Chop Wood, Carry Water: How to Fall in Love With the Process of Becoming Great by Joshua Medcalf is an odd little book with an important message.
Why is the book odd? Because it set at a samurai school but uses Kobe Bryant and Diet Coke as illustrations, suggesting it is a modern-day samurai school. Is that a thing? I don’t know if it is but it certainly seems unlikely. Additionally, this samurai school seems like it’s actually trying to train for mindfulness in the world rather than honing humans as deadly warriors. Second, “chop wood, carry water” is a zen quote that may or may not align with the teachings of the samurai.
But, if you can overlook the setting, the book has a message not unlike that of Ben Bergeron, Tim Grover, or Jocko Willink. In short, the book is about the path to success, however you choose to define that word. It is also about how so many of us are living a less fulfilled life than we otherwise could, because of our own fear, our own impatience, and our own self-talk.
An ancient warrior once said, “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”
To truly be a warrior (or insert your aspiration here) we must live the life that is required, the book asserts. We must live into that life. You become the thing by being the thing. You don’t wait to go to the gym until you’re in shape, you get in shape by going to the gym. You don’t wait until you’re wealthy to begin investing, you begin investing to become wealthy. You don’t wait until you’re a writer to write your book, you write your book to become a writer.
It’s about your mindset and self-talk. In his podcast “Chasing Excellence” Ben Bergeron, when discussing mindset, often uses the phrasing “I am a person who…” As in, I am a person who works out every day. I am a person who doesn’t eat sugar. I am a person who doesn’t complain.
So, to become a warrior, we must live a warrior’s life. That is a decision which has both macro and micro implications.
Most people are so consumed with their day-to-day lives, that they never pause to see the big picture. And in the big picture, every single choice matters, no matter how small. Everything you choose to read, listen to, or look at. Everything you think about, dream about, or focus on. And especially, your circle – the people you surround yourself with and allow to influence you – can make all the difference in who you become. Inches might look small up close, but added up over the right amount of time, they can cover any distance in the universe.
At the macro level you have to know what you want, even if it seems unattainable. But you have to really know. It can’t be this pie in the sky, “one day I want to be rich and beautiful” kind of thing. You have to have great specificity in the thing you’re striving for in order to achieve it. I am not suggesting you need a material goal. In fact, I can’t think of much less interesting. Instead, you need some specificity around the feelings, thoughts, and other objectives that you are choosing to pursue. “I want to be happy” is probably too generic, so if that is your goal, ask yourself, “If I were to achieve happiness, what would it look like?” If the goal is fitness, how would you know if you’d achieved it?
This specificity is important for at least two reasons. First, being specific about the objective is the only way to be sure you really want to achieve something and to be clear about why you want to achieve it. A goal of “I want one billion dollars” doesn’t cut it. Apart from the fact that it is an asinine goal, it’s too big and general to be meaningful when you encounter challenges.
So, drill down deep. It’s not the billion you want, but the freedom to walk your kids to and from school each day, to be deeply present in their lives, and to have time to volunteer in my community. That’s a very different objective than “a billion dollars”. One that has meaning and staying power, although it’s still probably too general to be actionable, but is illustrative for our purposes.
The second reason for the specificity brings us back to the book and several others I’ve read recently. The secret to achieving goals, objectives, or dare I say it, greatness, is to break the objective down into its smallest component parts and then begin executing on it. Every day do the work. Without fail. Without stopping. For as long as it takes.
Mother Theresa always told people, “Be faithful in the small things, for it is in them that your strength lies.”
…chopping wood and carrying water is the price of admission for the opportunity to reach sustained excellence. Like the roots of a bamboo tree, it is a long and arduous process of invisible growth, where you are building the foundation that is necessary to sustain success.
Read these words carefully though. This process, this path, is simple. Simple. Not easy. It is and will be hard. You may have weeks, months, or years pass, faithfully walking your chosen path without seeing the results you desire. In fact, it’s entirely possible you will never achieve your pursuit.
But here’s the real secret. The success isn’t in the achievement at all, it’s in the pursuit. Success comes from being on the path. Let’s say for a minute you achieve whatever objective you’re pursuing. Let’s say you’re Michael Jordan and you win an NBA championship. Are you satisfied? What if you look up one day and you’re thin, tan, and content. Are you done? The answer of course, is no. Achievement is fleeting. At most it’s a moment or two of satisfaction and then it’s on to the next thing, back on the path. One foot in front of the next.
Chop Wood, Carry Water ends with a warning of sorts.
- Stop pretending you get to live twice.
- Stop getting by with average.
- Stop settling for easy.
- Stop settling for counterfeits.
- Stop living someone else’s life.
- Stop chasing other people’s versions of success.
- Start pursuing excellence.
- Start beating on your craft.
- Start doing what you were created for.
- Start becoming relentless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.
The world we live in presents a distorted view as reality. Greatness, success, wealth, fitness, happiness, contentment. These are not destinations but processes and it is only through seeing them for what they are that they become attainable. Make the mental shift to live the life of a warrior and begin living that way and, in that moment, you have transformed into that which you desired.
That is the message of Chop Wood, Carry Water: How to Fall in Love With the Process of Becoming Great by Joshua Medcalf. Decide what it is you were put here to do and go do it. Just the act of stepping in the direction of your heart is the stuff of greatness.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau
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