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Who or what is a Cathedral-builder and why should I care?

posted by Joshua on July 6, 2013 in Blog, Leadership, Models
5 responses

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

The great business guru Peter Drucker illustrated how different people find different value and meaning from their work (and lives) through the parable of the three stonecutters.

An old story tells of three stonecutters asked what they were doing.

The first looked unhappy. He said, “I’m making a living cutting stones.”

The second looked happier and proud. He kept on hammering while he said, “I’m doing the best job of stone-cutting in the entire country.”

The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Most people sense meaning in this parable but don’t see how to use it to improve their lives or careers. They use it evaluate their situation instead of improve it. You might have asked yourself these questions:

  • Which of the three would I rather be?
  • Which one am I now?
  • Which one would I hire first or want in my community?
  • Which one are more of my friends and peers like?

Those questions aren’t bad, but they evaluate without giving direction. We already know we would rather be cathedral-builders; we’d rather hire them and have them in our teams and communities; and we want people like them in our lives.

Those questions don’t help us improve our lives. These do.

How do you become a cathedral-builder?


How do you lead and inspire others to become cathedral-builders?

This series shows you how to become a cathedral-builder. Then you can lead and inspire others to become cathedral-builders too. The people you inspire will thank you for leading them, feel loyal to you, and want you to lead them again.

What makes someone a cathedral-builder?

First let’s see what makes people cathedral-builders.

They perform the same activities in the same environments as the other two types, but they love their work and are happier. As a result we expect they’re healthier, fatigue less, get promoted faster, get offered other jobs more, and so on than the other two. The story doesn’t call the cathedral-builder a fool. He’s not “fat, dumb, and happy.”

What makes him different?

Ultimately the cathedral-builder has different beliefs. Business books, even on leadership, shy away from talking about beliefs. They can’t be measured or directly observed, despite affecting everything you do. Lack of awareness of others’ beliefs will undermine collaboration and foment misunderstanding. On the other hand, awareness and skill with beliefs can motivate, inspire, and create meaning, value, importance, and purpose.

I want to point out I won’t say anything about your beliefs manifesting themselves, a secret law of attraction, the power of positive thinking, or anything mystical, though if that perspective works for you so will a lot of what I write. I have a PhD in Physics, respect the natural world, and dislike new-age thinking and ideas that can’t be disproved. When I talk about effects of beliefs, I don’t mean they mysteriously affect the world. Still, as Albert Einstein noted,

Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed,

so beliefs do directly affect you and your behavior, and your behavior affects your environment, which I consider reasonable talk. I intend all my  talk about beliefs and mental models to stand to reason and testing. (Please contact me with any mistakes and I’ll correct myself.)

The cathedral-builder’s advantages come from his beliefs. They change how he sees his world, leading to more happiness, emotional reward, effective behaviors and communication, meaningful relationships, and so on. You could specify that his beliefs are broader and connect to a greater purpose, but that’s more than necessary. The fundamental difference from which all others derive is his beliefs. If you can choose your beliefs, you can make your life as good as his. If you can lead others to change their beliefs, you can lead them to find meaning in their work, leading to greater productivity, satisfaction, loyalty, and more. They’ll thank you for helping them after working hard for you.

We may all live in and interact with the same physical world, but our thoughts, emotions, motivations, and decisions come from our beliefs and mental models of that world. Our beliefs determine how we feel about our worlds.

So if we only need to change our beliefs, why don’t we?

We don’t because believing something means believing something is right, meaning believing something else is wrong. People who aren’t cathedral-builders believe the cathedral-builder is wrong. They’ll say things like

Look, I’m a realist. I really am just chopping rock. That building-a-cathedral guy isn’t really building a cathedral. He’s wrong. He’s just playing a bit role and fooling himself into an unearned fake happiness. That’s what’s really happening. If you stop kidding yourself you’ll realize how miserable your situation is too.

That person could be you or someone you work with. In their minds people who say such things are right. They’re also miserable and self-righteous. More importantly, they’re inflexible. We’re all inflexible when we refuse to try new beliefs. Merely tolerating others’ beliefs won’t change us. They may not realize it, but they can switch beliefs, end up just as right, and enjoy life more.

People clinging to their rightness (and misery) object to challenges to their beliefs.

Some object “The making-a-living guy hates his job. If he started liking it, he’d lose his motivation to switch and get stuck instead of leaving,” suggesting he shouldn’t change his beliefs.

The objection sounds plausible but I suggest otherwise. In my experience, job dissatisfaction doesn’t help get new jobs.

First, if he wants others to hire him, ask yourself which guy would be recommended for promotion or other jobs first?

Second, I’ll describe what I see as a leadership coach. Many clients hire me to help them change jobs. In the process, if they can’t yet leave their old job, I help them make it more palatable. As they learn the lessons you will from this series, they learn to tolerate, then accept, and then celebrate their old jobs. They learn the solutions to their problems are often not external, but internal. They learn to appreciate their work, their teammates, their managers, and so on.

Some clients end up finding enough meaning in their old jobs to stay. Those who still choose to change jobs seem more calm and thorough in their searches. Their friends seem more open to help them and they seem more confident about interviews.

In other words, again, job dissatisfaction doesn’t help get new jobs, at least not in my experience.

Others object “Maybe the cathedral-builder loved chopping rocks in the first place. He just got lucky finding a job he would love before he started. If I found a job I loved, I’d be as happy as him too.” Maybe, but more likely he had to face as many problems as anyone else, as does everybody who loves their jobs. Do you think you uniquely have problems with your job, team, spouse, parents, or whatever? Hardly. We all face problems, including the guy in the story.

For that matter, he found his greatest value not in his low-level activity. Nobody finds their greatest value in low-level work. Like everyone who finds great meaning in life, he connected his low-level activity to something greater. Think you can’t? If your company provides a product or service customers pay for, they find value in it. You can find big-picture value in your contribution to your company too.

Whatever your objection, you never benefit from feeling miserable. Even if you don’t like your job, you can more effectively do something about it when you aren’t miserable from it.

You always benefit from at least having the cathedral-builder skill to choose your beliefs. Yet few resources help you develop it. This series does.

This series helps you change your beliefs

Convincing someone to change their beliefs rarely works and this series doesn’t follow that approach. Like learning to dance or play the piano, having a book and teacher helps, but ultimately you learn through experience. You start with simple scales and work your way up to music.

This series presents examples of beliefs someone (me) consciously chose to adopt and a few exercises to start you off adopting your own. I describe the beliefs, how they work, when I use them, what old ones they replace, and where they lead. The exercises are simple and take little time or resources but increase your awareness and flexibility in adopting beliefs.

I was as self-righteously opinionated as anyone, yet learned to become a cathedral-builder. I may have been well-educated and successful before learning, but inside derived nowhere near the joy and reward from my achievements I knew I was capable of. I have no special abilities to change. Anyone can transform like I did.

I wouldn’t have expected I could consciously choose my beliefs. I thought beliefs I didn’t hold were wrong. But small changes led to bigger ones and I got good at it, like playing piano. With practice it gets easier and you can play more challenging music – that is, you learn to adopt more challenging beliefs, like how to win an NBA championship as a 66-year-old grandmother or to turn jerks into people who improve your life.

After all, when I was in college, mainstream society believed pasta healthy and bacon deadly. Now it seems to believe the opposite. Doubtlessly many individuals changed their beliefs 180 degrees. If so many people changed, you can too.

This series’ goal is not to cover all my beliefs or even my most important ones, though I did cover some I consider very important, especially ones relevant to leadership and personal development. Nor did I intend to cover the most earth shattering ones. My goal was to show ones you might have come up with yourself. The more you could have come up with them, the more accessible and empowering I consider them and the more they teach you to create your own.

This post describes a simple exercise you can do that founded this series. The exercise is to list the beliefs you notice filtering your perception for a week. Before first doing it I thought I would come up with five or ten that defined my world. Within a week I found closer to one hundred and was learning to find new ones even faster. I expect you’ll have the same experience of finding more beliefs than you expected. I’ve been changing beliefs for a while and found many I had consciously adopted in the past few years.

I want this series to show enough diversity in beliefs to show the range you can choose in my main goal of enabling you to become a cathedral-builder by showing the human ability to choose ones beliefs and the value of flexibility in that choice.

The beliefs I present work for me. If you want a life like mine – calm, friendly, curious, fit, resilient, and a few things like that; with little stress, angst, regret, blame, and guilt – you might try many of my beliefs yourself. If you want a different lifestyle than mine, some may still work for you, but read the series as much to see how someone can change beliefs and become a cathedral-builder.

As valuable and helpful as my beliefs are to me, they are the minor point of this series. The major point is what they illustrate – that you can create and choose your beliefs. I’d rather have someone reject every belief in this series but figure out how to create better ones for themselves than to adopt each of mine but not learn that skill.

Whomever you are or want to become, some new beliefs will improve your life. Maybe you want to become a competitive athlete. Then you might prefer beliefs about dedication, perseverance, physical mastery, etc. Maybe you’re a new mom, in which case you might want more beliefs related to children, patience, and making due with little sleep. Whatever you want to become, somebody more successful has beliefs that helped create that success that you can adopt.

To go further, I expect you’ll view many of my beliefs as stupid or unbelievable. Fine. Mine aren’t for everyone. I don’t list them prescriptively, but to show you some diversity in everyday beliefs and illustrate that you can create and choose your own, as different from mine as you want.

You may consider my beliefs false and disprove them. This post attempts to liberate you from this judgmental trap keeping you a making-a-living grunt. You’ll see, if you didn’t already know, the point of a belief is to help you live your life, not to be absolutely right. These beliefs work for me. You’ll find ones that work for you.

The important thing is that you choose them by and for yourself.

This series’ purpose

This series is designed to help you improve your life. It can’t improve your life on its own. Only you can do that. But it can show how someone else improved his life in ways you can too. It

  • Shows you you can change and choose beliefs.
  • Presents a examples of beliefs you can adopt if you want; some date back thousands of years, others I made up, one came from Warren Buffet’s friends, another from a great dancer, and so on.
  • Contrasts new beliefs with the old ones they replaced to show you what changes you can make.

Some key concepts and terminology

What does it mean to improve your life?

I don’t believe money, power, fame, and other external or material things alone improve your life, not that I have anything against those things. Even your achievements, relationships, and family don’t say whether you like your life or not. What makes one person like their life may make another person dislike theirs. People have different values.

What matters to you is what brings you meaning, what you value, what you consider important, and where you find purpose. We filter everything external through these personal concepts. Though meaning, value, importance, and purpose each have slightly different meanings, in writing this series I found anytime I used one of these four words, I wanted to write the other three as well. Instead of writing all four each time I coined and started using the term MVIP to represent the combination of them all – not to diminish the nuances but to include all their meanings each time.

I found myself interchanging two other sets of words with slightly different meanings too. I’ve written about beliefs so far, but in the rest of the series I use the terms model, mental model, and perspective synonymously. Likewise, I’ve talked about emotions so far, but in the rest of the series I use the terms motivation and mood synonymously too. Rather than repeat all the terms all the time, I used them interchangeably. I hope this doesn’t cause confusion.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.


  • Step by step instructions
  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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5 responses on “Who or what is a Cathedral-builder and why should I care?

  1. Pingback: Exercise in knowing your beliefs; so you can change them » Joshua Spodek

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  3. Pingback: What are your beliefs and models? » Joshua Spodek

  4. Pingback: Do you want new beliefs and models? » Joshua Spodek

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