“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water” is an old Zen saying regarding work. When Gary Danielson used it in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl to reference Auburn’s workmanlike comeback, I was reminded of the power in the simplicity of its truth. Alabama chopped wood and carried water in its opening 20 minutes. Then it rested to the sounds of the cheers. Auburn continued to chop wood and carry water; it paid off in the 20th minute when a beaten linebacker chased Mark Ingram for 30 yards, dove, and slugged the football out of Ingram’s grip, saving a score. Chop Wood and Carry Water. Alabama chopped some more wood and got back to the 10 yard line. Then an Auburn lineman beat his blocker, stripped the quarterback, and got back up to recover the ball. Carry water.
The second half was consistent with the last 10 minutes of the first half. Alabama forgot what got them to the lead, and Auburn just continued to do what they did all year: chop wood, carry water. Auburn demonstrated the Zen throughout the year, and because it’s so hard to do, it seemed so improbable. We all want the mountaintop experiences, the speed of the hare. Yet the tortoise had wood and water under his shell when he crossed the finish line.
Auburn played the same way every game for 60 minutes. When the other team was ahead, they continued to do what they could and stay steady. They took some blows and had setbacks. Competition does that. Yet if you watched their games all year, you saw a team consistently doing what it knew how to do. When they had the lead, they blocked and tackled. When they fell behind, they blocked and tackled. And by the fourth quarter, they always blocked and tackled until the game was over. Chop wood, carry water.
Formations change, players change, schemes change and sometimes come back. Can anyone remember the single wing? Business models change, customers and markets change, production/logistics change and sometimes come back in style. Yet the basics remain the same. Call it blocking, tackling, meeting needs, building relationships, quality manufacturing, supply line management, or chop wood, carry water. In the end, the foundation of lasting success is doing the basics well all the time.
We all have something that we are now better at doing thanks to our chopping wood, carrying water approach. For me it’s bass playing. I am maybe 20% of the way to mastery, having played maybe 2,000 hours. But thanks to a guitar playing janitor, I chopped wood when I wanted to quit. The standing joke about me was, “If a clean note fell off of Rick’s bass, would anyone hear it?.” Yet, the desire for mastery, a basic intrinsic motivator, mixed with Charles Hendrix’s encouragement, “Rick you ain’t bad, you just need another 1,000 hours,” got me on to a basic level of competence. Dan Pink in his book, Drive, does a great job of explaining intrinsic motivation. Chop wood, carry water.
So remember when you reach that business pinnacle or sports goal, be it sales, profits, or wins, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. And if this is still Zen to you, call Nick Saban. He’ll elaborate.