This past week, I participated in the Back to Grounds virtual orientation for fourth-years. During our time together, I shared a parable from a book that my son and I read together in the last year titled Chop Wood and Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great (2015), by Josh Medcalf.
What I like most about this book is that it consistently reminds the reader how important perspective is through the use of parables. How we view ourselves and the world around us is a big determinant of our ability to achieve our goals. At the same time, working really hard to understand the perspective of others allows us to find common ground, which leads to shared victories. It is a short book that I have read several times to be reminded of the importance of the lenses that I and others use as we move through the world.
The story I shared with our fourth-years concerns a revered homebuilder named Kota, famous in Japan for building some of the world’s finest houses.
Even though Kota is a renowned craftsman whose work is in high demand, he grows tired of the laborious lifestyle of homebuilding and intends to retire.
He lets his boss know. His boss responds by asking Kota to do one last favor and build one final house before he goes. He specifies that the home is for an important client. Frustrated about having to put his next chapter on hold, Kota agrees, except at this point, Medcalf writes, “his heart is no longer in it…he viewed it more as an obligation than an opportunity.”
Kota hands off much of the work and does not pay very close attention to detail. He knows full well this is nowhere near his best work, but he’s focused and ready to move on from the present moment. Months later, he completes the job. His boss says, “But, there is one more thing.”
Kota assumes he’ll be asked to do more work, but instead his boss hands him a beautiful box, and inside is a key, a key to the house he just built.
His boss lets him know the house is a well-deserved token of their appreciation for his lifetime of hard work and exemplary craftsmanship.
“Unbeknownst to Kota, the whole time he had been building his own house. If he had only known the house was his own, he would have cared so much more,” writes Medcalf. “He would have only used the finest materials, and he would have overseen every detail and given it his all like he had always done. But now, it was too late.”
When I finished sharing the parable, I addressed our students:
The truly significant thing this year, your fourth and final at UVA, is who shows up for this process. Think about it: What good is it to have earned your way into the McIntire School and to not show up and give it your all this one last time? Don’t cheat the process. See it all the way through to Final Exercises.
Going into my first year as dean, I am 100% online. I could just dial it in, and nobody would blame me. But every day, each of us is building our own house. Sometimes you might think you are building for your family, your future employer, your classmates, etc., but I believe you are always building your house just for yourself… I hope this year, like every other year, that you build wisely, because at the end of the day you are the one who will live with what you create.
You can read the full text of the parable from Chop Wood and Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great here.