There are Two Ways to Wash Dishes, and to Achieve our Goals in Life

When I started writing two months ago I had big goals: become published author and full time blogger, touch the lives of millions of readers, be admired and loved. I still have these goals now, but my way of seeing them had considerably changed.


(Thich Nhat Hanh)

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” I think this sentence encapsulates beautifully the right relationship between the presence and the future, between what are doing now and the goals – what we expect to happen in the future. Through it, Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches the importance of letting go of the future to stay whole in the presence.

To get deeper into this topic, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle is a wonderful material. Past, Presence and Future all belong to the concept of time, in which Tolle draw a clear line between “clock time” and “psychological time”. He explained that we use “clock time” in the practical aspects of our life: setting an appointment, having a goal and work toward them, planning a trip, learning from the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes now. “Psychological time” is identification with the past or continuous compulsive projection into the future. “The enlightened persons main focus of attention is always the Now, but they are still peripherally aware of time. In other words, they continue to use clock time but are free of psychological time”, he writes.

Eckhart Tolle uses this notion to elaborate on the danger of applying psychological time as we work toward our goal “If you set yourself a goal and work toward it, you are using clock time. You are aware of where you want to go, but you honor and give your fullest attention to the step that you are taking at this moment. If you then become excessively focused on the goal, perhaps because you are seeking happiness, fulfillment, or a more complete sense of self in it, the Now is no longer honored. It becomes reduced to a mere stepping stone to the future, with no intrinsic value. Your life's journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to "make it." You no longer see or smell the flowers by the wayside either, nor are you aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around you when you are present in the Now.” This is when the fifty minutes washing dishes – in the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh – became the fifteen minutes not worth living.


I remember the time when I was responsible for creating new partnerships, thus bringing sponsorships, for AIESEC International. Global Partnership Development Manager sounds fancy but simply put: I was a sales woman. If there is one common thing about all the sales person in this world, it is: we have target which firstly, we’d better take seriously and secondly, we’d better meet. I’d done sales for just 1 year in Vietnam, where the currency is Dong and you could exchange 20,000 of them for 1 Dollar, and it got through my little brain that, I needed to sell partnerships worth many thousands of Euros. I was fucked-up. What was I thinking? Almost every day I sat at my desk in agony, anxious to strike the first deal. But the first deal did not come as planned, nor the second, nor the third. One day I froze at one thought “If my best is not enough, what do I do?” The more “goal-oriented” I became, the more deprived my self-worth got.

Only when I removed myself from the psychological time – when I shrugged off the goal that clung on my shoulders – I began to do the right things. I was genuinely interested in getting to know my prospects’ business situations. I fell in love with AIESEC again whenever I explained its mission. I was excited to acquire new knowledge about sales at night and applied them the morning after. I felt enough lightness to have fun with my teammates. I was patient enough to establish trust instead of frying the relationship with an offer in hassle. I had the calmness to wait on the other side of the door because as a sales guru said: a sales deal, as especially in large sales, is something that cannot be closed by you; it is a door that the prospect need to walk through himself. And then result came by itself.

Now that I look back to that year, my best moment wasn’t when I held in my hands the freshly signed contract. The stack of papers is too hollow to represent or explain the beauty of the long-haul flight to Sydney; of getting lost alone in the subway in Singapore; of the terrifying rickshaw ride under the blinding sunlight in Delhi – trying to be on time for an appointment; or of the smell of coffee one early morning in Guangzhou, sitting across a kindhearted C-level executive who smiled when I explained how AIESEC changed young people’s lives, and whose company ended up becoming a global partner. 


Anne Lamott quotes a line in Cool Runnings – a movie based on a true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team trying to make it to the winter Olympic – when coach Ivr gave Derice the last advice on the day before his race:

Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

She admits that for her – a published author – the relationship between publication and writing is summed up in that one line. This is something I constantly remind myself of whenever I face the blank page, pen in my hand: stay present – choose the second way to wash dishes and to write: to write in order to write. I know this doesn’t guarantee book publication or millions of readers. But it is my best shot to achieve these goals, and instead of hustling for self-worth, claiming it. Here. Now.

Quill small

What about you?

Has work become a pressure-cooker? Are you feeling inadequate?

Are you too caught up in the goals – the future – instead of the presence?

Well, there is always a choice.