January 10, 2021
A mentor once told me that one of his primary keys to success in life was to simply wake up and do the most extraordinary job he could with whatever God had put on his plate for that day.
As a matter of fact, in this recent article that included my thoughts for creating a “5-year plan for your life,” I told you that I've always been the kind of guy who simply wakes each morning, does the best job I personally can with whatever opportunities God has brought my way, then sits back and just kind of enjoys the adventures in life that this approach seems to bring me (which has certainly resulted in some interesting and unexpected directions that you can read about here).
Another way to think about this concept is that the most important work to be done is the work of the day.
Speaking of this idea of “plodding along” and doing the work for the day, Doug Wilson writes in his book Ploductivity: A Practical Theology of Work & Wealth, “So my responsibility is, so to speak, whatever is in front of me, there on my workbench or desk or counter. I should do a first-rate job with that, and other things will fall into place.”
In the book Every Good Endeavor, author Timothy Keller writes similarly, “If God’s purpose for your job is that you serve the human community, then the way to serve God best is to do the job as well as it can be done.”
In other words: Wake up, chop wood, carry water—rinse, wash, repeat. And do it all to the glory of God, with as much excellence as you possibly can.
So, since I recently, in my recent post on creating and “being” rather than constantly working and “doing,” may have given you the impression that life is all about traipsing naked through a pastoral field with a flower tucked into your hair, and doesn't really involve any grit or hard work, I'd like to explore in this article the concept of how I approach the working and the doing bits of life—beginning with two examples of chopping wood, carrying water, and accomplishing the “work of the day,” then moving on to a couple of important sieves through which to filter this philosophy.
I really have no clue where I originally heard this first story—the so-called “parable of the trucker”—but it highlights the importance of putting your nose to the grindstone and doing your work to the very best of your ability.
The story, from my approximate remembrance and with apologies to anyone who knows the tale well and may grimace over my bastardization of it, goes something like this…
…there is a trucker who is driving along his usual route, and, as he drives, he is asking himself over and over again: Why I am here? What is my purpose? What am I meant to do? Then, suddenly, as he rounds a corner, he slams on his brakes as there is a giant tree that has fallen across the road. Naturally, being a gritty trucker, he gets out, fires up his electric chainsaw, and carves enough of the tree up to be able to manhandle it out of the road and clear the path.
He then hops in his truck and keeps driving, continuing to ask himself over and over again: Why I am here? What is my purpose? What am I meant to do?
All the while, a stream of cars behind him pass through the unblocked road successfully, and thousands of happy citizens make it to work on time and enjoy their daily commute without having to hassle with a giant tree in the road.
See, the trucker's “purpose” was right there in front of him the whole time, and he didn't really even know—by doing his job of “chopping wood” (in this case, in the literal sense) and “carrying water”—how much he was positively impacting the world around him. The work to be done was simply the work of the day.
Next, there's the tale of one boy's journey to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming a samurai warrior, as told by author Joshua Medcalf in the book Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great.
In the book, the primary protagonist, a boy named John, is in love with samurai culture and possesses a relentless desire to become a samurai archer. All the seemingly mundane tasks assigned to him by his wise sensei that John must complete in order to achieve his goal are similar to the mundane tasks you too may experience in your “daily grind,” such as making your bed, doing the dishes, weeding the garden, sweeping the floor, putting away the groceries, paying the bills, replying to emails, making 50 cold calls, doing 20 pushups every hour, or perhaps just writing 200 words a day (my own minimum requirement, which technically allows me to write the equivalent of an entire novel yearly with that minimum amount of words, though I often exceed that word count).
Joshua explains in the book that it seems everyone wants to build the next Apple or Facebook, but 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 like the boy John—until their sensei graduates them to shooting arrows, swinging swords, and other forms of samurai training.
After all, it isn't sexy to chop wood and carry water every single day. People instead dream of easy, instant success. Winning the lottery. Getting noticed by a talent recruiter. Hitting it big on Instagram. Getting retweeted by a celebrity. Few, however, are willing to chop wood, carry water. As Joshua writes, “Everyone wants to be great, until it’s time to do what greatness requires.” He explains that 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.
At the risk of “tooting my own horn,” I will use my own personal success as an example of chopping wood, carrying water, and simply waking up each day to do the most extraordinary job I can with whatever God has placed upon my plate for the day.
-In high school, I'd rise at 4 am to work on medical insurance claims for my Dad's ambulance service, then go deliver newspapers, then bust butt to finish all my studies (I was homeschooled) by 11 am, after which I coached tennis for 3-4 hours to save up money for college, and finally operated an evening babysitting service for our neighborhood and friends.
-During my university studies, I took 28-32 credits a semester for 5 years in a row while simultaneously waking at 5 am to work at a bakery, moonlit as a personal trainer in the evening, taught kids sports camps and wellness classes in between my regular classes, managed a coffeeshop, and taught tennis lessons.
-Once I graduated and began to open a series of personal training studios and gyms, I'd wake at 4 am, ride my bike 12 miles through rain, sleet, and snow to train clients the entire day, then return home around 7 pm, eat a quick bowl of food, then stay up until 2-3 am programming websites and teaching myself to code so that I could launch an online personal training business.
-Over the next several years, while traveling the world and competing in Ironman triathlon—while still managing and operating all my personal training studios—I sat hunched over a laptop in tiny taxis in Thailand and airport coffeeshops jamming away on my word processor while writing my first New York Times bestselling book Beyond Training.
-In between writing books, training clients, and training myself, I published a daily newsletter from my website, wrote 1-2 articles a week, and launched a weekly podcast in an effort to establish the fitness media “empire” I now operate, which really began with me and the best tiny video camera I could afford from the local Best Buy.
Ultimately, I chopped a lot of wood and carried a lot of water. Things eventually snowballed, but kind of like a snowball one rolls up a hill one single sweaty roll at a time, and not a snowball one easily pushes from the top of a hill.
As an example of the slow snowball effect, I remember my first monthly “affiliate” check from Amazon in 2009, which was the fruits of publishing half a dozen articles a month that I disseminated about the internets. The check amounted to one dollar and thirty-seven cents. But in 2021, my monthly affiliate check from Amazon was around twenty thousand dollars.
My first book royalty payment was about seventeen dollars. My last book royalty payment was well over a quarter-million dollars.
I began posting instructional videos to Instagram a few years ago with next to zero follows. Last I checked, followers were well over 300,000.
Granted, none of these examples are metrics of my worth as a human being. But they do highlight the fruits I've experienced by simply waking up each day, putting my nose to the grindstone, and doing the very best job I can with whatever God has placed upon my plate for the day. This success has come slowly, but has been built upon a solid foundation of blood, sweat, and tears, and not a shaky foundation of “getting lucky” or taking a shortcut. Of course, the entire journey itself has been character-building and allowed me to learn plenty of valuable life lessons I can now teach to my children and teach to others in the form of articles such as the one you're reading right now.
As you engage in your own process of chopping wood and carrying water, there is another important consideration you should be aware of, something I wish I'd come to a realization about earlier in my life.
If your life has been anything like mine, you may occasionally be presented with opportunities of a so-called “serendipitous” nature. Serendipity is defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
These often refreshing, welcome, and sometimes fortunate breaks from your monotonous or mundane tasks of doing the daily grind may be marked by a pleasant level of surprise and spontaneity when they occur. Some call them luck, some call them happenstance, some good fortune, but I call them God's providence. After all, random good things don't just happen. Instead, God delights in occasionally surprising us, and gives us a seemingly random passing moment of unexpected meaning or importance, such as meeting someone in a coffeeshop you haven't seen in years, receiving a random call about the chance for a new book deal or insight into a problem you've been trying to solve, getting a raise or a promotion, or receiving a networked introduction that turns out to be exactly the person you need in your life at that moment for a project you've been working on.
Ultimately, if you've been doing your daily work of chopping wood and carrying water, these serendipitous opportunities are far more likely to be sent your way by God. You've no doubt heard this wise perspective on luck before…
…chance favors the prepared mind…
…diligence is the mother of good luck…
…the winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators…
…luck occurs when smart, prepared people are in the right place at the right time…
…you get the idea. What's important for you to understand is to not shrug these seemingly random occurrences off as “luck,” but as meaningful opportunities that may very well materialize into something big for you. So pay close attention to all of these occurrences, both large and small. They aren't accidents.
I spent much of my life shrugging off the idea that “nothing happens by accident” as woo and weird superstition and a view that might cause one to waste too much time looking for meaning in relatively meaningless chance happenings, but I've realized in the past several years that I couldn't have been more wrong. For example, when someone randomly pops into my head, I don't shrug it off as my brain simply firing off a few random neurotransmitters, but I now call that person, or email them, or text them. When I'm trying to solve a problem and I accidentally knock a book off my bookshelf, I pop the book open and immediately start thumbing through it for the answer to my problem. If I'm creating a new recipe and I hear a song that names a random spice or herb (“it's thyme to part; every rose has its thorn; pour some sugar on me”…), I'll fumble around for that ingredient. Call me weird and superstitious, but I do indeed now pay very close and mindful attention every moment to what some would say what “the universe” is telling me, but what I say God is telling me.
Of course, what we often consider to be serendipity is simply the result of the manifestation of bringing something tangible into our lives through attraction and belief. You've no doubt also heard of this concept before couched within phrases such as “if you think it, it will come”; “ask and your prayers shall be answered”; or “think and grow rich.” Manifestation simply involves making everything you want to feel and experience a reality via your thoughts, actions, beliefs, and emotions. So, if you're working on a book, you not only write your daily word count, but you tell others you are working on a New York Times Bestseller. If you're launching a new company, you not only set your alarm for 5 am every morning to work, but you create a vision board of your big, hairy, audacious company goals in your office. If you're trying to lose 100 pounds and race an Ironman triathlon, you sign up for the race and buy your Ironman race suit in the exact size you need it to be in long before the actual event occurs.
See, in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11-13 says that God knows the very plans he has for you: plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. He tells you to call on Him and come and pray to Him, and He will listen to you. In addition, Psalm 139 says:
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
…My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.”
That's right: God planned everything out for you before you were even born. All you need to do is wake up each day, do the hard work of chopping wood and carrying water, and pay close attention to every opportunity (even the seemingly random ones) He sends your way, tackling each of those opportunities with wisdom and discernment. Ultimately, every moment of your life was meant to be.
Hell Yes Or No?
Finally, I'm often asked how—by keeping myself open to opportunities (even the seemingly serendipitous ones), somewhat flexible with a “life plan,” and focused on attending primarily to the work of the day (including all those new opportunities that come my way)—I assess whether an opportunity is a true fit.
After all, I'd be overloaded with work in addition to constantly “having coffee” with every random person who asked me to coffee (as an aside, I never do coffee meetings), doing quick calls with everyone who wants to “pick my brain” (I also allow for zero brain-picking), investing in every new startup that comes my way (hint: I invest in about 0.1% of the companies that contact me daily) and reading every book that's recommended to me (if I don't get through the first 10 pages without highlighting something in a book, it gets shelved).
Related to these kinds of decisions, the wise Naval Ravikant says, “If you can't decide, the answer is no.”
The equally wise Derek Sivers says, “If it's not a hell yes, it's a no.”
But I would add two clarifications and considerations…
First, sometimes an opportunity arises and you're not in the correct state of mind (which is usually a tired or stressed state of mind) to properly assess whether the opportunity is a fit. So don't react with a blanket yes or no. Pray on it, walk on it, and sleep on it. Come back refreshed and undistracted. Then decide.
Second, have rules through which you filter new opportunities. For example, I know that 99% of “coffee meetings” have turned out to be a complete waste of my time, random phone calls to answer “quick questions” turn into an enormous time suck of me explaining to someone something they could have found on Google for free, most new startups fail, and a book that doesn't intrigue and enchant me within the first chapter will not deliver anything extraordinary in later chapters. Hence, the “rules” for these types of opportunities that I described above.
In other words, do indeed stay open to new opportunities, but also be wise, be discerning, and don't be a “say yes to everything because ya never know” type of person.
-Work hard, to the best of your ability, and in full excellence to the glory of God, chopping wood and carrying water every day and doing the very best job with whatever God has put on your plate for the day.
-Understand that the seemingly “random” so-called serendipitous opportunities, meetings, and networked introductions that may arise are not random, but planned by God, and manifested by your actions, words, and thoughts. So pay attention to each with wisdom and discernment.
-Regarding those random opportunities, only say yes to the hell yes's, but remember that you do need to set boundaries and rules and that the yes or no doesn't need to be an immediate gut response. Sometimes a hell yes or hell no may take a bit of praying, walking, and sleeping on to materialize.
And should you be tempted to think your work is too small, or to glance with envy at the size of your neighbor's garage, Instagram follower size, or monthly paycheck, consider the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58. Paul writes that “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”.He was speaking of Christian ministry, but this can ultimately be true of all work. As Doug Wilson notes in Ploductivity…
…”remembering the finitude of your labors will keep you humble. Recognizing that your labors have a place in God’s cosmic intentions for the universe will keep you from thinking that your tiny labors are stupid labors. They are nothing of the kind.”
Finally, I highly recommend you read two books: read Ploductivity, a book that considers the theology behind technology, work, and mission and advice on how to be productive—and to think about productivity—in the digital age. Also read Every Good Endeavor, which addresses the following three questions:
Why do you want to work? (That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled life?)
Why is it so hard to work? (That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless, and difficult?)
How can we overcome the daily difficulties and find satisfaction in our work?
As a matter of fact, let's finish with a quote by author Timothy Keller from his book Every Good Endeavor. In it, Keller says,
“…all human work (especially excellent work), done by all people, as a channel of God’s love for his world. They will be able to appreciate and rejoice in their own work, whether it is prestigious or not, as well as in the skillful work of all other people, whether they believe or not. So this biblical conception of work—as a vehicle for God’s loving provision for the world.”
How about you and your approach to work? Do you view it as a way to love others, no matter how small or how much of a daily grind your work may be? Do you wake up in the morning and stack each brick you've been handed one by one, knowing that someday, even if you're perhaps not personally around to see it finished, a great and glorious mansion will be the eventual result? Do you chop wood and carry water, with a giant, satisfied, stupid grin on your face, doing so to the glory of God, no matter how mundane the work may seem to be? Leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.