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Are You Building a Temple or Merely Cutting Stone?

by Jerry Brenholz

A traveler passes a quarry and sees three men working. The traveler asks the first man what he is doing and he replies “cutting stone.” The second says “earning money to feed and shelter my family.” When the third man is questioned, he proclaims “I am building a temple.”

This is an old story, a proverbial tale used to teach us something about our human nature. It’s a simple story but it demonstrates many things – including different motivations for working and how a slightly different perspective can elevate a “job” into a “meaningful experience.”

The first two answers reflect what we commonly think of as the reasons for working. One, the work simply needs to be done. As a society we have a tacit agreement to share the labor and responsibility of the everyday “tasks” that keep us fed and clothed, sheltered and safe. We all need stuff but we can’t do everything for ourselves, so we’ve created a system to share the burden. Two, being paid money is one of the ways that we “exchange” goods and services, in effect “trade” with each other. We are both providers and consumers of goods and services and money is a convenient tool that we have agreed is more practical than literally trading your apple for a pear, your sheep’s wool for cotton, or your medical services for a paved driveway.

The third answer is the one that I find the most intriguing though, personally and as a business owner – the idea that work provides something intangible. When we see our individual labor as an integral part of our society, we feel pride, happiness, contentment; a host of good feelings. We want to build temples, not just cut stone.

Some work is obviously meaningful in our estimation – doctors and firemen save lives, teachers educate our children and judges and lawyers ensure that justice is dispensed according to our laws. But truly, everyone’s work has intrinsic value. The accounting department that ensures the bills are paid at a hospital is contributing to the wellbeing of the patients, too. Without school bus drivers there would be no students in the classroom for teachers to teach. A quarry worker is contributing to justice in our country when they build the courthouse. If your company manufactures drugs that save lives, then everyone at your company is saving people’s lives through their daily work. Understanding how their individual effort is part of a larger whole is important.

It’s up to those of us in leadership positions to bring this perspective to our employees if they don’t automatically see it. Good managers can inspire us by ensuring that we understand how and why our particular efforts are meaningful. Working in the staffing industry for the past 25 years has brought me great satisfaction, on a daily basis. Seeing how it affects a person’s life to be employed, to find a needed job has convinced me of the importance of our work. I try to convey that to my employees as well. When your whole team feels engaged in meaningful work, they work as a more cohesive unit, achieving greater results in a happier work environment. Money isn’t everything when it comes to people being satisfied and happy in their jobs!

The Millennial Generation is most often cited as concerned with being meaningfully employed, but I don’t believe this desire is unique to any age group or demographic. It is human nature that we seek both utility and personal satisfaction in our work; that we look to be fulfilled through involvement with something bigger than ourselves. For millennia, people have labored because they need to AND because they want to. It is a wonderful feeling to know that your personal efforts make a difference and contribute to our society beyond just providing a paycheck.

What are you doing to make sure your employees feel this way?