Book Review: Chop Wood Carry Water

I recently read the book “Chop Wood Carry Water” by Joshua Medcalf and would like to share my impressions of it because I think it will… it already started to change my mindset and life. It is very difficult to describe in a few sentences what this book is, so I decided to describe a little from my observations — also to consolidate knowledge for myself. It is a story about a man who wanted to become an archer, who went a long way full of important life lessons — all of which changed him a lot. This book is divided into many small chapters: all are connected, but each is also a bit separate story with another lesson, moral. Reading this book is wonderfully comfortable, because chapters are small enough to find even a few minutes every day to immerse yourself in reading and then in reflection.

Process instead of goals

Chop Wood Carry Water focuses on process, and it is mentioned many times. Instead of trying to achieve goals, one by one, instead of aiming for excitement, it recommends thinking about important items as a process. Some examples: I can set a goal like “I will make this course to be better”. It is nothing wrong, but what if we change our mindset and think more like “I would like to be an expert in XYZ, so I will develop and excel in this area”? It is a completely different approach. During this process, during this road, we can have a lot of milestones (so, something like goals), but even if we will not achieve them because of many reasons like changing plans, other opportunities etc. we will still be on track. This matters a lot. If you are a goal-oriented person, any kind of stumble, mistake, failure, can shake your self-confidence and it will not be anything pleasant.

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain”
– Frank Herbert

I have already written about goals vs systems approach many months ago in different post and after lecture think it is valid even more: we can still have some goals, but if they are our point of reference in relation to ourselves, we will never be happy. Also, we will always be insatiable and saying “enough” will not be possible. It is because we will be in constant pursuit of our next and next goals. Of course, for some people it is something like a “life fuel”, but inside, it generates even more problems.

Talent vs training

There is also very interesting chapter about talent vs practice and explanation, why talent can be just a bad thing. Simple analogy: do you know, most people who win fortunes on lotteries are bankrupt after a year and are even worse off than they were before winning? Yep, it is true, and the reason is simple: these people were not prepared for such money. In most cases, they decided to just make some dreams come true, buy a sports car, a big home with a garden and swimming pool, a lot of gadgets. All these items are not only expensive during purchase, but also in the long term, because they do generate high costs. If you do not have knowledge of how to handle a big amount of money, you can fail with it.

“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
– Epictetus

Practice is completely different: it may be slow, but it is a process during which you will learn a lot, you will fail many times, but you will not lose everything. You will be also better prepared for future and next steps. Maybe other, more brutal example: please think about many famous stars, who gained popularity suddenly and then turned to drugs, alcohol and often died even at a young age. Relying on talent is not the path we want to take it is dangerous and can blow the ego. With practice, we can be really experts, after time, but true.

You matter. Always

Another item, next significant change I think you always matter — your value is constant, not determined by what are you doing or not. If you fail with something, fine, you will get up and keep walking. Also comparing yourself to others is always a very bad idea. People have different minds, different missions and goals, so what is the purpose of that? Remember to always compare yourself to yourself, to the previous state, and the past. It was an interesting lesson for me while writing my first book about weight loss and transformation of my body because of these aspects. It was retrospective of what I was doing in the past, where I am right now and… yeah, it was great in term of self-confidence.

Probably I could have done a lot of things better, but I know this right now, I did not that before. Also, try to minimize usage of social media like Facebook or Instagram. They do not have sense and are the “best place” to compare with others. You will see always only the tip of the iceberg, the best part, but you won’t see many details: a lot of hard work (when someone posted info about achieving something), potential loans (when someone posted info about expensive gadgets) or people’s true opinion on many topics, because social media always build information bubbles.

Build your environment

One of the most important observations for me was about other people, especially the people we surround ourselves with, the people we hang out with. It matters a lot, because it builds our environment — we can call it bubble, but it depends on us, what bubble we will use. If we will join people who complain, eat unhealthy food, or always “relax” by only watching movies after boring work… we will start to be similar to them. Group has a power, and we should join proper groups: for example, if you know, you can learn from someone, join that person. Do you want to eat healthy? Build proper environment, convince family to also do the same.

Do not care about people who do not want to be like you. Why? There is a great analogy in this book: it’s like a bucket full of crabs — if one wants to leave, the rest will pull it down. So, do not be like a crab, ignore others and do what you should do. Sounds like you’re being an asshole? Sorry, you have only one life and you can spend it with the wrong, or proper people, it is your choice.

Rules and emotions

I was also very intrigued by the issue of emotions and their influence. For example, it is very, very simple to “motivate” (but for short term) using movies like Rambo or Braveheart. I know this and can confirm, it is very easy, generates a lot of “power” emotions, but in long-term perspective, it may be problematic. According to the book, we should remember also about this second, more difficult side i.e. working on calming and slowing down to have clearer thoughts. We can do that by, for example, listening to classical music, meditating, and spending some time reflecting on our steps and plans.

“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Why should we not rely on big, powerful emotions? Because emotions can always change. With rules, things are different. Rules are fixed and we just follow them. With a good plan for our own path, we can always adjust our steps to rules, even if emotions are very high and try to move us in different directions. It is not easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, and we will need time to take a breath, but every time we will train this, our willpower will be better and better, we will make better decisions. Key for that is to have a life mission. Not a goal, as I mentioned earlier, but missions — like Mother Teresa or Gandhi. They did not need strong emotions, they had a mission and consistently, day after day they implemented it.

In my last post about stoic self-review, I wrote I plan to start doing evening summaries — this book also encouraged me to do that, because there is one chapter dedicated to remembering all the good things we meet or do during the day. It may look like something simple, obvious, but it has “magic power”: even if you think, day is “bad”, you can sit down, write few items and… you will see the same day in the completely different, better view.

Perspective matters while reading

Chop Wood Carry Water may look like something motivational or coaching, but I think it depends on people situation and perspective. For example, there is a chapter related to pushing forward despite everything. Sometimes we can ignore the big costs and move forward, even though what we want to achieve has lost its sense long ago. Even if we achieve the goal, we will leave behind the ruins, tears, suffering. This chapter was very important to me. I have a family, wife, daughter and definitely needed some reflection related to question: how much time do I spend on work, and how much for them?

“To be calm is the highest achievement of the self.”
– Zen Proverb

I can achieve a lot as a specialist, at the same time become a total asshole when it comes to the family, as Steve Jobs was, for example. Do I want to be remembered as someone who contributed a lot, changed a lot, but from the purely pragmatic side, or do I want to be remembered first and foremost by my loved ones? It is very difficult and always depends on perspective — I had totally different mine one, two and three years ago. Changes in my life changed also my perspective a lot and for example. My risk appetite has decreased because I know I need to take care of more than just myself. It is not withdrawal, resignation — it’s maturity and responsibility

Summary: I recommend this book

Overall, I think this book also refers to a lot of Stoic advice — I have been interested in this philosophy for several months and see a lot of commonalities: different perspective, process approach, a continuous path to improvement, abandoning comparisons to others and keep calm.

This is definitely not a book for everyone, I think. Many people will disagree with these points, with morals and they will prefer to go the simpler way, use shortcuts or even not take any challenge in life. OK, it is their choice, and it is nothing bad about that. We have free will and can decide. For me, this book is incredible learning and inspiration and thanks to it, I have already started to change some parts of my life. I know, it will be often difficult, there will be a lot of hard times, but I have my mission and want to follow this path.