The story of three bricklayers is an authentic parable with different angles. Although you’ll find many variations of this bricklayer story online, each version tells of three people working on the same wall and doing the same work, but with totally different attitudes. Read on to get the short story and the lessons behind it.
Parable of Three Bricklayers
After the great fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral.
One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold,
one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast.
To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.”
The second bricklayer, responded in a similar wat but slightly different, “I’m a builder. I’m putting up a wall.”
But the third brick layer, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with pride in it’s voice, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”
Author of the Three Bricklayers: Unknown.
3 take aways
1) The meaning of work
The first thought I take away from this short story is that the bricklayers have their very own ideas of what the act of laying bricks means to them.
Because for the first bricklayer, building the wall was a job that enabled him to feed his family. But for the second bricklayer it was an occupation in which he mastered the craft of building up a wall. For the third bricklayer, it was a calling as he saw himself as the person building the cathedral. Due to the different attitudes that the bricklayers hold on to – the job has a different meaning to every single one of them.
The book Working by Studs Terkel illustrates how we are all looking for our own meaning of work. The book includes short interviews with Terkel asking ordinary people in ordinary jobs about what their work means to them. The audiobook gives us a fascinating inside look into their daily lives and minds. But the audio tapes also illustrate that people aren’t necessarily wired to work because they have to. That’s only a small part of the picture. Terkel found people who sought for structure. They all wanted to be occupied, were looking for community, pride and meaning… He says:
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” – Studs TerkelTweet
This quotation is an interesting observation that says something about all of us. I believe that I am looking for these kind of things too. And if we are lucky enough, we find meaning in most of our waking hours doing. While these applications about finding meaning in what you do are true and insightful, I find the bricklayer story has a second potential application.
2) The power of purpose
The story of the three bricklayers is also a metaphor on the power of purpose. It reflects our universal need to matter, to influence, and to make a difference in the world around us. Each bricklayer showed not only a different perspective on what the work meant for them, but they also demonstrated a personal expression of purpose.
For example, some of those mentioned analogies showed a strong sense of purpose. One analogy includes the importance of big picture thinking, being able to see the end result in mind and how your work contributes to that end.
Also some of these analogies include a positive attitude and pride in what you are doing that will show up in your work and your motivation. The last analogy includes the connection to the Organization’s Mission. Employees who are rightly connected to the organization’s mission, vision, values and goals, are happier, more engaged, and more productive employees. ‘We may be laying bricks every day, but if we can envision the cathedral and move through our days with intention and passion, we are living our best life.’
Therefore, psychiatrist and author Victor Frankl made the power of purpose very clear in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning. He wrote about how some people found a way to overcome the holocaust and give it a place, but so many didn’t. Frankl identified that those who had a purpose or reason to continue to live that was beyond themselves tended to survive, did. While those who were focused primarily on themselves did not.
Those who survived the awful holocaust found some meaning in their painful circumstances, especially in caring for and helping others in this horrible experience. From the experiences of these people, Frankl determined that you always have the freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. Although you can not control what happens to you in life, you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. He writes,
[…] Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.Tweet
Although Frankl’s reality in the concentration camp seemed bleak and hopeless, he discovered the ability to decide what those painful, inhumane experiences would mean to him. With the last of human freedoms, Frankl was able to transform his suffering into something that had meaning.
3) Encouraging workers
However, this story of the three bricklayers isn’t just about a person’s mindset or the power of purpose. It’s also very much about the culture surrounding the person. The story can also be used to illustrate the responsibility of leaders to encourage, help and support others to find and build their own cathedral.
As entrepreneurs we need to wrestle with questions like, how do I move people from where they are to cathedral builders? How do I help people discover their purpose at each juncture in life’s journey, and resource them to live it out. I truly believe in the strategy to put employees first. Putting effort in making employees feel like they are looked after and treated well and you give them the tools they need to develop their selves at the same time, then they are going to be smiling, they are going to be happy and proud of the brand.
As an entrepreneur you can come up with great stories on how the company should act or look like. But it is a worthless story with meaningless words, when the people who are actually working there everyday are not sharing the same purpose. So my philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, everyone will benefit.
As the story implies, purpose is about finding meaning in your life. It’s a strong, universal need to matter and you can find it in many areas of your live. But it’s also something that no one else can fulfill but us. Work is such a big part of our lives and finding some meaning in it can be so powerful.
In this TedTalk psychiatrist Robert Waldinger talks about what keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life. Many people think it’s fame and money. But after doing research on the topic of true hapiness and satisfaction, he concludes that’s a big mistake.
In this talk he shares three lessons learned from the study on how to build a fulfilling life. One important and useful question that he asks is,
“if you’re going to invest in your future best self, where should you put your time and energy?”
Therefore, I hope you’re enjoying the way you are spending your time and energy. And that the path you’re on is one that you have forged yourself. Not what someone else has dreamt up for you.
In this section you can find more blog posts I wrote about the meaning of work. But you can also pick the ones below:
- My top 10 quotes on work and loving your job
- The voices of real people on the meaning of work (book review)
- This is the difference between a job and a calling
For more short stories, head over to this section.