Three Stonecutters Inverted

Do we justly elevate those with sweeping visions and grand aspirations?

The parable of the three stone cutters, as popularized by Peter Drucker:

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Drucker is not indifferent between these motivations. He sees the second stonecutter’s drive and thirst for excellence as meritorious — capturing the American spirit. Even better is the third stonecutter, however, perhaps because of his grand scale and desire for impact. Drucker suggests that it’s his broader vision and contribution to a structure that unites past and future. The other stonecutters lack awareness of this big picture.

Consider an alternative perspective.

The first seems to be “just” working for a living. What does that mean in practice? Likely, he is inspired by love for his family and those closest to him. He is motivated by the practical necessity of quelling hunger. He is aware that his family depends on him for survival. By materially providing for the lives of others, his labors serve a greater purpose. Communities and nations are built up out of tight circles of families and friendships, not generic people or citizens.

The second is merely doing the “best job” he can. This seems individualistic and perhaps even self-indulgent. Why bother perfecting stonecutting? However, his drive to constantly improve can serve as an inspiration to others. By highlighting the beauty that is everywhere hidden in plain sight, others can find fresh appreciation for the everyday. His obsession with his craft can even elevate it to an art.

The third is inspired by doing big things. He wants to make a lasting impact and turn man towards “higher” ideals. He highlights his desire to toil for the common good — a cathedral that all can benefit from. He serves an amorphous, anonymous peopledom — pure altruism. Or, at least, that is what he wants everyone to think. It’s certainly a good story and captures our attention — just see how Drucker elevates this man.

Any yet, they all engage in fundamentally the same activity. Some just have a more flattering story.

I’m increasingly skeptical of the consequences of elevating the third stonecutter at the expense of the others. If I met these three men on the street, I am tempted to reverse the ordering: I am more likely to want to trust the first over the second, and the second over the third.


Also published on Medium.

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