels louder when they saw Skinny Jack, it would have triggered the biggest avalanche in the history of what’s now called Heavenly Mountain, and this story would have ended right then and right there, under a gazillion tons of snow.
But it wasn’t, so it didn’t, and with nine hours of daylight left, the competition began.
Skinny Jack swung his blade into the base of a tree, 10 times, 20 times, 30 times before it crashed to the floor of the forest. Big Jack? He stood there motionless, arms folded, holding the largest axe anyone had ever seen.
Which he wielded like a swordsman. Whack, whack, whack! Three precise strikes and the tree toppled, sending the Pacific crew into a frenzy and the Rockies crew into a panic.
And it only got worse.
For every tree Skinny Jack knocked down, Big Jack knocked down five. After an hour, the rout was on.
To exacerbate his handicap, Skinny Jack would—without fail and without exception—take a break every 30 minutes. While Big Jack was clearing enough trees to make the Lorax cry, Skinny Jack would sit alone with his back turned. The other men could see he was doing something with his hands, and there seemed to be some friction involved, but nobody paid much attention. They were too busy watching and admiring Big Jack, thinking perhaps that joke about the Bonneville Salt Flats wasn’t a joke after all.
As the sun began its slow descent towards the horizon, it seemed it would soon set on both Skinny Jack and the Rockies crew.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the foregone conclusion. Trees that had taken Big Jack a minute to fell, were now taking five. Then 10. Then 20. He was swinging with the same intensity as before, his muscles still busting out of his skin, still sounding his barbaric yawp with every blow he struck. He just wasn’t getting the same results.
Neither was Skinny Jack. Every time he came off a break, he got better. Much better. He was knocking down trees at three times his original pace. Then five. Then 10. With dusk just a few hours off, he was closing the gap on Big Jack.
Skinny Jack kept doing what he was doing, taking a break every 30 minutes. And Big Jack kept doing was he was doing: trying harder, swinging harder, and even yawping louder.
As the two men cut their swath deeper into the forest, and the trees changed from Winter Firs to Ponderosa Pines to Quaking Aspens, Skinny Jack became more efficient, more productive, while Big Jack became less. “Try harder!” his teammates said. “Swing harder!! Yawp louder!!!”
He did, but it was no use. By the time darkness was upon them, the competition was over.
The accompli being fait and all, Skinny Jack calmly and quietly put away his axe, while Big Jack tried to bring down one more tree. But the edge of his blade was so dull, it bounded off the bark and hit him in the head. He fell face-first to the ground as Skinny Jack had his hand raised in victory.
While the Rockies crew was congratulating itself and the Pacific crew was consoling itself, one—and only one—man was curious enough to look at the area where Skinny Jack had taken all of those breaks. He expected to find some sort of energy substance or perhaps a voodoo talisman, anything that could have helped himself or hindered his opponent.
Instead, all he found was a stone. A hard stone that was chipped and jagged from a day’s worth of cutting something, of scratching something, of polishing something.
Of sharpening something.
And that’s when it all made sense.
For long-term success in any endeavor, you must continuously enhance your skills, your mindset, your understanding. Doing the same thing the same way will eventually stop working. See the forest for the trees and sharpen your blade.