The Three Stonecutters

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first man 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." .

What can we learn from this simple tale?

The first stonecutter is simply doing a day's work for a day's pay; for the material reward he receives in exchange for his labour. To him, the substance, purpose and context of his work does not matter. The only thing that does is for him to get the job done.

The second stonecutter has higher aspirations. He wants to be the best. He is an unshakable individualist. He believes in the power of the human mind, and its capacity for reason, in the drive for quality and results, and in having pride in his work. His world is competitive and meritocratic; he measures himself against the "whole county" as the story has it - even the whole world.

Yet somehow the vision of the second stonecutter is also incomplete. The focus on the task, the competition, the virtuosity, is a kind of blindness. Consumed with individual ambition, the second stonecutter misses the fundamental interconnections between people and the societies and economies we all live in. He fails to see that there would be no need to cut stones if there was not a community that wanted to build something with them.

The third stonecutter embraces a broader vision. The very menial work of stonecutting becomes part of a greater undertaking, a spiritual as well as a physical construction. His aspiration transcends many obstacles - building a cathedral does not take months or years, it takes centuries. He knows that his work can make a small but essential contribution to a structure that can unite the past with the future and connect human beings across generations for reasons that are far larger than any single person.

We know we must do better than to create a society of stonecutters who are like the first man. The second man is more admirable - he fits into our beliefs and way of life and is indeed commendable in many ways, but we know that we must surpass him too.

The third stonecutter reminds us that the individual is not enough, that we must want to make a difference in and for the world - as it is today and as it will be in the future.

Adapted from (Accessed 25 January 2011)

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