The Carpenter’s Rule

Wayne R. Geiger

Alex Honnold free solo climbs El Capitan’s Freerider in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

The film, “Free Solo,” is a 2018 National Geographic documentary. The film centers around mountain climber, Alex Honnold, who desired to be the first person to climb Yosemite National Park’s, El Capitan, without ropes—or free solo. El Capitan is a 3200 foot climb.

Honnold knew the task before him. One slip or stumble could be tragic or as Honnold noted, “the stakes were high: climb perfectly, or die.” That’s why I prefer running. It’s a low impact sport. If I hit the ground, the impact is minimal. Spoiler alert: Honnold made his climb in 2017! He made no critical mistakes.

The old joke in woodworking is, “I cut this board three times and it’s still too short!” The carpenter’s rule is “measure twice, cut once.” The obvious meaning is, double check before you cut, because once you cut, there’s no going back.

As a speaker and writer, I recognize the power of words and the need to communicate accurately and properly. I’ve learned some hard lessons about doing it improperly.

As a younger man, I had quite the temper and quite the tongue. Together, they were a recipe for disaster. I, like many people, have said things that I later regretted. Although you can always go back and say, “I’m sorry”, our words often leave an indelible mark.

That’s the power of the tongue. Researchers tell us the average tongue is made up of eight different muscles. They also tell us; it never gets tired. At this point, someone you know comes to mind.

The Bible says, “… the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell…. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:5-6, 8). Wow! Talk about a concealed weapon! When used improperly, there is often a price to pay.

There’s an old tale of an ancient sage who lived high atop the mountain. A woman who lived in the town below visited the sage to acquire wisdom. She confessed, “I just can’t seem to control my tongue. It gets me into trouble and then I feel bad about it. I need to find some relief from this guilt.”

The sage told the woman to take a feather pillow and count out 100 feathers. She was told to take them to the top of the mountain and allow the wind to blow them away.

The woman did as the sage instructed and came back saying, “I did what you asked.” The sage then said, “now, grab a bucket and find each of the feathers.” The woman was shocked and said, “it’s impossible!” The sage smiled and said, “although you can receive relief over the guilt that you feel, it is extremely difficult to undo what has been done.”

From time to time, you’ll find a wonderful acronym going around on social media. I refer to it as the THINK principle. Each letter stands for a helpful question to ask before something comes out of our mouth. This principle can help us in our conversations with others.

The principle is not original with me. Brainyquote.com attributes the quote to Bernard Meltzer. However, other sources track the quote back to a book of Victorian poems entitled, “Miscellaneous Poems,” by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872. Personally, I think it’s just one of those phrases that was probably collected from bits and pieces over time and it’s not possible to credit one source.

T – Is it True?

Naturally, before information is shared, we want to ensure that it is true and not hearsay or fabrication.

H – Is it Helpful?

Sometimes, information may be true, but it’s not helpful. In fact, sometimes, information can be downright hurtful.

I – Is it Inspiring?

How wonderful it is to get a complement from others. We should seek to inspire others to become the best that they can be. In love, we should seek to bring out the hidden beauty deep with them.

N – Is it Necessary?

Sometimes, some information simply just does not need to be shared to or about people. Sometimes, information is on a “need to know” basis. Some people just don’t need to know.

K – Is it Kind?

The surgeon uses a scalpel to bring healing. But, the same instrument in the wrong hands can be deadly. In the same way, our words can heal or hurt.

When talking, I try to pause often and allow my brain to process. I also try to remember the THINK principle. When sending an email on a sensitive subject, I always try to put my initial thoughts down in the email—without putting the person’s name into the send line. I don’t want it to be sent by accident.

I never send the first email. I will wait for at least an hour and revisit the email. I try to ensure that I THINK through the process. My general rule of thumb is I send email #3.

At times, and when appropriate, I often let my chief editor (my wife) read over material before I send it out or before I hit “send” button. My wife will quiz me about what I am intending to say and what my motivation is. One email or conversation can go awry in a hurry and I prefer to prevent fires rather than having to put them out.

Naturally, we all make mistakes and often get it wrong. Most of the time, it’s just a bump in the road and we go on. At other times, though, conversations can go terribly wrong and people get hurt. I’ve learned some lessons the hard way.

Oftentimes, my simple prayer is from Psalm 141:3 which says, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” And then, before saying amen, I add my own thought, “and Lord, at times when I wander from your truth, use duct tape as necessary.”

Wayne Geiger is a pastor, professional speaker, adjunct professor of speech, and confidence coach.

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