Chop Wood, Carry Water: 7 Important Life Lessons

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When you were a student, you probably hated those classes where the teacher droned on and on about something you had to learn.

Chances are you didn’t learn anything. But then there were those teachers who didn’t recite the facts or insist you learn what’s on paper. Instead, those teachers made learning real, and what they taught you stuck with you until today. 

The same thing applies in life, which is why one of the main life lessons in some cultures is to chop wood carry water. Instead of the lesson being how to physically chop wood, it’s about learning to never give up… to provide for yourself, to master the elements, and be responsible. All of that from a simple chore like chopping wood! 

Today, there isn’t much cause for chopping wood unless you have a fireplace in your suburban home. So what life lessons can you learn via other simple actions similar to “chop wood carry water?” Let’s find out. 

Chop Wood, Carry Water: What It Means

Chop Wood, Carry Water is the title of a famous book by Joshua Medcalf where an “Akira-sensei” teaches him life lessons that are about becoming a better version of himself. In a way, this is a contemporary literary adaptation of the famous “wax on and wax off” scenes from the original Karate Kid movies. 

The meaning? 

Through simple actions, the mind can learn and gain deeper insights and values. While your body does something that may seem insignificant, you can program your mind with a revelation of great significance. 

My own “chop wood, carry water” moment came when I took up horse riding. I was a stressed 20-something and getting on the tall horse at the riding school was a challenge.

Yet, none of the instructors would help me. I had to negotiate the seemingly simple (but terribly treacherous) task of getting on without the aid of a mounting block. Surely one step up wouldn’t be so difficult, right? 

It was torture. But my lesson was to develop persistence. Once I finally managed to get onto the horse (who was thankfully a patient older mare), the instructor told me to get off and do it two more times.

Horrified, I stared at this slender lady sitting so elegantly atop her tall horse. But she calmly (without any sign of malice) told me to get down and mount back up

My life lesson? 

When you think you’ve accomplished something, be prepared to go back and repeat as many times as is needed. Perhaps you’ve also had a life lesson like this? Did the lesson stick? Or did you get all your wisdom from a book? 

Nope. Your best insights are from lived experience and metaphorical living. This is how you find your own wood to chop and water to fetch. 

The Use of Metaphors in Life

Metaphoric teaching or learning through allegory has been popular since the time of the Bible. From as early as philosophers have lived and recorded their lessons, we find examples where students learned through object lessons or tasks to do. For you to really understand and use what you learn, you have to practice it. 

Sometimes, when the lesson is more than just how to do something easy, you learn about who you really are, and you become more confident and able in yourself too. 

I am always reminded of the life lesson that famous horse trainer Monty Roberts taught one of his foster sons.

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Strive, strive, and keep on making your life into the honeycomb you want.  

The young boy had been neglecting the pony he was supposed to care for, and Mr. Roberts wanted to teach the boy that he had to be responsible for the welfare of those in his care.

So, he had the boy carry water for the pony using a small teapot, which required more than just several trips to fill up the horse’s water bucket. 

The lesson? Always do right by those who depend on you, or it will take you so much longer to do what you should have done and enjoy success

Life Lessons and Why We Need Them

Metaphors and symbolic learning are about teaching us life lessons, but why do we need life lessons? Can’t we just read a book and tick off the important life lessons? Sure, you can, though the chances of you fully understanding and applying the lesson aren’t great. 

Life lessons help us understand with a deeper insight or meaning that helps us in life and guides us to being who we are supposed to be. Through learning opportunities and real insight moments, you can convert the “chopped wood” into real wisdom or life lessons.  

7 Important Chop Wood, Carry Water Life Lessons

There are a few fundamental life lessons that you need to focus on to live a successful and happy life. Some of these you learn as a child with seemingly random methods, but others you have to learn through repetition

Let’s look at some of the best life lessons to learn while you chop wood and carry water. 

1. Make Your Bed 

The now famous speech by admiral William H. McRaven about making your bed is perhaps one of the best life lessons (via metaphor) that our modern age has seen.

The basic tenet of this life lesson is that you should always start your day by making your bed as perfectly as you can, because then, you will have at least accomplished something of value each day. 

No matter how badly things go or how poorly your day turns out, you’ve always got one thing you did right—you made your bed.

With one thing accurately accomplished in the day, you may find that other tasks run more smoothly and your day will turn out better than you thought. So, go make your bed. 

The Life Lesson: Focus on doing one thing right each day, and the rest of the day will take care of itself. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. 

2. Work Like a Bee

There’s a famous African saying that “to live like a queen, you need to work like a bee.” This saying is quite clear in its meaning—work hard to achieve success—yet we often neglect this aspect of life.

We forget that to have the life you want, you have to work twice as hard as before. In our culture of instant gratification, it’s so easy to expect things to come easily. We have forgotten (or never even learned) how to work like a bee. 

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If you can learn to own your fear, you will lead a life that’s under your control and not be controlled by anger, fear, and disappointment. 

So get up early, and like the bee, work all day long, and even scurry about your dreams at night as you create the dream you want to live.

Like the bee, never give up, never get disheartened, never worry about money or how short your life is, or how little you think you achieve. Instead, strive, strive, and keep on making your life into the honeycomb you want.  

The Life Lesson: Work hard and rewards will follow.

3. Fear Is the Mind Killer 

Some of our best lessons are learned from popular fiction. The epic line from the Dune saga, “Fear is the mind killer,” embodies a powerful life lesson—don’t let fear dominate you.

We hang on to fear and eventually that fear begins to hide behind anger and hate. We see how fear becomes anger and hate in our daily lives. Fear is where judgment, prejudice, and depression are born. 

Acknowledge your fear, see it, make friends with it, and defang the beast that rages in your heart. If you can learn to own your fear, you will lead a life that’s under your control and not be controlled by anger, fear, and disappointment. 

The Life Lesson: Fear destroys unless you destroy your fear

4. You Are the Creation of Your Habits

Perhaps one of the most powerful life lessons is to own your habits. We all develop habits. Having habits is a natural part of human life. We use habits to help us organize our days and feel safe. Yet, we often build bad habits that lead to a loss of power and negative influence. 

By owning your habits, you acknowledge what you are doing, decide whether you are doing things that are beneficial to you or if you have fallen into the bad habit trap. Next, you need to learn how to think about and build new and better habits that will guide you through life in a meaningful way. 

Think about some of the habits in your life. Your lesson is to be mindful about these. Like the Karate Kid’s famous lessons to wax on and wax off, you have to learn what habits will help you achieve good things without having to think about what you do.

When you have good habits in life, you can fend off life’s blows as easily as “wax on and wax off.” 

With the right habits, you can boost your confidence and live a better life. 

The Life Lesson: Be responsible for what you do, do what works, and keep on doing it. 

5. Every Journey Starts with a Step 

Famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This simple life lesson is hard to learn, but it boils down to knowing and accepting that good things take time. There is no point in rushing or wanting to be at the end already. We all need to take that first step, no matter how small it may be. 

Even if odds are against you, don’t give up. Never refuse that first step, and when one step is done, take another. And another, and another, and before you know it, you have walked a mile in that journey. 

The Life Lesson: Never quit before you begin in life, so start somewhere. 

6. You’re Not Chocolate 

When you are focused on making everyone else happy, you will make yourself unhappy. We are often conditioned by society to make others happy and be pleasant and perfect all the time, but this puts you at the end of the line at life’s buffet. 

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Learn how to think about and build new and better habits that will guide you through life in a meaningful way. 

Accept that it’s not your job to make everyone else happy all the time. While you can be agreeable, it’s not your sole purpose in life. In fact, people who are so sweet that they make your teeth ache will end last and achieve nothing. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can be a rude and nasty person.  

The Life Lesson: Focus on you and what you want from life, not on making others happy.  

7. Carry Sand 

One day, a young man asked a wise man to teach him how to make the most of life. The wise man told him to help carry sand from the beach to his cart on the nearby road. Except, there was no bucket or spade to carry with.

The wise man told the young man to carry sand in his hands. But the tighter the young man tried to hold the sand, the more it squeezed between his fingers and trickled out. Yet, within a few minutes the wise man had carried three times what the young man had collected. 

Exasperated, the young man asked how this was possible. “I have learned that the tighter you hold on, the less you hold.” And this is life’s lesson too. The more we struggle and panic while we try to do something, the less we accomplish

Instead, we need to open ourselves (and our hands) to the grains of life, carrying these calmly and with dedication.  

The Life Lesson: Don’t hold on too tightly. Enjoy every moment and it will last. 

Final Thoughts on Chop Wood Carry Water

Life is full of lessons, and when we can learn these in a practical way, they stick with us… so much better than they would if someone had simply told us. What are your life lessons? How have you learned to be better at being you because of an experience? Life lessons matter, and these can change you for the better. 

So chop your wood, collect your water, and find a way to make each step in life count. The best school is that of life – and if you are open to the lessons learned there, you will find yourself more able and better equipped for the business of living than those who spend years hiding in classrooms and books.  

For more life-lesson wisdom, read our guide of 101 Zen Quotes on Life, Love, and Death

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