The Tale of the Three Masons & the Meaning of Creative Work

In a medieval French town, there were three masons hard at work on a construction site. Each was squaring up a large granite block. It was a hot, humid morning and the men were sweating profusely from the exertion.

A boy about 11 years old was watching them intently. Finally, he walks up to the first mason and asks him what he is doing. The burly workman answers that he is trying to stay out of the poorhouse. Then the boy walks over to the second mason and repeats the same question. The mason answers that he is working at an honest job to support his wife, two children and aged parents. Finally, the boy asks the third mason what he was doing. The skilled craftsman first looks up at the sky and then squarely at the child and replies, “I am building a cathedral.”

This old story is an appropriate lens through which to look at our individual creative lives. The concept of higher purpose — not in the strict theological sense — is a barely visible golden thread that ties together the work of the major proponents of the Creative Economy. Among the proponents are Daniel Pink, John Howkins and Richard Florida. Check out their Web sites.

I have friends and colleagues who work in creative fields in Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Portland, Maine. Some of them are at are at the top of their game professionally and are making really good money; others are facing sustained financial hardship and uncertainty.

Surprisingly, there is little correlation between their financial circumstances and life satisfaction. The ones who found the most meaning in their creativity — not in worldly success — look back over three or four decades of creative toil and see an unfinished cathedral of beauty, grace and ingenuity and truly rejoice in their creativity.

Others just see what they did not get out of their creative careers and ask themselves, “Is this all there is?”

Here are links to three excellent books that explore issues of meaning and the creative life:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

Evolving Self by Mihaly-Csikszentmihalyi

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