Are You Laying Bricks or Building a Cathedral?

Clients often express frustration that they’re not finding meaning in their work. They may have at one time, but no longer. They may feel they have plateaued in their current role and there’s no place for them to go. They may have mastered their work and are no longer challenged. Their workplace may be disruptive or toxic and they have no power to change the environment. Work, for them, in a word…well it’s not good.

They come looking for help in finding their new work. Work that is meaningful, challenging, exciting, collaborative. However, when asked to define what that work might look like, many are at a loss. They have no idea other than it is not what they’re doing now.

So, we’ll do some exercises to help them focus on purpose and clarity — what drives them and what they’re good at doing. We may have them take the StrengthsFinder assessment. We may have them write an essay that describes their ideal work day — from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night.

For many, these exercises provide focus and help define what they want to do going forward. Others, however, find these tasks difficult. They struggle with how their StrengthsFinder themes help; they can’t define their ideal work day. They just know that they don’t want to continue what they’re doing.

Not to diminish their frustration with their current situation, these folks may need a reframe.  I’m reminded of the story of a traveller who came upon three brick masons busy at their craft. He asked the first one, “what are you doing?” The mason looked up with a scowl and responded, “I’m laying bricks, what’s it look like? Now don’t bother me, I’ve got another hour before my shift ends.” The traveller went up to the second mason and asked the same question. “I’m helping build this wall, and we’re in a hurry; we need to lay another full row before end of shift.” The third brick mason got the same question from the traveller: “What are you doing?” He looked up at the traveller and responded, “I’m building a cathedral.”

A recent conversation with my son brought this home. He is in his first professional job at a national foundation that supports the educational advancement of promising students in financial need. When he was first hired, he was excited about the opportunity, believing strongly in the mission of the foundation. Almost a year in to his job, he’s discouraged that all he seems to do is manage budgets and manipulate spreadsheets. Trouble is, he’s not sure what he wants to do next.

Then he told a story of how he helped one of their students obtain internet service at her home. The student’s parents couldn’t afford cable in their inner city apartment. The foundation agreed to pay for the service so the student could access the internet for her studies. My son negotiated with the internet service provider to install service. It took nine months. Knowing that service would be paid by the foundation, the provider was willing to install the necessary cable and modem…between 1 and 3 PM…on a weekday. An adult would need to be present to sign for the installation. The major problem was that both parents worked at low wage jobs and could not afford to take time off to be available for the installation. My 23 year old son — the budget manager and spreadsheet manipulator — negotiated with the global internet service provider to install the  necessary equipment. It took him nine months, but he was successful and the bright, young student now has access to internet to supplement her schooling.

I’d say he did more than just lay bricks.

Over to you. When you’re frustrated with your job, do you see yourself just laying bricks? Can you reframe and refocus your thoughts and your activities so that you’re building a cathedral? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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