“Perhaps you have heard the story of Christopher Wren, one of the greatest of English architects, who walked one day unrecognized among the men who were at work upon the building of St. Paul’s cathedral in London which he had designed. “What are you doing?” he inquired of one of the workmen, and the man replied, “I am cutting a piece of stone.” As he went on he put the same question to another man, and the man replied, “I am earning five shillings twopence a day.” And to a third man he addressed the same inquiry and the man answered, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.” That man had vision. He could see beyond the cutting of the stone, beyond the earning of his daily wage, to the creation of a work of art—the building of a great cathedral. And in your life it is important for you to strive to attain a vision of the larger whole.” – Attributed to Louise Bush-Brown, director of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, via Wikiquote
If you visit the sites in London it should be virtually impossible to have escaped the name of Christopher Wren, whom many of the short histories attached to various monuments would have you believe single handedly rebuilt London after the fire of 1666. I was curious about the man, having recently returned from the city, and found this little story attributed to his life.
How we see what we do has a tremendous bearing on how we hold its importance, as Ms. Bush-Brown tells it. Our small roles in greater ventures can be one way we see our lives and define who we are. It is alluring to want to be part of a great endeavor, to tie our own accomplishments to events and projects that will be remembered long after we are gone.
Anyone who works within a company, government, or organization takes on this type of agreement – one’s individual efforts funneled into the glory of the greater work. It is how great projects succeed. Yet, surely, Sir Wren, if he carved and laid each stone himself, would still be working on the project 400 years later.
The names of the of stone carvers, the carpenters, and other skilled or unskilled laborers are lost to us, just as the names of programers behind the expansion of Google or Facebook are known by few, just as the names of administrative assistants and bankers are lost in the annual financial reports of MorganStanley.
Most of us will not achieve the notoriety, or the longevity, of the projects we dedicate our time, skill, and energy to. Our reasons for working may be as simple as supporting our family or pride in our skill shaping stones.
Its where I disagree with Ms. Bush-Brown. The greater endeavor is a fine justification for the work we do, but no less important are the contributions of any of those involved. A worker who loves to cut stone, who takes pride in their work, will cut every stone with precision and focus. A worker who cuts to feed their family will make every effort to excel to care for the ones they love. One who cuts with a the desire to be part of a greater work may risk seeing their role as small and give less to it.
As a coach, many of the clients I have worked with don’t look for some connection to their role in the glorious achievements of history, they look for ways to connect with their work in a way that engages and excites them, that meets their desire to give to their loved ones, and gives them the freedom to express themselves fully alive and awake.
It is often inevitable that our lives are those of the masons and not the architect. As much as we may desire to be remembered by history, we are more likely to be remembered by family and friends, by those we interact with with integrity, who are impressed by our dedication and skill.
Real meaning is found by doing what we love, by being with who we love, now while we are alive. The monuments and achievements we contribute to may stand for a while. They may fail miserably. None of that does you much good if you are dissatisfied with what you have chosen to do with your life.
We all work for different reasons. Aside from greed, there is not one which is significantly more noble than the others.
It is how you see your self, your success measured against your joy for life that matters now, to you, while you are alive. Contribute to the greater good as you can. Remember that what drives us to do our work well doesn’t need to be an immortal monument. Love, joy, dedication to our skill or craft, will help us carve better stones regardless of if they are used for cathedrals or tenement houses, for boulevards or back alleys.