Chop Wood. Carry Water.


  I was reading a post on a social media website right after I completed the coursework towards my dissertation in Educational Leadership and the person ended their post with the phrase “Chop wood. Carry water.” I felt like I intuitively knew what the phrase meant, but I went searching to clarify my intuition. Turns out the phrase is a Zen quote that refers to the process of spiritual enlightenment.  As I scrolled through the different options from my intellectual Google search, I became more and more re-energized by the variety of ways the phrase was offered. In his book, Chop wood carry water: How to fall in love with the process of becoming great, Medcalf (2015) encourages an appreciation of the lessons learned during each step towards one’s goal. He urges the reader to acknowledge their own role in their success and failure, and to recognize that we can often be our greatest barrier. Similarly, in Chop wood, carry water: A guide to finding spiritual fulfillment in everyday life (Fields, Taylor, Weyler, & Ingrasci, 1984), the authors offer that the lessons learned on one’s journey are part of a larger life experience and that spiritual enlightenment may accompany each step. Through other blog posts, book chapters, and memes, it was clear to me that I may need to rethink my strategy on how to survive the doctoral process.

From the moment I attended the candidate interview, I had set my sights and focus on completing the program. I had decided that I would ignore moments of frustration, disappointment, and the familiar feelings of being an imposter, and would plow right through every assignment and course. I coached myself to only focus on the destination and to consider any other moments as hindrances and distractions. Yet, while reading the content of my robust search, I realized my strategy may be faulty.  Could it be that there were moments along the way that would be just as integral as successfully completing the program? The phrase, “Chop Wood. Carry Water.”  became my mantra, a prayer, and a hashtag! I formulated a kinship with the visual imagery of consistent, impactful, yet strenuous work.

To me, the phrase spoke to my desire to not only meet my self-imposed timeline, but to also receive a quality and rigorous education.This shift in my viewpoint increased my resiliency and ability to respond to challenges, and it helped me not to get overwhelmed by the steps that still remained ahead of me. As I studied for comprehensive exams, I imagined seeing wood chips flying through the air. The tears I cried when I learned I had to retake one section of comps became water to carry as I contemplated giving up. I wondered if splinters in my eyes would hurt as much as the pain in them when I decided to stay awake more than 45 hours to meet a writing deadline.

I envisioned myself carrying water as I lugged the library’s entire section of books related to my topic to and from every place I went. My hands and shoulders seemed just as achy from typing as it seemed they would be from swinging an ax against unforgiving wood. At times, the next thought I was going to include in my dissertation was as hard to hold as the water drops that would spill out of a water bucket jostled while being carried by an unsteady traveler. The phrase had become a command and a call.  Daria, chop wood.  Daria, carry water. Daria, write. Daria, research. Daria, put one foot in front of the other.

I now understand why the chairperson of my committee had urged me to try to feel every moment of my dissertation defense. The longest four years of my life became moments that were flying by quicker than I could grasp hold to them. I had chopped wood and carried water all the way to a successful dissertation defense. One blow at a time, one load at a time, I had completed my ultimate goal. Along the way, I learned valuable lessons that I would have missed had I not recognized the journey was just as important as the destination.

There was never a promise that the endeavor would be easy, but a clear requirement that I be consistent and dedicated. Chop wood. Carry water.


Dr. Daria-Yvonne J. Graham



Fields, R., Taylor, P., Weyler, R., & Ingrasci, R. (1984). Chop wood, carry water: A guide to finding spiritual fulfillment in everyday life. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Medcalf, J. (2015). Chop wood carry water: How to fall in loe with the process of becoming great. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


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