Building Sandcastles at Work

As Appeared in Thrive Global.

When we ask people why they may want to join our company, a common answer we hear is that they want to be part of “building something.”  And, when we ask people why they may not want to join our company, we often hear the exact same answer.  How can that be?  Is it just another example of unpredictable, paradoxical human behavior?  We think not.  There is a broader meaning to be deciphered, and it’s about understanding human nature and the human spirit.

The above observation does not reflect a contradiction.  Quite the contrary, it reveals a consistency: we as people might differ on questions of “how,” “what,” and “with whom” when it comes to building, but most of us are naturally drawn to an instinctive joy of building as a process.  In turn, those who can focus not only on building something but also on appreciating the process of doing so will find greater fulfilment and may very well experience something more enriching, impactful, and durable than the result they seek to achieve.

This may seem a simple insight, perhaps confirmed by recent memories of building a spreadsheet or more distant memories of art projects, Legos, Tinker Toys, and Lincoln Logs (K’nex if you’re a bit younger).  But how can we “builders” enjoy and benefit from the process when our society and jobs place so much emphasis on high-speed efficiency and results?  For many, taking the time to reflect on and mindfully experience the process of “building” is often made difficult by the pressures not only of our work but our personal lives as well.  To fully appreciate the builders within ourselves, we must understand this natural urge and justify it in the context of modern society.

Learning from Sandcastles …

Let’s start by thinking about sandcastles.  Imagine a group of children playing on the beach, building a sandcastle.  The sand and water provide the essential mix to be molded into gothic towers, though the children know all too well that those very same materials will eventually destroy their architecture.  At any moment, their castle can be taken by the threatening sea, the weight of the sand, or a strong wind to tip the tower.  But whatever the challenge may be, the children continue to adapt and rebuild.  They are immersed in and enjoy the process of building – so much so that any catastrophe that befalls their work is quickly overcome with renewed vigor.  And their joy is enhanced because they face these challenges together as a team.

Are we adults at work so different?  Do we need to be?  Sure, we’re doing more than spending the day at the beach building sandcastles, and work for most of us isn’t quite like going to the beach.  But we need to remember that we’re all mainly involved in building our organizations, communities, or even legacies, and, in most cases, we’re doing these things along with others.  We may not be children building sandcastles at the beach, but we’ll all find greater happiness to the extent that we can see ourselves building something, facing challenges alongside colleagues and friends.

That’s why meaningful vision statements are so important.  To satisfy the innate builder within us, we need to be reminded that our work is, in many respects, a form of building something.  Good leaders understand this and appeal to this natural urge by framing their organizational visions accordingly, constantly reminding their teams what they are building, why, and with whom – in a sense, like children building sandcastles.

Yet, it’s also why we should try to frame much of what we do at work as building – even the small things that don’t rise to the level of visionary.  We’re reminded of the parable of the three bricklayers, which is rooted in the 17th century reconstruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  When asked what they were doing by architect Christopher Wren, the first replied “I’m laying bricks.”  The second replied “I’m building a wall.”  The third replied “I’m building a cathedral.”  The parable is intended to be a reminder of perspective, and how we can each see things differently.  But it’s also a reminder of something more basic: regardless of what we are doing, and how we perceive our individual roles, we are all building something at work.

… And Sand Mandalas

Now think about the monks who are renowned for building sand mandalas.  Don’t know what a sand mandala is?  These intricate works of sand art are built grain by grain, can take several weeks to create, are usually beautifully decorated, and are filled with details that often tell a fascinating story.  During their construction, the monks – sometimes in great numbers – painstakingly spend inordinate amounts of time fully immersing themselves in the process as they strive to create a veritable masterpiece.  And do you know what they do when they’re done?  After all their grueling work, often over the course of several weeks, they ceremoniously destroy it!  They do this to remind themselves that the results of all their work in this world are impermanent and that the experience of creation is itself something to appreciate.

Results do matter at work.  But so too does the experience of working to achieve them.  Companies and employees who recognize this will do everything they can to ensure that both are prioritized.  For the past few decades, it’s become fashionable at work to speak about concepts like SMART (smart, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) goals, BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals), and similar concepts.  We speak about them too.  What’s missing from all of this, however, is a focus on enjoying and benefitting from the experience of achieving those goals.  It may just be that the experience itself is equally important.

Indeed, if an organization sets out to build something extraordinary and ultimately fails in that goal (like, for example, most start-up businesses), is it a total failure for the people who worked on it?  Not necessarily.  Maybe what they really built is an experience that will endure for far longer and, spiritually, be more important.