There’s this famous story about Christopher Wren, the legendary architect who rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666: One day, while inspecting the ongoing construction, Wren came across three bricklayers who must have triggered his curiosity. He struck up a conversation, asking each of them in turn who they were and what they were doing. The first one answered: “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working here to feed my family.” The second one said: “I’m a builder. I’m building a strong and stable wall.” But the third one had a much more creative response: “I’m doing God’s work here! I’m constructing a cathedral in honor of the Almighty!”

The irony, of course, is that all three men were doing the exact same thing—stacking bricks upon another.

Regardless of its historical accuracy, the bricklayer episode can be read as an interesting parable to explore human motivation. To what degree are people driven by intrinsic desires and goals which feel meaningful to them, and to what extent by external stimuli like rewards and punishments? And if we have a choice, what type of motivation should we seek out for ourselves?

Interestingly, modern interpretations of this story have a tendency to cast the third of the bricklayers in a more favorable light than the other two. We’re appreciating his taking the long-term view instead of focussing on an immediate outcome or a self-serving reward. And, sure enough, being able to view one’s work as part of something larger than oneself can make a boring, repetitive job worthwhile. Furthermore, leaders everywhere are taught to inspire their teams in a such a way that they will want to “build cathedrals” instead of merely being in it for the money.

While this “cathedral building” approach surely has its merits, I find it a bit dangerous to put just this one type of intrinsic motivation on a pedestal though.

First, because it is built on the assumption that you possess such economic, social, and political autonomy which allows you to pick a career path that can be infused with this type of personal meaning. But millions of people today are still working in jobs that neither fulfill them, nor can be turned into “cathedral building” by any stretch of creative reframing. Often, workers just don’t have many options about how to earn a living, simply because of where they are located or what (little) formal education they received. If the pandemic taught us anything though, then that it’s exactly the menial, often overlooked jobs that allow society to function. So, instead of preaching from the pulpit to the people serving us coffee, cleaning our office spaces, or packing supermarket shelves that they need to look for some higher purpose in what they do, we should find new ways to express appreciation for them. That starts, but doesn’t end with, paying them decently and ensuring that their work environments are healthy and safe.

But even those who are lucky or flexible enough to find themselves in a career in which “building cathedrals” is an option often end up depressed and dissatisfied. Many burn themselves out pursuing goals that paradoxically seem farther and father out of reach the harder they’re working towards them. How can that be?

Enchiridion by Epictetus.

The Stoics would tell us that we’re committing a fundamental error as soon as we’re associating happiness with achievements: Most of the time, reaching a particular outcome has a lot less to do with our individual contributions and much more with external factors that we can never fully control than we would think. But once we make our personal happiness depend on such results, we’re set up for massive disappointment. For example, if you happen to be the bricklayer who considers his sole purpose to “build a cathedral for the Almighty,” a lot of things could get between you and that goal: What if the church just decided to de-fund construction?1 What if they ran out of wood, or bricks, or cement? Or what if an earthquake, a pandemic, a political revolt, or any of a thousand other reasons made completion impossible? In any of these cases, you’d be unable to achieve your goal and therefore miss out on your satisfaction, not due to a fault of your own but because you based your subjective happiness on circumstances outside of your control.

But what if your goal was not the completion of the cathedral, but something much more intrinsic to yourself? Say, you’d wake up each morning in order to “be the best bricklayer you could possibly be?” With such a mindset, you’d still go to work stacking brick after brick, constructing wall after wall, but aiming to improve and sharpen your skills every single day. Over time, people would notice that your walls happen to be straighter, smoother, and more robust than those of your sloppy colleagues. Maybe Christopher Wren himself would notice. Maybe the great architect would personally request that you work on his next big project. Or you might be asked to teach your exquisite skills to apprentices, and thereby inspire future generations of bricklayers to take the craft to unimagined heights.

And even if nothing like that ever happened, you’d still have every right to be happy. As long as you’d stay true to your commitment that you’ll do your job as well as you can, little beyond your own sphere of influence could throw you off balance.

If such an aspiration sounds too lofty, too abstract, or too touchy-feely, I’m with you. It’s not easy to locate a reliable, intrinsic source of meaning and to connect seemingly menial day-to-day tasks with it. While drawing satisfaction from “a job well done” does eliminates many causes for unhappiness, it requires a lot of mental effort, especially in rough circumstances. So let’s zoom in one more time: Let’s focus not on the overall outcome we’re after, neither on how we’re pursuing it, but on the microcosm of moment-to-moment experience.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

I’ve recently read a story about a very different group of bricklayers. In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, the author and Gulag-survivor confronts us with a shockingly realistic depiction of life in Soviet Russia’s forced labour camps in the 1950s: Freezing temperatures, exhausting work, and a constant shortness of food. Undoubtedly, these camps made for some of the harshest physical and mental conditions under which human beings ever lived and worked. And yet, the story exposes something miraculous: At one point, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonists, a group of hungry, overworked prisoners, become so absorbed with their assignment of—you guessed it—building a wall that they don’t even notice the long awaited signal to turn in for the night. Almost like in trance, they go on stirring cement and stacking bricks until suddenly they realize that they’ve already worked way more than the mandated amount of time.

If you’re a musician, a writer, a software developer, or an athlete you may be familiar with the experience. You’re attention can become so completely captured by the task at hand that time stops and that your environment fades out of existence. Whatever activity you’re doing—playing, writing, coding, climbing—expands until it fills your entire world. When you’re pulled out of that a state of mind, you may be slightly annoyed or surprised by how much time has passed, or by what has happened around you while you were “gone”.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” for this kind of experience. Adventurer Reinhold Messner wrote about the “joy of one’s own dexterity” he felt while mountain climbing under extreme conditions. Others call it being “in the zone” or “in the tunnel”. Regardless of terminology, those who have experienced it agree that it feels highly satisfying as well as productive. And, interestingly, it’s neither dependant on the gratification of an external reward, nor is it limited to any particular type of activity.

Researchers are still trying to understand which tasks lend themselves particularly well to flow but they already identified a promising set of preconditions. Generally, an appropriate level of challenge (neither boring nor overwhelming), the availability of immediate feedback, as well as a richness in sensory input are considered necessary. But if we take a slightly wider view of the topic, a deep absorption into one’s moment-to-moment experience can be achieved regardless of the content of that experience. Sure, some activities naturally make it easer than others: Working on a programming task which is just hard enough or performing a challenging Beethoven Sonata may be archetypical examples for endeavors conductive to flow. But similar states can be achieved even during such mundane activities as walking, gardening, or breathing. The magic lies not in what we do, but in how much attention we pay to it.

In mindfulness meditation for example, we practice to focus our concentration on the breath as it moves in and out of the body. As soon as we notice that the mind wanders, we’re directing it back and starting over. As you can imagine, that’s probably the most tedious and boring activity possible. However, it strengthens our ability to consciously decide where we want to shine our spotlight of attention, thereby making it easier to be (and stay!) “completely in the moment”. In that sate, thoughts about the past or the future subside, and all that’s left is the sensation of being here, now. And that, at least in my experience, feels very much like flow.

Of course, that doesn’t come straight away. But through regular practice, we can learn to achieve that state of mind in many more activities than those that would naturally tend to create flow. At some point, experienced meditators report, there’s simply no need to look for satisfaction outside our moment-to-moment experience anymore: No matter if you’re laying bricks, shoveling show, doing the dishes, or simply breathing, every activity can feel wildly satisfying. No carrots or sticks are required to motivate one to do them. No grandiose purpose or vision that invokes God, the good of humanity, or “putting a dent in the universe”.

I’m pretty sure that there’s no single moral to be learned from the tale of Christopher Wren’s three bricklayers, other than the fact that things are not as simple as they seem at first glance. Different people are driven by different things, and not necessarily is one type of motivation superior to another. As suggested by Kim Scott in Radical Candor, leaders instead should aim to understand what each individual on their team is in it for and then try to create an appropriate environment, rather than forcing something that works for some people (“Imagine you’re building a cathedral!") onto everybody else. On a personal level, I believe that motivation is fluid, shifting both in time and in substance. Focusing on outcomes and achievements can be highly satisfying in some circumstances, concentrating on the pure experience of the task at hand in others. The key is to muster the self-awareness that tells you what works for you in any given situation.

  1. Presumably, because they had to focus their attention elsewhere for the time being. ↩︎