Build cathedrals or place bricks, everything helps…just do something

There’s this story about two masons and how one was a grouchy sad specimen who saw his job as placing bricks (so mechanical and mundane), whereas the cheerful and energetic one thought he was the one building a cathedral (he probably whistled happily all day).  Perhaps the moral being hammered in through this “story” is that people who think small or see themselves as small workers are unhappy and unproductive.

I’ve heard this story quoted often, especially when talking of strategies and visions and of being change agents (heck, I have quoted it myself sometimes). But I’ve been pondering, and I think people responding to this story perhaps mix up two different aspects: (1) whether it is good to have grand visions, and (2) whether people can work cheerfully and productively at the low, detailed level without pumping themselves up with grand visions.

Now I’m someone who stays at the brick-laying level, so maybe this post is a biased self-justification.  Huge cathedrals give me vertigo, and thinking of playing major roles in building them totally intimidates me. And though I stay at the brick level, I don’t consider myself as grouchy and unproductive just because I keep my eye on the next brick rather than visualize myself as a critical cog busy creating an impressive cathedral.

Just a couple of months ago, I was on the phone chatting with someone who has a vision of setting up a huge project for helping a large number of people of various profiles.  She was just kicking off her research part, building up lists of contacts and stuff like that, and she and her colleague expect to take two years on the ground work.  She described to me her overall vision–and yes, it was very impressive–and I asked her, “What do you see your role as?” and she said, “I see myself as a change agent.”

I had to admit to her that I saw myself more as a document creator.  It sounds small in comparison.

But again, as I think about it, I feel we don’t have to compare…

See, visions are good. They are great. Grand ideas, large canvases are needed, and here’s to wishing all power to those who have them and work towards them and manage to make major changes in the world.

Guys and gals who dream big and think big and act big, we need you.

But that does not mean that people who lack huge visions are somehow wrong or defeatist or ineffective.

For one, I’m not sure that lofty visions help everyone work. Some people may relish large canvases; they may thrive on the challenge and vastness of it, and get fired by it to do their best. But others, after some initial euphoria, may balk at the actual work because it seems to need too many bricks and thus make their individual contribution seem petty in comparison. So they may end up placing no bricks at all…

It is also interesting to note that many projects now as large as cathedrals started with a person making some small thing, and another, and gathering them and improving them and then realizing it could be slapped together into something vaster.  Sal Khan of started his work, not to create a colossus of educational material, but to help a cousin with some small math problems. Look at what he achieved.

And does it really matter if the small pieces a person makes don’t really get formed into a cathedral? So long as each brick laid helps someone do something, it is a brick worth laying, at least for the bricklayer and for the person who benefitted.

The world needs all sorts, and so let us also value those who think and act small. Let us not assume they are petty-minded, frustrated, weak, ineffective. Let us not mentally dismiss them as small thinkers, or as cowards shirking their jobs  and unwilling to convert their potential.

Let us not get so swept by visions of cathedral builders that we end up discouraging people who work at a different level, a different scope.  Small is beautiful, too.

These persons, also, are doing something…

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

2 Responses to Build cathedrals or place bricks, everything helps…just do something

  1. Pingback: My involvement in dementia care support: an explanation « Swapna writes…

  2. Pingback: Day 31: the year’s target met, the blogfest completed « Swapna writes…

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