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Chop Wood, Carry Water – The Power of Process

Updated: Apr 24

“Master the process and the results will follow” – Lizzie Simmonds

When it comes to achieving your goals in life, the best thing you can do is to set your goals and then ignore them! I take a deep look at the reasons behind this statement in a blog called Goal Setting – Redefined! I would suggest reading that blog also to appreciate and understand why I make this radical statement. That blog also explores the practical tools to use to redefine your goals and rather to focus on the skill of habit setting as the key to unlocking your potential.


In simple terms, having a focus on your goals reduces the chances of you achieving the results you want. This blog will be looking at the power of process when it comes to achieving anything of success in life.


When it’s hard and there is a struggle, what you become in the process is more important than the dream. What’s far more important is the kind of person you become. The character that you’ve built, the courage that you’ve developed, the faith in what you are doing. That is where the true winning lies.



ZEN KŌAN


One of the simplest, yet most profound ways to look at life, sport, and achieving success in any discipline comes from part of the Zen kōan. There is a famous quote that goes:


“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

To expand on the quote a little and to give it more context:


“The novice says to the master, ‘What does one do before enlightenment?’ ‘Chop wood. Carry water,’ replies the master. The novice asks, ‘What, then, does one do after enlightenment?’ ‘Chop wood. Carry water.”


You can replace the word enlightenment in this quote for any word you want. Maybe you want success, or winning, or achievement. Whatever you feel is appropriate to your life and setting. It is fine to have lofty and ambitious goals. They should excite and motivate you to some extent of course. But as you will come to find in this blog focussing purely on your goals, on your outcomes, is not the way. The willpower needed to sustain this excitement will burn out.


Let me dive deeper into unpacking this quote...


Life goes on during and after success.

You may reach your goals and get the status or success you desire by chopping wood and carrying water. This is great! Well done you. But as we know everything in life is impermanent.


If/when you achieve success, it’s not like you can say, “Whew! Thank goodness I’ve finally done it. That was a long journey, but I’m glad I’ve made it to the end.” If this were your thinking and attitude, do you then see the goal as the end point of everything? What do you do once you have arrived? Simply stop existing and see what happens next? Of course not. You need to continue to chop wood and carry water. Nothing just stops. Life needs to continue to be lived in all its wonderful forms.


After Andre Agassi made it to number one in the world in tennis, he said,


“I thought that getting to number one was going to be the moment I made sense of my life. But it left me a little empty, and I spiralled down.”

The processes that got you to your goal in the first place need to be continued. You may need to tweak or reassess these processes from time-to-time to freshen them up. But the idea is to make the process the main focus. If you have the attitude that you have arrived’, and everything is now rosy you are in for a hard lesson. By continuing to chop wood and carry water you will keep your ego in check. You will stay grounded and humble. You must continue and stick to the powerful processes that got you there. This will keep your rivals at bay. This will allow you more growth and success.


And MOST importantly, bigger than any goal you achieve, it’s about the person you become along the way.

We all know this isn’t easy. Overcoming the default setting of a society that is so outcome and success driven is a constant challenge. Success is shoved in our faces wherever we look, on TV, in the media, on billboards, on social media. And these messages only go to reenforce the image of the end point, the destination, the status, and the ranking. But process doesn’t sell. It’s not that sexy. But it is your job to ensure you make process your priority.


When you can compound and aggregate your version of chopping wood and carrying water it will appear that nothing has changed on the outside (doing), but everything has changed on the inside (being).


On the surface, the visible, external actions of chopping wood and carrying water are the same before and after success. So, what’s changed? The deeper invisible and internal—your presence, awareness, perception, mindset. Your body may be busy, but your mind is still. You are present instead of preoccupied.


“Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Don’t do what you’re not doing while you’re not doing it.” - unknown

The being is more important than the doing. As Eckhart Tolle says in his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose:


“Doing is never enough if you neglect Being. The ego knows nothing of being but believes you will eventually be saved by doing. If you are in the grip of the ego, you believe that by doing more and more you will eventually accumulate enough ‘doings’ to make yourself feel complete at some point in the future. You won’t. You will only lose yourself in doing. The entire civilisation is losing itself in doing that is not rooted in Being and thus becomes futile.”


Mastering your mind allows you to appreciate the extraordinary miracles in ordinary daily life


Chopping wood and carrying water are not glamorous activities, especially during the time these stories/quotes were written. If you can master your mind, you will find the extraordinary in the ordinary—the magic in the mundane. Do you choose to see burden or beauty? Are you focused on presence or productivity?


Once you can appreciate chopping wood and carrying water you have mastered your mind, you are not chopped by the wood and carried by the water anymore. You can flip your perspective at will. It is your choice to chop wood and carry water, and you live it in complete suchness and spontaneity. True success should not be concerned with amazing external activities—but rather by focussing and executing on the individual pieces and processes over time. Master the art of showing up!


If mountaineers who climb ice mountains are focused on the top of the mountain they will not know where to step in front of them. They will slip and die. The key to ice climbing is to focus on one solid step at a time. No man climbs a mountain all at once. He climbs it by making one solid step at a time. Success will look after itself when you are doing the right things.


“The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” — Robert M. Pirsig


THE CHINESE BAMBOO TREE


The motivational speaker Les Brown recites a parable that went something like this:


“A Chinese bamboo tree takes five years to grow. Everyday it must be watered and fertilised in the ground where it has been planted. It doesn’t break through the ground for five years. After five years, once it breaks through the ground, it will grow 90-feet tall in five weeks! What you don’t see happening is what is taking place beneath the surface. Beneath the surface, a massive, dense foundation of roots is spreading out all throughout the ground to prepare for the rapid growth that the bamboo will experience.


The question is, did the Chinese bamboo tree grow 90 feet tall in five-weeks or in five-years?”


The answer is obvious, it grows 90 feet tall in 5 years.


Some people do not have the patience to wait for the tree to grow, yet many people do. And those that do have the patience tend to achieve and surpass the goals they are working towards. But remember, it’s more about who you become in that process. How has your character flourished? What lessons have you learnt? Are you 1% better each day?


The power of process is like that. It takes time to establish. It needs to be attended to every day: honing skills through training; heightened awareness; reflecting continually; holding yourself accountable; trusting and being true to your intentions; setting strong and lasting habits.


Most people want the ninety-foot-tall bamboo tree without the five years of the process. They want the bamboo to grow to ninety feet tall in five-weeks, but without the five-years of invisible growth, the bamboo wouldn’t have a solid foundation, and it could never sustain the massive and rapid growth that occurs.


Sadly around 75% of NFL players and around 65% of NBA players end up bankrupt, homeless, and divorced! Maybe the lack of the solid foundation, the bamboo roots, can go someway in explaining this statistic.


Many people have been watering and fertilising their process seeds for many, many years; maybe without visible results. Then, suddenly, their processes show signs of growth and the results being to blossom. The compounding effect of all the small habits and behaviours over time can now exponentially grow the outcomes or results like our Chinese bamboo tree.


Ben Hogan, the major winning golfer, was hit by a bus as a young man and was told he may never walk again. He went on to become a golfing legend and he summaries the idea of process succinctly in his famous quote:


“Everyone thinks greatness is sexy, it’s not. It’s dirty, hard work!”


WILL SMITH - THE WALL


Anything in life that will have meaning should be viewed in the process of how to build a wall. I am going to borrow a story from the actor and musician Will Smith to highlight this point (for a moment let's try and ignore what he did onstage at the 2022 Oscars!). I have not heard any better way to describe how the power of process over outcome can be viewed.


During one long year of Will Smith’s younger life, he and his brother had to build a wall outside of his father’s shop in a rundown part of Philadelphia. This task to two young boys seemed insurmountable. They stepped back and saw what they had to complete and the amount of space they would have to fill with bricks. Visualising the outcome seemed impossible through their youthful eyes. But what their father said in the next moment changed everything:


“Don’t be worrying about no wall. Your only concern is one brick.” – Will Smith Snr (Daddio)

So now Will Smith Jnr and his brother started to see the difference between a task that feels impossible and a task that feels doable. And this is merely a matter of perspective. In all cases, what appeared impossibly large goals could be broken down into individually manageable tasks – insurmountable walls comprised of a series of conceivably layable bricks.


Are you paying attention to the wall or are you paying attention to the brick?


You should get up and lay another brick. Frustrated? Lay another brick. Bad result? Lay another brick. Ranking or status dropping? Get up and lay another brick. Unmotivated? Lay another brick.


“No matter what you’re going through, there is always another brick sitting right there in front of you, waiting to be laid. The only question is, are you going to get up and lay it? – Will Smith Jnr


THE ELEPHANT


It might sound strange, but a useful analogy for harnessing the power of process is an elephant.


Often in life we want to get everything done as quickly as possible. But when it comes to slowing down and appreciating the process that's maybe not the most skilful approach.


If you think about an elephant and the way that it moves, there is something majestic about it. It’s steady, it's slow, but it keeps moving forward. And when trying to focus on the process, it's about regular consistent practice. Just showing up time-and-time again just like our elephant.

He might be walking along a very flat surface. He might be walking up a hill, or down a hill. He might be passing through a clear open space, or a dense sticky jungle. The elephant doesn't really mind. It just focuses on one step and then the next and then the next.


If you can bring this quality to your live in all you do, then you don't have to worry about the outcome or be in a hurry to get anywhere. And you don't have to stop because you’ve overexerted yourself. You just keep going with that gentle steady consistent effort. You master and harness the power of process. You chop wood, carry water. You nourish your Chinese bamboo tree. You lay one more brick!



In summary, being driven purely by the result or the outcome is difficult and not within your control at all. But the process is FULLY within your control. To be a success in whatever you want to do, you can start with the goal, the big dream, the outcome, but you need to reverse engineer this down into your processes.


Your greatest challenge during your journey will be faithfully keeping your focus on the process, while surrendering the outcome.


This blog has used three powerful analogies to highlight the point of the power of process and it is my wish for you to begin to change your perspective away from the ranking, the status, the big win. And rather to focus on your process. I’ll close with the same quote that started this blog and I hope now with a greater understanding this can hold true to you?


“Master the process and the results will follow” – Lizzie Simmonds


PRACTICAL TIPS


- Become aware if you are outcome driven rather than process driven.


- If you become aware that you are driven too much by the big results, change your perspective. Align it more with how Will Smith Jr built his wall.


- Take a closer look and write down the daily and weekly processes you need to focus on.


- Use your new perspective of process focused on all activities you do, even the most mundane and difficult ones i.e., chop wood, carry water.


- Remember, when you have done well, and reached your goal, continue to chop wood, carry water. Do not let the ego hijack your mind.


- Read the blog on Goal Setting – Redefined! to go deeper in how to change goal setting into habit setting and how to follow through with this.


- Further reading would include Habits and Their Effectiveness



If you liked this blog, please do share with others that may be interested on this subject and find it of use. I work closely with players on all aspects of their game and mind. I offer online Zoom lessons and become a mentor and accountability partner for players. I find 1:1 online lessons immensely powerful for learning and am now using the court more so for practice. Being able to learn away from the ‘distractions’ of playing is proving to be highly valuable.


“Learn online, practice on-court.”


Please do get in touch by emailing me: jesse@squashmind.co.uk

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