Notes From Chop Wood, Carry Water

Chop Wood, Carry Water

by Jason Medcalf

Quick Summary and Review

A sensei teaches a modern day student to be a samurai archer in Japan. The focus on process is wax-on, wax-off a la Karate Kid. As an apprentice, the protaganist spends most of his time “chopping wood, and carrying water” which he is initially impatient with. Of course, as anybody familiar with Mr. Miyagi would forsee, the mental and physical effort is transferable to the mastery of archery. The lessons are communicated with contemporary parables. Sticky and timeless. This book would be a perfect gift for a teen or recent grad.

Why Try To Be Great

You have one life

Pain of regret lasts longer than the pain of failure.

Don’t pretend you get to live twice.

You will be irreplaceable even if you are not the best.

  • When you go on a self-directed journey you’re learning things and developing skills that make you highly irreplaceable.

You don’t find traffic after going the extra mile.

A bold new world

  • Things that used to be virtually impossible to build and create on your own can now be done with just a few clicks.
  • Very few people have woken up to that truth, because doing so requires getting uncomfortable and breaking away from much of what they’ve known their whole lives. They would rather have the perceived illusion of safety with a consistent job, even if it’s one where they are completely disengaged doing things they don’t believe in, all while complaining about how unfairly they’re being treated, despite being able to quit at any time. They have been so brainwashed by a system that encourages disengagement, passing tests, and buying stuff you don’t need to impress people you don’t like, that they can’t see the reality: that there are fields all around them, just waiting to be farmed.
  • Very few people understand this because they have been studying old maps their whole lives. The territory is new. 


Falling in love with process

Start small and focus on what you can control.

  • Chopping wood and carrying water is the price for admission 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. For many years it may feel as if nothing is happening, but you must trust the process and continue to chop wood and carry water, day in day out.

The importance of little things. Inches

“Now you see how much an inch is worth. Every adjustment at the firing line means the difference between hitting the target or missing it. And the same is true in life. Every little thing we do, no matter how mundane, matters greatly when it is multiplied by the number of times you do it. Over time, even the smallest habit or choice can change our lives immensely. Do you know what separates most wildly successful people from everyone else, John?”

“Luck?” Akira shook his head, no. “Hard work?” Again, no. “Coming from the right background?”

Akira just smiled, “Inches, John. That’s all that separates them.” (This was pretty much Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday).

Think about your group of friends from high school. You’re all from the same area, you’re all the same age, and most of you have had a very similar set of opportunities. And right now, someone might look at all of you and be unable to really see much of a difference in your lives. But in ten years, an underachiever might be incredibly successful, while another who flourished in high school may be struggling to even survive. But I can as the difference in their lives will always come down to inches.

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.

You don’t rise to the occasion you sink to the level of your training.

What to Expect on the Path to Greatness


  • Don’t believe the myths. Greatness is far from sexy, it is dirty, hard work usually required to be done in the dark. When no one is watching your dreams are so far off they feel like fairy tales.
  • There will be distractions. There will be people who tell you that you are stupid or crazy for doing it.
  • Most people do not try to realize their potential because they’d rather protect their ego.
    • People won’t understand. Most are more invested in their ego than a mission.
    • Evil’s greatest weapon is discouragement.
    • When we see people who were like us achieve greatness we often retrofit labels like “talented” or “chosen”. This protects our egos which did not do what it takes to achieve greatness. (It reminds me of how people’s perception of Tom Sawyer when they discovered he had money. And how they retroactively applied that perception, seemingly having forgotten the orphan’s rascal behavior.)
  • Cites 74% of people knowingly give a wrong answer to not stand out.
  • “Greatness isn’t for the chosen few. It’s for the few who choose.” – Jamie Gilbert
  • Everyone wants to be great until it’s time to do what greatness requires.

Temptation to take shortcuts

  • There will be people who try and lure you off the path with quick fixes and get rich quick schemes. But you must be wise and stay the path, and continue to build your foundation by chopping wood and carrying water every day. Greatness isn’t sexy, it is the dirty, hard work that is often very boring. Your greatest challenge during your time here will be to faithfully keep your focus on the process, while surrendering the outcome.

Comparison traps

  • Comparison is the thief of joy and short-sighted. Compare to yourself. Your former self and your potential.

The grass is not greener on the other side. It is greener where you water it. 

Don’t give advice unless asked

  • There will be people who ask you for wisdom but you must never cross boundaries without an invitation.
    • When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Often a good idea to ask if the person is looking for advice or just venting and wanting to be heard. 
  • “The difference between a pest and a guest is an invitation.” – James Richards

Improve Your Mindset

Rewiring your brain for encouragement

  • We don’t remember experiences as objective events. We remember them by the stories we tell about them. By focusing on what we did well, we can turn our memory into encouragement. Rewiring is tedious work.
    • Example: writing down at least 15 positive things that you did or happened that day. This is an action which promotes a growth mindset.
    • Instead of seeing moments as tests, view them as opportunities to learn.
    • Another good habit: write at least 2 things you learned that day.

“Humility is not thinking less of ourselves it’s thinking of ourselves less.” – CS Lewis

  • To fuel yourself with encouragement watch your inputs: what you consume, who you surround yourself with, how you talk to yourself, what you visualize.

How to stop comparing

  • Enumerating what you are grateful for including basic like health and clean drinking water.

Reframing setbacks

  • Just as the dimples on a golf ball allow it to travel further, hardship prepares you to persist. Talent or winning a lottery can be a curse since it skips the character-building that is usually required to get far. So look at setbacks as investments which will pay off in the future.

Talent is nothing without character.

Talk to yourself instead of listening to yourself.

  • How you label your feelings affects how you filter their meaning which affects their impact. Are you “nervous” or “excited”?
  • Ask yourself, “what is one thing I can do to make the situation better?” rather than “why is this happening to me?”
  • Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You choose what you do.

“There is only one thing you have to do in life, and that is die. You are always doing what you want to do because there is always a choice. You may not like the choices or the consequences, but you always have a choice. When you tell yourself that you have to do something it creates a negative internal energy, but when you realize you want to do something it creates a more beneficial internal energy.”

Remember this next time you think you don’t have enough time.

My Favorite Takeaways

The advice is simple and timeless

  • Just not simple to execute. Like losing weight. The strategy is straighforward but it is not easy.

Surrender what is out of your control while committing to what is.

Living by principles instead of feelings

  • Feelings are fickle.

Many days, you aren’t going to feel like working out and honing your craft. Many days, you aren’t going to feel like treating people really well. Many days, you aren’t going to feel like being unconditionally grateful. Many days, you aren’t going to feel like giving your very best.

But the principle says you are going to reap what you sow. The principle says that diligent workers are going to serve kings instead of ordinary men. The principle says to turn the other cheek. The principle says to seek wise counsel. The principle says to speak life and not death.

At the end of principles there is life, freedom, hope, joy, and peace.

The most you can expect from feelings is happiness. But like every other feeling, happiness doesn’t last. That’s exactly why trillion-dollar industries try to keep you chasing it because it is perpetually unavailable.

You are building your own house

  • The achitect parable

The architect, desperate to retire, is implored to design one final house. Since his heart is not fully in it, he cuts corners. Only at the end of the project does he learn that the firm that commissioned it, built the house for him. If he only know he was building his own house he would have designed it with maximal effort and pride. In life, we are all “building our own house”. 

Progress is not steady

  • Zoomed in it can look random with ups and downs and detours.
  • Zoomed out it is a step-function.

Remember this when you hit the inevitable detours and plateaus. 

Setbacks are investments

  • The grit it takes to overcome setbacks will be the basis of your confidence when hard times come. And they always do. By doing hard things you are training for life.

You are not as alone as seems

  • Curate your inputs and who you surround yourself with. Fill your environment with inspiration not naysayers.

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