Three men were building sections of a large brick wall.   The sections were the same length but ranged dramatically in height.  A stranger stood watching the work observing the differences in technique and approach.  The chap working the tallest section moved quickly up his ladder carrying several bricks in a holder with the mortar in a pail attached underneath.  The bricks themselves were lying in a large untidy heap close to the base of the wall. As the observer looked more closely it became clear that the bricks in the wall didn’t line up perfectly horizontally as the mortar was thicker in some places than others, and indeed several bricks had broken facework, so that the wall didn’t seem very uniform.  The stranger asked the builder ‘what are you doing exactly?’  The insolent reply came back: ‘I’m laying bricks as fast as I can so I can finish this job and pick up my paycheck.  What’s it look like to you?’

The middle section was about two thirds the height of the first section, but there were several obvious pleasing differences. The lines of bricks were clearly horizontal as evidenced by the strings stretched tightly from one end of the wall to the other.  And clearly the workman had sorted the bricks as he had two piles, one of apparently good bricks, the other, much smaller, of discards – some cracked, some with corners broken away.  The wall looked fine although on closer inspection every second row didn’t always line up with its counterpart as the mortar between end to end bricks varied in thickness.  The wall was appealing but a little imperfect.  To the same question as before this bricklayer responded ‘Obviously I’m building a brick wall.  It’s what I do for a living.  I’m pretty good at it. OK?’

Even from a distance the third section seemed to stand out in its workmanship.  It was only half the height of the first wall and strong stanchions helped keep it straight and precise.  The bricks all lined up and furthermore there was a consistent gradation in colour, for this builder had sorted the bricks into several piles. Not just on wholesomeness – there certainly was a pile of discards – but on colour variation as well. His actions were slower and more deliberate, clearly evidencing a care and sense of craftsmanship missing from the other sections.   Thoroughly impressed, the stranger asked the builder his question ‘what are you doing exactly?’   But added ‘Your work is meticulous’.

The builder paused and walked back to the observer ,checking the wall as he came.  ‘Well, it’s like this’, he said. ‘I’m just like the other two men.  I’m a bricklayer and I’m building a wall. But for me this is something special.’

‘I’m building a cathedral.’


The lesson:  you can do a job, you can do a job with aplomb and finesse, or you can do a job for a higher purpose beyond the work.

Losing the ‘intrigue’ of ambiguity

When I was a teenager (more than a few years ago) a print hanging in our doctor’s waiting room  always captured my attention on treatment visits.    It wasn’t a large print – maybe 12” tall by about 10” wide, in a dark brown frame.  It hung a little higher than would have been best for me, but the more I went to see the doctor the more it stirred my soul.  I would dream about it when I got home, wondering, wondering….

The painting was called “A Fallen Idol” by the Honorable John Collier 1850 – 1934.  It shows a woman on her knees resting with her head down on the foreleg of (presumably) her husband who is sitting at his desk with a somewhat vacant look on his face.     

I loved the ambiguity of this picture, the title being so evocative.  And the brilliance of the artist to keep his own feelings neutral and innocent.    But I kept wondering… Who is the fallen idol?  Did the husband stray or embezzle his business so that his wife is weeping in dismay at his revelation, or has she broken down and confessed to an affair or some other sin?  If one interprets the man’s look as stunned or disbelieving, one suspects the woman has ‘fallen’. If one interprets the man’s look as ‘matter of fact’ one suspects he has fallen.  And maybe any viewer’s interpretation depends on that viewer’s own guilt feelings or experience in life episodes.  

Over the years my assessment waned to and fro.  The man had just told his wife he’d been fired from his job.  She was sobbing in disbelief knowing how hard it would be to find another one.  Next visit it was she instead who told him she had loaned her sister a large amount of money from their bank account and just learned it was never to be seen again. He was staring into vacant space not knowing what to say.  Anger was checked by incomprehension of his wife’s behavior. 

At each visit my mind would try to conjure up a new imaginative reason ‘explaining’ who had ‘fallen’ and why.

Eventually we moved away, and the doctor, who had become a family friend, gave me the picture as a farewell gift. 

Unfortunately somewhere along life’s ways it and I parted company, but over time my view eventually stabilized and held that the probability was 95% that the husband was the fallen idol, not the wife.   The picture showed him thunderstruck at his undoing and unable to know what more to say.  He had failed himself and his wife and couldn’t even comfort her.

Years and years later with the advent of the Internet I found that the original 5’6” x 4’6” painting now hangs in the Auckland Art Gallery.   And with a little more research I actually learned the artist’s personal view of his work. 

When the original painting was on show at the Royal Academy Exhibition in London, many attendees also wondered just which person was the fallen idol.  On 29 July 1913, The Times published a letter sent by the artist which read :  ‘Dear Sir: – The weeping woman is the fallen idol. It is a young wife confessing to her middle-aged husband.  The husband is evidently a studious man, and has possibly neglected her.  At any rate, the first thought that occurs to him is “Was it my fault?”  I imagine he will forgive his wife. – Yours faithfully, JOHN COLLIER’.

Immediately I read that letter I wished I hadn’t.    Not because I was wrong in my supposition, but because I suddenly realized that what I really liked about the painting was its innocence and ambiguity.    Unfortunately now, forever ruined….   

No more dreams, imagination stifled, no more wondering……

The lesson I learned ?   Some days one simply gets too much information.

The Fight Within – Managing unexpected hurdles

Five months ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. For ten years my urology checks had been perfect – PSA scores less than 0.5. And now out of the blue the Big C! Like many in such situations I went through the standard Kubler-Ross phases – denial (it’s not me, the labs made a mistake – I even had the biopsy samples sent to a second lab), anger (why me, my brothers have had no major illnesses whereas I’ve had too many), bargaining (can I deal with this after my new baby grandkids are a little older?), depression (why even bother with treatment ?) and finally acceptance ( I can manage). It was getting to that last phase that was hardest. After lots of reading, and lots of discussion with former sufferers and a variety of doctors in different disciplines that my wife and I determined I should go ahead with the radiation seeding (brachytherapy) procedure. At the same time, my business had ground almost to a standstill. Who needs a consultant to build business when the first need of many small firms is survival. Out of the blue, just like the cancer detection, referrals and requests for proposals had ground to a halt. Why me, what had I done wrong, this must be temporary, how should I respond? A double whammy – personal and business misery. Who said life was fair? Life was changing, and not in positive ways. The radiation treatment was causing some unpleasant side effects on bodily functions as well as tiring me out. Despite the support of doctors and family I was uncomfortable and unhappy. After thinking deeply about it for a while I came up with an attitudinal adjustment that really helped. My body had become home to an insidious, powerful disease. To fight it, I’d elected a powerful medical weapon – radiation. This radiation wasn’t some trifling little band-aid type approach destined to achieve the right medical response. This was serious war against a formidable opponent. And if the field of war – that is the tissue around the fight area – got a little beaten up, then so be it. What were a few minor discomforts when there was this enormous battle for my life going on? Now all I needed was something analogous on the business side. Sure there were supporters but where was the potent medicine to fight this lousy economy? I talked to friends, I listened to webinars, I read some more and eventually I decided the ‘cure’ was to start blogging and to write articles and ultimately write a book on helping small businesses. The more I exposed the idea the more it became real and valuable. Others had been successful with similar actions. Here was my business downturn adversary. And, just as with the radiation treatment where I may not know anything definitive for 15 months yet, similarly with the book – until it is published I won’t know if I’ve overcome my business dilemma with a new source of revenue. And analogously with the fight inside against cancer, my fight outside against the economy will have its tough patches. But with the goals I’ve set and the attitude I now have, I feel good about winning at both. My take-aways: 1. Don’t give in. Business will come back and you’ll never forgive yourself for giving up. 2. Share your concerns with others. You are not alone. Someone else may just make a comment that lets you sense a new idea. 3. Look at the problem from a different viewpoint. Compare yourself to others. What did they do? Where does your niche fit in a bigger picture. 4. Background your emotions temporarily. Get data, get facts, analyze, seek to understand, talk to customers. Rise above despair and anger – they don’t help. 5. Accept what you can. Change must take place. So accept that. Work to minimize its impact, but don’t deny its inevitability. 6. Act. The world will not come to you, you must go to it. Get off your duff, do something. If it doesn’t work try something new. God gave us two ends – one to sit on , one to think with. Success in life depends on which one we use most. Heads we win, tails we lose. Sometimes we just need to look at things in a different way, alter our perspective, and take action. Positive change will occur – small mind adjustments and belief in ourselves will get us going in the right direction. Go for it. Fight, don’t flee.

A “Spot of Grace”

In 1970 my wife and I moved to the village of Pittsford in Rochester NY.  After several months there we decided to take a driving vacation to New England.   We had no sooner reached Maine than our car broke down after we hit an unavoidable rock in the road that had fallen off a truck just ahead of us. We flew back home miserable at the news that it would take 3 weeks to repair the damage.

As a young couple with a 9 month old baby we didn’t have renter’s insurance on our car and were distraught at how to manage work and shopping commutes.  A nearby neighbor whom we didn’t know well heard of our plight, knocked on our door one evening, and very kindly offered us the use of his second car while ours was being fixed. A truly charming and incredibly helpful gesture. We were understandably nonplussed but extremely thankful to be offered a solution to our needs.

Weeks later when we had our own car back we returned the neighbor’s car and, at a sincere loss, asked how we could ever repay him for his thoughtfulness and generosity.  This gentle man smiled and said “ I really don’t want any repayment. All I ask is that at some time in the future when you have a similar opportunity to help someone out please do the same and pass it on.” 

Those words were some we came to live by over the years, sharing them with our children and many other acquaintances.  Even more rewarding was the finding that there were multiple occasions where we’ve actually been able to enjoy helping others out unconditionally – just as we were helped.  And whenever one of those people we helped asked us how they could repay us, our hearts would light up as we simply requested that they too ‘pass on the gift’ we’d been given so many years before.

To me this original individual’s “Spot of Grace” is unique.  It was both a one-off incident and at the same time one, that by its nature, still continues to perpetuate more ‘Spots of Grace’ of its own volition.  

By now, hundreds of people and families have benefited from one man’s selflessness and his ‘perpetuating’ “Spot of Grace”.  Every time we have the chance to help or give unconditionally his memory comes to mind.  

Were there many more like him in the world today, imagine the warmth we would all live in……..

Learning from others

My Eldest Child

What’s the most common gripe the eldest child has?   “Gee Mom you never let me do what you now let my younger sister do when I was her age”.  Sound familiar?  Do we grow a little more tolerant with each new child?  Or are we just a little less protective because we’ve had some experiences with elder children from which we’ve learned some flexibility?  ]

 Let’s face it – no-one taught us parenting right?  We all learn from self-experience coupled with ‘help’ from well-meaning mothers and other friends.  But we never really studied Parenting 101 at school or elsewhere.  No, we learn on the job. Our kids were guinea pigs in that sense, and the first one of course provided the initial and hence most learning.

 We sort of realize that but we’re usually too thrilled with watching how our children grow and learn and show new behavior and in guiding them along, that what we are learning really becomes secondary to observing what they are learning.

 We were fortunate to have four lovely daughters and I think each one had less baby photos taken and was given more freedom than her next elder sister at every point in childhood life. That’s just the way it was. No ‘ifs’ ‘ands’ ‘ors’ or ‘buts’ and no apologies. Guilty as charged.   But one day I remember being brought up really short.  I was having a nice discussion with our eldest teenage daughter when she suddenly declared that she hated being the eldest.

 This rocked me as I was the oldest child in our 3 boy family and I loved it. I was always given responsibility for new tasks, and asked to do things first.  So I was sort of dismayed to find my eldest girl feeling otherwise.   When we finally got down to the nub of the matter her main beef was that she felt burdened by the responsibility of educating me and her Mom to the mores, views, habits, concerns, and needs of kids her age.  In other words we old fuddy-duddies were out of touch and she resented the fact that it fell to her to do all the educating of we poor ill-informed, ‘no-longer-with-it’ parents.   I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say.  Here was I giving up things so my girls could go to private schools and get all the benefits of a top education and yet my daughter was ungracious enough to feel hard done by because she had a responsibility to educate me.

 This was a new paradigm for sure.   I’d never thought there was reciprocity in education between child and parent in the early years.  (Of course there is in later years as our children enter new professions.)  Boy, how naïve was I?  My beliefs and values were to be passed on, not adjusted by input from my kids.  I think at first I felt affronted and the inbuilt stubbornness in me caused resentment for a while. It took a lot of thought and time to realize that I hadn’t been attentive enough and listened hard enough to my own children. A sad awakening. 

 I will add that my first daughter is in the brilliant category. Has a joint Ph.D/MD. High self-confidence and self-esteem and I’m incredibly proud of her accomplishments.  Guess she’s always had some strong leadership characteristics – some of which came out at an early age.  I often think back to that first overt lesson she brought me.

 What exactly was it, that lesson learned?    Easy – that we can always learn from others, no matter who they are.  There is no-one from whom we can’t learn something.  We just need to be open to the opportunity.

Positive Outlook

The Best Years of your Life

At the age of 36 I was working for Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company at the corporate headquarters office in Indianapolis. An external speaker who was an expert on aging was talking to a group of about 100 managers in the auditorium and providing us with new views on the population over 65 years old. One of his viewpoints was that older folks may have a little less physical mobility than we younger folk but their mental prowess was generally fine. They also tended to have money – quite a bit more probably than we upstarts. He cited an example of residents at a retirement home who approached the local university for classes on computers. The University administrators happily told them to come on down to the campus and register and they’d be welcomed in any of the ongoing classes. To which the residents replied “No, you don’t understand – we’re happy to pay for the education, but you have to bring it to us here”.

At one point in his lecture the visitor paused and asked the audience a series of questions. First – “how many of you think your teen years were the best years of your life?” Most of the attendees were between 25 and 45 years old and just a half dozen hands went up. “How many think the early twenties were the best years of your life?” Now 20 hands went up. “How many think the late twenties were the best years of your life?” Another 20 hands. “OK, so how many of you think the thirties are the best years of your life? This time 30 plus hands stretched up, including mine.

Beside me sat a late twenties female manager whom I knew pretty well. I was cognizant that she hadn’t put her hand up yet and figured perhaps she just didn’t want to indicate any particular preference. But that changed with the next question from the lecturer. Which was “How many of you think the best years of your life are ahead?” Up went my friend’s hand, along with most of the few remaining previously un-declared votes.

At first I was confused wondering what on earth had been so miserable in her life to date that the best years were still to be experienced.

And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that my friend had had a rough life or a tough time getting to where she was, for she was one of the happiest, most upbeat people around. What she was declaring instead was that there were no bad times – that they would all be good. The future would always hold the ‘best‘ times no matter what age she was at.

Clearly she lived by a wonderfully different paradigm than that with which I was familiar.

Her sage attitude stopped me in my tracks and made me think. I was amazed at what I had just perceived, and at the same time energized with a perspective that I’d never thought about. I regret that I never told that young lady that she literally changed my life forever that day. I wish I could see her again sometime to thank her because unknowingly she helped me adopt a new outlook that has been a mainstay of my life ever since.

And that is that ‘good times’ are always ahead. The future is not going to be better just because the past was bad. The future will be good if I make it so.

When things are tough – and tough periods happen to all of us – we can always grumble that things were better in ‘the old days’. But I just don’t buy it.

Life is a long-term learning experience and I look forward to finding and embracing the new things out there that will make all my years ahead ‘the best’.

Right vs Wrong

A very valuable lesson

At one time early in my business career I was fortunate enough to work for a boss who had a wonderfully soft and generous style of management. Over the years I learned a lot from him but one particular lesson has trumped all the others in terms of frequency of memory recall. It came about as follows.

At some point during a regularly scheduled one-on-one exchange we were discussing the marketing strategy for a new product that we were about to introduce. My boss had years more experience at marketing than I did but was a bit of a traditionalist. He expounded on his ideas for a good five minutes and I found myself becoming increasingly concerned at what I considered to be quite old-fashioned notions.

Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I interrupted his argument and brashly challenged him with “Dick, do you want me to tell you where you are wrong?”

In my mind’s eye to this day I can still see his reaction. He stopped, slowly leaned back in his chair, raised his hand and stroked his chin, gently looked me in the eye and said “Not really Warren, but I will listen to an alternate opinion”.

Frankly I don’t remember the outcome of our exchange. I just remember the lesson in management. I was very lucky that Dick was a boss who didn’t react aggressively to my outburst and who was tolerant of someone so precocious.

The lesson has stuck with me all my life. That is, that in many instances it may not be so much a matter or issue of right versus wrong but rather that another person simply sees things in a different way. If you think about it for a bit that really is a major change in perspective. Views don’t have to compete so much as represent different interpretations.

I’ve benefitted enormously over the years from that single simple piece of learning and I’ve silently thanked my early boss more than once for his counsel. In his mentoring way he taught me to be more open to other’s inputs, not to judge too quickly, to listen better, and finally to have respect for a different point of view.

Not only have I tried to emulate Dick’s gentle management style since that occasion long ago, I’ve also come to learn I really don’t have all the answers, and that often other people have better ones than mine. Their opinion isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’ at all, just an alternative I should make sure I listen to.