As iron sharpens iron…

If you’ve never had the pleasure, I can recommend the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament as an excellent read.  It is chock-full of so much old wisdom and has something to teach us on many, many subjects.  In amongst all of this good teaching, there’s a verse that I particularly love:

“As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another.  Proverbs 27:17 (NLT)

It is a constant and much needed reminder that we are not meant to be solo performers.  We don’t have to, indeed we can’t do it all alone.  That we’ll never fulfill our purpose in life without the love and support of others around us.  And neither will they theirs.

The all-powerful James Bond-esque hero who solves every problem and overcomes all challenges alone is a Hollywood myth!  We need to company of others to help us to excel and they need us to build them up likewise.

If you’ve ever sharpened a knife then you’ll know that iron really does sharpen iron.  Once a blade has been honed with a grinding wheel, the last strokes to get a shaving-sharp edge can be done with a sharpening steel.  You know the kind of thing – the tool that butchers and chefs us to keep their blades keen.

So how does that analogy apply to our growth towards our purpose?


If you want to grown and learn, there is no better way than an apprenticeship.  Classically the student would live in the master’s shadow and learn the particular craft by watching, then doing.  I can’t remember where I read this, but Rabbis used to speak of learning in the dust from the master’s feet as eager pupils followed their teacher so closely as he rushed about his daily business.

Do you want wisdom?  Find someone wise and hang out with them.

Do you want to learn how to speak to an audience?  Find someone good at it and get them to teach you.

And it’s a two-way process.  Anyone who has ever taught something to anyone else will know from experience that you must really know your subject. In fact the act of teaching makes you reflect deeply on your subject and highlights the areas where you are weakest.  You teach and so you learn as well.


World-renowned leadership teacher Marshall Goldsmith (look him up – it’s worth it) writes very compellingly in “Triggers” that willpower is something of a fallacy.  That no-one really has that much of it and in order to make changes in our lives we need to be accountable to someone.  In the context of a trusting friendship it’s important that we’re able to hold each other to account.

Are you trying to exercise more?  Drink less?  Swear less?  Write more?  If you meet regularly with a friend and know they will ask you how much of whatever it is you’ve done, then you’re more likely to make the effort.  Kind of like being asked to hand in your homework at school.


It can’t be pleasant for the steel blade to be swished with vigour against another piece of metal.  But it is necessary as it’s the friction between the two tools which produces the sharp edge.  So good friendships need to be a place where we can challenge one another and debate the big things.  If you want to be sure of your view on something, debate it at length with an argumentative friend.  Or even better, to really understand, debate the side of the argument that you don’t agree with.

So we can’t be all things ourselves.  As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

“There is one body, but it has many parts…”  1 Cor. 12:12

Teams function better than individuals and a team needs a variety of roles in order to perform well.  A good mix of Belbin team roles or the right combination of football players.  Each fulfilling their purpose and being made better than the sum of the parts by their colleagues and coaches.

So who do you have around you to teach you, hold you accountable and challenge you?  And who are you teaching, holding accountable and challenging?  Who is sharpening your iron and who are you sharpening?We need others around us to help us perform and grow.

I began with a Bible quotation so will end with the words of cleric and poet John Donne:

“No man is an island”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s