This is a comprehensive summary of the book Chop Wood Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Worksheet: Download the interactive sheet for taking notes.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A story about a boy in love with samurai culture and his relentless desire to become a samurai archer. Joshua Medcalf, the author, masks the mundane tasks the protagonist must do in order to achieve his goal with the phrase: chop wood, carry water. While ridiculously short, this book contains some truly awesome advice that can inspire you to fall in love with the process of becoming great.
The Core Idea:
The whole point of the book is to convince you that getting really good at something isn’t sexy. It’s not a single task you must do once. A box you can tick. Becoming world-famous is achieved by doing boring tasks, repeatedly, over a long period of time. Hence, chop wood, carry water.
Reason To Read:
To understand that creating something worthwhile requires time, developing discipline, and being in love with the process. Regardless of your background and where you want to end up, this read will give you the dose of optimism and mental stamina to keep going.
- Fall in love with the process. Learn to love chopping wood and carrying water.
- Comparing yourself to others will lead to disaster. Focus on your own mission.
- Don’t forget your values and your principles. These two will help you overcome hardship and uncertainty.
5 Key Lessons from Chop Wood Carry Water:
Lesson #1: Stay Focused on Chopping Wood and Carrying Water
Chop wood, carry water. That’s it. That’s everything you should do to become successful.
For some, chopping wood carrying water will mean writing 500 words per day. For others, it will mean making 50 cold calls. For third, it will mean getting at 5 AM and running 20 miles. It really depends what you’re trying to achieve. Who you want to become.
Is it sexy to chop wood, carry water every single day?
Can you become great without doing it?
A lot of people dream about starting online businesses. A side hustle that will allow them to travel the world. To have a fancy Instagram profile with a lot of glamorous pictures. Few, however, are willing to chop wood, carry water.
People want the end result without having to do the work. But that’s not how the universe works, you know?
Or as the author writes, “Everyone wants to be great, until it’s time to do what greatness requires.”
If you really want to make a difference in your life, you must chop wood, carry water.
“Everyone wants to build the next Apple or Facebook, nobody wants to sell matches door to door. Everyone wants to become a samurai warrior, but few are willing to faithfully chop wood, carry water.” Joshua Medcalf
Lesson #2: Don’t Let Discouragement Get You
Discouragement is the oldest tool in the Devil’s toolbox.
Even the greatest ideas and the most marvelous projects can crumble if discouragement gets into your brain.
You need to be aware of this feeling because no matter what you’re doing, you’ll surely meet this insidious force along the way. And, undoubtedly, it will try to sabotage your project.
What exactly is discouragement?
Discouragement takes many shapes and forms but it usually comes in the form of negative self-talk.
You’ve probably heard it before. The little voice inside your head that says you aren’t good enough. That you can’t do it.
Nowadays, we actually refer to this mental state as the imposter syndrome. A collection of feelings that convince us that despite our past achievements, we’re still not good enough.
And while you can’t reach out for discouragement and remove it from your bucket of feelings for good, there are things you can do to prevent this from messing around with your ambitions.
You have to be vigilant and always be aware of the following six things:
- What you watch.
- What you read.
- What you listen to.
- Who you surround yourself with.
- How you talk to yourself.
- What you visualize.
- Your thoughts and beliefs.
Hang around with the wrong people and you’ll end up in jail. Drink, take drugs, listen to the haters online, and soon the local rehab clinic will be your new home.
But that’s not all…
Bad things happen all the time if we listen to our inner critic that constantly nags, “I’m not good at this.” After all, who wouldn’t abandon a project if someone followed them around all day criticizing everything they did?
The key is to realize that if you feel like garbage about what you’re doing then your thoughts are probably garbage.
So, take out the trash and start a positive talk therapy. Find a supportive group of people that can help you overcome the setbacks. Instill optimism and hope in your life by remembering your past achievements.
That’s how you beet discouragement and you keep moving forward with your projects. By substituting self-destructing thoughts with whispers of faith in your abilities.
“John, you keep getting in the way of your own potential, because you keep seeing everything as a test. The secret is to understand that nothing is a test, but only an opportunity to learn and grow. Many people never fulfill their potential, because they look at every situation in life as a test. If you look at something as a test, then you will focus only on passing the test instead of maximizing your growth through the experience. Over time, the person who is simply focused on maximizing what they can learn and how they can grow will become much greater than the person who sees life as one continual test to prove themselves.” Joshua Medcalf
Lesson #3: Grass Isn’t Greener On The Other Side
Social media scrolling might seem harmless. However, when you work hard to achieve something and when you don’t see immediate results you’ll surely feel like crap when you open Facebook and see one of your friends riding the new Camaro.
Beware! Comparing yourself to other people is a dangerous game. Especially today, where you can literally see what everyone else in the world is doing.
People online present the best-filtered version of themselves. It’s quite normal to feel down if you compare yourself with their seemingly flawless social image. Or worse, with a world-famous athlete, actor, writer, or business tycoon.
It’s hard to keep doing what you’re doing when you see other people achieving things with seemingly less effort. However, what’s presented online is not always true.
Other people, too, are going through hard times. Even famous people feel self-doubt, insecurity, uncertainty, and often have low self-esteem.
That is why you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself when you see big houses and sports cars online. People might seem happy on the outside but it’s usually a completely different story in their heads.
The lesson the author is trying to convey here is that “comparison is the thief of all joy.”
If you focus too much on the lives of others you’ll never have the time to live your own.
It’s about your own journey. Your own goals and ambitions.
There are people who have more than you but there are also such who would give anything to be just a bit like you. So, focus on your own path.
“Comparison is the thief of all joy, and the grass isn’t greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it.” Joshua Medcalf
Lesson #4: You Don’t Need Goals. You Need A Compelling Mission
Goals are things we set to make progress. To get better and to advance in life. They give us long-term vision and short-term motivation. Yet, setting goals and working towards achieving them is quite boring.
For example, if your goal is to become a lawyer, your daily tasks will feel like a drag because you’ll think only about the end result. However, if you come up with a compelling mission – say living to protect the innocent and fight for their freedom. Every day you’ll wake up inspired. Eager to do your work.
Besides, goals have an expiration date.
If your goals revolve around getting a new job, buying a new car, becoming a lawyer, what will you do after you get these things? Precisely. You’ll have to set other goals. To put another carrot on the stick.
Having a mission is different. It’s something for life. It will help you overcome your daily battles and navigate you along the way.
A mission is much deeper than a goal. Your mission will give you perspective and help you focus on the important things in life. You’ll concentrate on your daily actions and on who you become as a person.
So, ask yourself now: What is your mission?
“Many people keep climbing and climbing, only to get to the end of their life and the top of the ladder, and realize their ladder has been on the wrong building. Without a mission, it is easy to lose perspective on what truly matters. A mission will make you think beyond the moment, which is greatly important because the only thing that is significant about the moment is who you become in the process, and the impact you have on others.” Joshua Medcalf
Lesson #5: You’re Building Your Own House Throughout Your Whole life
The decisions we make every single day are the foundations of a future house. A place we’ll eventually end up living.
In the book, along with other stories, the author shares a fable of a guy named Kota. He was famous for his ability to build the finest houses in Tokyo. He was a dedicated guy and he was always hands-on the work he did.
Right before retiring, his boss handed him one last job. To build one last house before he can go traveling with his family. This guy Kota accepted but he was no longer feeling it. He was now seeing this work as an obligation rather than as an opportunity. So, he did a lousy job with this last house.
When he told his boss that he was done, the boss handed him the keys to this exact same house he was so frustrated with. This was a gratitude gift for his perfect work throughout the years.
“Immediately, his heart sank.” writes Joshua Medcalf. “Unbeknownst to Kota, the whole time he had been building his own house.”
The idea here is really important: Whatever you’re doing, you’re building your own house.
Your current job might seem insignificant but the connections you make there might lead to something important in the future.
While you might think that there is nothing wrong with eating cheeseburgers twice a day in your 20s, this act will surely sabotage your health in the long run.
Playing video games and watching Netflix are surely pleasant activities but these two won’t actually help you advance in your career and in life.
Everything you do, or don’t do, matters. You’re either building a beautiful house or you’re bounding yourself to leave on the street. The choice is yours.
“Each of us are building our own house. Sometimes you might think you are building for your school, your family, your company, or your team, but you are always building your own house… I hope you build wisely.” Joshua Medcalf
- Don’t let other people mess around with your head: Or as the author says in the book, “We live in a society of crabs. If you put multiple crabs in a bucket, they will pull each other down every time one starts to crawl out.” People might say that your idea is crazy but it’s usually because they want to pull you back in the bucket.
- Chop wood, carry water: Chop wood and carry water stands for doing the same things over a long period of time. The main goal? To fall in love with the process. For years, it might seem that nothing is happening, but when you keep chopping wood and carrying water, you’ll build a strong foundation. The thing necessary to reach success.
- Live by your principles: Feelings change constantly. Relying on them to do things is usually a bad idea. Principles, however, are here to stay. If you write only when you feel like writing, you’ll write twice a month probably. In contrast, if you have a principle to write every-single-day, you’ll do it regardless of how you feel. Set principles for work and for life and live according to them.
- Build your own house: Figuratively speaking, you are always building your own house. Your decisions, actions, non-actions, everything you do, is either helping you build a nice-looking place or move you away from your dream home. Keep that in mind the next time you decide to skip a workout or waste time on social media.
- What is your mission? Setting goals is cool but having a mission in life is more important. A mission will be your guiding force, your North Star. When you have one you know where you’re headed. But don’t worry if you still don’t know what to do. Check out what everyone else is doing. There are a lot of people trying to do cool things. Just borrow a noble mission someone else has and tailor it to your personality.
Commentary And My Personal Takeaway
Chop Wood Carry Water is one of those rare books you won’t find in the best-of reading lists. Few people will talk about it and even fewer will actually realize that such a gem exists. That’s why I’m so pleased I’ve found it.
Though sometimes the writing sounds just too cliche-ish, the information inside Chop Wood Carry Water can help you go through some hard times and keep you moving forward. Keep you working towards your goals despite the current setbacks.
It’s mainly a book for people who are trying to build something long-lasting. Something that’s beyond one year of completion.
Some of the tips inside aren’t groundbreaking, yes. But they will definitely help you in the process of becoming great. In times when things are hard, when you struggle, and when you want to quit.
My personal takeaway: Stop dreaming about doing out-of-this-world work. Success lies in doing simple things over a long period of time. Learn to chop wood, carry water. Success will eventually come.
“For many years it might feel as if nothing is happening, but you must trust the process and continue to chop wood and carry water, day in day out, regardless of what is happening around you.” Joshua Medcalf
“Greatness isn’t sexy John, it is the dirty, hard work that is often very boring.” Joshua Medcalf
“In the West, you want everything instantly, but here you must learn to fall in love with the process of becoming great. Now go chop wood, and carry water.” Joshua Medcalf
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