Building Your Own House

There’s a company in the US with the exact same name as ours. It’s a service provider to the construction industry. Our company is sometimes confused with it and some believe we’re builders of some kind. Though we don’t construct buildings, we do like to think of ourselves as contributing to the building of our customers. Our core business objective is to contribute to the growth and success of our insurance brokerage customers. There’s a great fictional story recounted by Joshua Medcalf in his book, Chop Wood Carry Water, involving a home builder which is a great metaphor for us to consider in our work worlds.

A large home builder had a number of project managers. One of their lead project managers had developed a great reputation over a lifetime of effort. He had been spearheading the build of homes for thirty years. The homes he built were renown for their craftsmanship and attention to detail. Homeowners raved about the quality they received. After diligently doing his job with distinction for decades, this gentleman had earned his retirement. He was looking forward to relaxing, spending time with grandkids, and travelling a little with his wife. With these hopes in mind, he had the conversation with his boss to give notice. His boss took the resignation well. The boss expressed gratitude for all of the contributions and years of service his employee had provided. He asked for one last favor. Perhaps, the manager would consider doing one last house for his employer. The employee wasn’t enthused but with input from his wife agreed to work on one more home before he strolled off into the sunset.

Even though the employee had agreed to stick around and work on this last house, mentally he had checked out. His thoughts were no longer about selecting the best quality materials and supervising the handiwork of others, but more about where his travels may take he and his wife. Nonetheless, he was true to his word and the final home inched its way from footings to flooring to roof. After many months, the home was completed. The employee happily communicated this to his boss and looked forward to leaving the work world behind. The boss, once again, thanked him for his efforts over the years and offered a small box as a gift for his contributions. The employee opened the box to find a set of keys. The boss offered these keys as those to the home which had just been completed. The house was the boss’ way of saying thanks for thirty years of service. As amazing a gift as this was, the retiring man was disheartened to realize that he had not given his best. He had cut corners on materials. He had let contractors get away with shoddy work. The house did not reflect the standards he had consistently delivered over thirty years of painstaking attention to detail. He ruefully realized that he had given up on himself when he had given up on his standards while working on this last house, his house.

The takeaway of the tale is that we’re always building our own house. Everything that we do is a vote for the kind of person we’re trying to become. It’s a great story we can use to remind us of several valuable lessons like, the way we do the little things is the way we do everything and what we put into something is what we get out of it.

In our above story, the builder having retirement front of mind was distracted from his daily commitment. He saw his craft convert into a job. His perspective shifted from get to, to have to. He no longer was choosing to be there. He was grudgingly going through the motions. He wasn’t trying to get better. He wasn’t trying to do his best. His pride was no longer a driver. He had one foot out the door. The quality of effort at each step showcased his absence of commitment. The more we view our positions as victims where we have to do something, the less we care, the less of our best effort we put forward. Feelings of pride flow from self-respect. When we dare to care we share the best part of ourselves in our efforts. We can’t truly care for our work until we have a solid self-concept. Where we believe we matter, we’re more likely to embrace the idea that our work matters. It’s cool to care. We do our best work when we give a sh!t. Have a GAS. It’s fun to  Give A Sh!t and try to do our best. Caring about our work like it’s a craft isn’t a burden, it’s a blessing. It feels good to be proud of our efforts. It’s satisfying to do good work even, maybe even especially, if no one else sees it.

Walter Isaacson wrote the seminal biography on Apple’s Steve Jobs. In it, Isaacson recounts an experience he had with Steve Jobs while writing. Jobs took Isaacson to Jobs’ childhood home south of San Francisco where Jobs learned a lifelong lesson from his father. Jobs’ dad was working on a fence in the yard. The project took a while in part because Jobs’ father was meticulous with respect to choosing wood to use. The pieces had to be straight. Steve’s dad even pointed out that the appearance of the wood on the back of the fence pieces was important. Sure, no one else would see the backs of these pieces of fence, but Steve’s dad would know. If he cut corners and used shoddy materials here, he would have this beaten into his brain every day he sat in his kitchen looking out the window. Conversely, the personal pride he would feel from knowing only the best materials were used made the effort now completely worth it. Fifty years later Jobs relays the experience to Isaacson talking fondly of his father noting, “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.” The message imparted to Jobs was that there’s great personal pride in craftmanship. Even if nobody else sees or knows the effort you put into making something excellent, you’ll know. Quality materials and quality efforts reflects the highest form of self-respect which translates into peace of mind. Isaacson witnessed first hand the defining trait of Jobs’ talents which was his attention to detail and craftsmanship. Beauty contributed to building as much as would functionality. Jobs learned from his father’s example at an early age that if you’re going to do something, do it right.

The care and attention to detail that a quality craftsman can put into their work is admirable. In my own home the stairs from our main to upper level are a series of individual wood stairs. They were made by a Swiss craftsman. Each step, thirteen in total, were hand cut. The surface of each has a routed pattern and inside the border are bumps. They are like dimples on a golf ball. There are thousands of these dimples on each step. Each was formed by the knock of some kind of hammer on the wood. They were done individually by hand. The pattern per step is similar yet each step is unique and individually crafted. I walk up and down these stairs a number of times each day. On many trips I think about the effort involved in making these steps. Our Swiss craftsman didn’t grudgingly swing his hammer with hate and depression of the drudgery. Though it may have seemed a Sisyphean task, our Swiss craftsman took pride and pleasure in his work. He didn’t wish he had a machine that could impose a consistent pattern on each step. He painstakingly produced his work. The production process was neither efficient nor easy. Producing the pattern took patience and intent. There are no steps that are exactly the same as the thirteen crafted ones we have anywhere else. These are unique, singular outputs of this gentleman’s efforts. There is scarcity in the effort that produced these stairs.

What may seem like a small, insignificant task isn’t seen as such by a craftsman. They don’t see detail as the devil. Instead they delight in the detail. It’s not about making mansions and creating castles. We can make magic in modest tasks. Helen Keller acknowledged, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Former US President Woodrow Wilson echoed Keller’s comment noting, “The treasury of America does not lie in the brains of the small body of men now in control of the great enterprises. … It depends upon the inventions, upon the originations, upon the ambitions of unknown men and women. Every country is renewed out of the ranks of the unknown, not out of the ranks of the already famous and powerful in control.” Humble efforts can make a huge difference. It’s not the size of the job, it’s the amount of heart that’s put into the contribution that should be the measure of one’s impact. Those that embrace their place and take pride in their efforts produce positive outcomes.

The Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, wrote “On Work” which is included as part of his book, The Prophet. Over a hundred years ago, Gibran noted that “Work is love made visible.” To equate our work with love is counter-intuitive for many of us. Gibran sought to put flesh on the bones of his idea writing,

“And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit…”

Gibran echoes the idea of Medcalf’s story. This is all a way of suggesting we are what we do. Our actions reflect our character. Bitter bakers bake bitter cakes. Our work is a reflection of who we are. The way we are comes through when we share. We do our best work when we care. Our efforts reflect our level of commitment. They broadcast to the world our answer to How Bad Do You Want It? When we devote our attention, energy, and effort, the results show it. There’s an expression that nobody ever washes a rental car meaning that we care much more about those things we own. This is reflected by both our builder and Jobs’ father. The former recognizes too late that had he realized he was building his own home his approach to materials and workmanship would have been closer to his lifelong pattern. Where we believe we are doing something for ourselves our level of commitment to the success of the project is enhanced. We are our houses. We should always be working like we would on our own homes.