In my free time, I carve wooden spoons. The process of carving a spoon is quite simple: Draw a spoon on a piece of wood and then carve away the extraneous material. Unlike art forms that are additive, spoon carving involves incremental subtraction — gradually taking away wood in order to reveal the spoon’s essential beauty and function.

On some days I wind up sitting for hours. Cutting a few chips of wood away, pausing, and asking myself “what is not needed?” This practice has made me realize just how much time and effort I’ve invested doing just the opposite — acquiring material things, adding relationships, augmenting my credentials, expanding the list of accomplishments, adopting beliefs and new parts of my identity and so on. We live in a culture that equates success and personal fulfillment with expansion – more knowing, more doing, more having, and move to achieve.

I’m not making a moral judgment here. I’m simply noticing the pattern of expansion, which raises this question for me: What if the true art of living and leading is more like carving a spoon? What if my real work is to figure out what to carve away in order to reveal the essential beauty and purpose of my life? For example, in my work as a group facilitator over the past few years, I purposely make 30% fewer interventions. By carving away the interventions that might make me look smart, I am left delivering the highest impact actions. So I continue to carve away extraneous facilitation techniques in the hope that at some point I will become a spoon – the purest expression of function and beauty in facilitation.

How can you start carving? By using questions as the sharp edge of the knife. Such as:

What activities might you subtract in order to make room for more purpose, meaning, and fulfillment?
What commitments have you been saying “yes” to that don’t represent the contribution you are here to make?
What relationships is it time to divest from in order to make time and space for those that feed and nurture you?
What limiting assumptions and beliefs – about yourself, others, the way the world works – no longer serve you?

As you ponder these questions, keep the following in mind:

1) This is an incremental process. Once you’ve cut too big a piece away, it’s hard to put it back. So, proceed slowly.
2) Remember that just as spoon carving begins with a pencil drawing – the answers to these questions must be guided by your sense of purpose – the essential function and beauty you are trying to create through your life and your leadership.

What will you carve away first?

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