Chop wood, carry water.
Shawn Green couldn’t seem to hit the ball out of the infield. In the prior season, he had been the Dodgers’ star player, but this slump was making fans and commentators question his abilities AND his expensive salary. As he walked off of the field, after putting up only 1 hit in his last 19 at-bats, the Dodgers’ fans actually booed him. Green was in the slump of all slumps, and yet he was cool as ever about it. How?
Imagine the pressure. Imagine the stakes. Imagine how you would react, inwardly and outwardly. Green didn’t throw a tantrum, he didn’t try to change his swing. He got into his own head and found what Ryan Holiday calls, “stillness.”*
There’s a Zen saying that goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” That’s what Green told himself to get back on track. Literally. Over and over. He had done the work, he had done the preparation. He had a track record as a hitter. This was bad luck, not a bad process. He quieted the world and felt confident that the hits would come. All he needed was to, “Chop wood, carry water.”
It’s easy to get swept up in complexity. It’s easy to lose focus on the basics. There’s always a new-new thing or something else to try out. There’s always the critics, and there’s always our lucky and unlucky streaks with anything we do repeatedly. Green’s mental mantra to get out of his slump applies to everything we’re trying to accomplish, and anything we’re trying to help anyone else accomplish.
Once we know the process is good,** we shouldn’t let bad luck get in the way. This sometimes takes time and space. Chop wood, carry water. The world around us is endlessly busy and constantly moving. Having a means to find stillness within ourselves is a key to sustainable progress. Chop wood, carry water. If we can help others turn down the noise and turn up the signal on what actually matters, we are adding value. Chop wood, carry water.
On a May night on 2002, after a 1-19 hitting slump and being booed by his home fans, Shawn Green stepped up for his 6th at bat of what had become a magical game. The Dodger’s were playing away against The Brewers, and he had gone 5 for 5 with 3 home runs so far. His coach tried to talk him out of even taking the at bat, fearing he’d break his new streak and lose confidence, but Green insisted on stepping up to the plate. Chop wood, carry water.
He hit a record tying 4th home run on that at bat. He also set a new record for 19 total bases hit in a single game. After the home run the whole stadium cheered for him. The guy who got booed by home fans only one game ago, now had away fans cheering for his accomplishments. They knew they saw something special. He knew this was just an outcome of his process. Chop wood, carry water.
Green went on to be one of the most prolific hitters in modern baseball. He never let the good or the bad, the lucky or unlucky streaks get to him. He had his process, he had his work, and it served him and his teams well. That’s the power of stillness. That’s the power of chop wood, carry water. We should help ourselves and others to find the satisfaction within that stillness. We don’t need stadiums full of people to judge or celebrate, we just need the internal reward of a proper process, performed well.
*Ryan Holiday’s newest book “Stillness Is The Key” is well worth a read. His output and quality is truly remarkable.
**Knowing when a formerly good process isn’t a good process anymore is another post for another day. There are times to maintain and times to change course.