Where’s Your Cathedral?

3 min read

1 parable

2 book recs

10,000 hours rule





Three men at work were asked, What are you doing?

“I am cutting this stone,” said the first.

“I am earning three shilling and six pence a day,” said the next.

The last man stood, mallet in one hand and chisel in the other, and said proudly, “I am helping to build this great cathedral.”*


I came across a version of this in Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance,** and she refers to it as the Three Bricklayers. The connection she was making with it had to do with purpose. Each Paragon of Grit (a term she uses for standouts) has a purpose for what they do. And, I have found that to be true.

Some seem to know what they were meant to do. I have not had that fortune, working many jobs, in retail, in the U.S. Army, in business, in teaching. And this circuitous and long path took me to writing, where in the beginning I was ‘cutting this stone’. I’m not sure what three shilling and six pence would be today, but let’s say that as the second bricklayer, I was ‘earning a pittance’ in freelance. The difference today is, after nearly two decades of brick laying, I have started to help build a great cathedral. And by modern measures, I have invested the requisite effort. Because to achieve any level of competence and skill, to become a professional, requires sustained and singular effort, which some say is 10,000 hours.*


Where’s your cathedral? Well, that’s the hard part and it was no easy discovery. For me that has meant doing a lot of things, lifelong study, an insatiable curiosity, and probably the most important of all, discipline and effort. To help build a cathedral for me involves truth-seeking: doing something I love to do and finding a purpose which makes the effort worthwhile. This sense of purpose is one which is noble, good, and something beyond the self.

Here is the closing comment from the original author of the parable, Bruce Barton. The story he recounts is about the great fire of London in 1666. The men are working on St. Paul’s Cathedral which was left in ruins.


There are three ways of looking at life:

  1. I am just cutting this stone.
  2. I am only earning a living.
  3. I am doing a small part of a great work.

I have not seen the Architect and I do not altogether understand the plan. But I believe there IS a plan, so I work with good spirit in which is no fear.

Bruce Barton, 1927



*What Can a Man Believe? by Bruce Barton. Internet Archive, free text. Published 1927, p. 251-252. Final passage of book on last two pages. The men are working for Sir Christopher Wren to help restore St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London.

** Angela Duckworth 6 min TED talk on Grit. Whether or not you are familiar with her work and this book, you likely have come across her idea of grit and the research she has done at length about the trait beyond IQ which she ascribes to those who achieve greatness or excellence.

*Researcher Behind ‘10,000-Hour Rule’ Says Good Teaching Matters, Not Just Practice by Jeffrey R. Young, May 5, 2020. I read about this rule in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which drew on the work of researcher Anders Ericsson


Jun 18, 2023


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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