Walls get a bad rap.
President Reagan famously challenged Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to “tear down this wall” while standing in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. And, while not quite rising to the infamy of the Iron Curtain, the barriers that create dreaded “silos” in our corporate and not-for-profit cultures also have fallen into disfavor in recent years.
But walls and, more precisely, building real walls can be a good thing. Read on, and I’ll tell you why.
Winnie the Wall Builder
Winston Churchill himself built brick walls and other structures at his beloved country home Chartwell. Located about 25 miles south of London near Westerham in Kent, the house and grounds were purchased in 1922 in spite of the misgivings of his wife Clementine.
The house and his activities there provided him with peace and pleasure – “I love this place,” he said simply – and no doubt allowed him to detox from the highly charged political environment of Whitehall. When not building walls or starting a new canvas – he was an accomplished amateur artist, too – he used the retreat to pen books, articles and speeches that are still revered the world over. (My reading of his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples has been stalled for some time, but maybe I’ll resume with more vigor now.
When word of his bricklaying skills hit the press, “Brother Churchill” was invited to join the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers. In fact, he applied as an apprentice, but the application was rejected by the membership who must have feared the Conservative Party politico would bring ridicule to their cause.
Walls – A Well of Inspiration
I contend that the time he spent building walls was part of the creative process that made him such a brilliant statesman and writer. An ideal day, he later wrote, would include “the laying of hundreds of bricks.” There’s something to be learned when he proudly boasted that he produced “200 bricks and 2,000 words a day.”
Let’s take a look at the period when most of the expansive wall around Chartwell’s vegetable garden was built, 1925 to 1932. Those were some tough years for the future prime minister. In 1929, he lost $70,000, a huge sum at the time, in the American stock market crash. Two years later, having recently been disinvited from serving in the cabinet, he was hit by a taxi when he looked the wrong way before stepping off a curb in New York City.
But he kept building walls and he kept writing, with the latter keeping the family finances afloat during those years. As a writer he was indefatigable, telling Clemmie about the seeming inexhaustible source of subject matter, “The well flows freely; only time is needed to draw water from it.”
It’s an inspiring story for those whose jobs entail writing of any sort, and that includes those charged with producing original content for the clients and companies we work for, or for our own businesses.
What You Can Learn From a Wall
I’ve, too, been building walls off and on for about 30 years, nearly as long as I’ve been writing. And that doesn’t count working for a stonemason one summer during college, when I wasn't permitted to do much more than mix mortar and haul it, along with the stones and bricks, up the scaffolding. (I had to erect that, too.)
What can building walls teach us, and how does it help in the workplace?
1. It gives us time to think.
The beauty of building walls is that it physically takes us away from the keyboard, emails, tweets and the other harpies that push us relentlessly to respond whenever we’re at our desk. Let’s face it: some of those tasks are seductive distractions from the projects that we really need to accomplish.
Step away, lace up the work boots, and leave the iPhone inside. If you’re like me, you’ll more easily work through some big professional priorities or project solutions while laying that next course of stone. Building a wall requires some attention, but it’s not so demanding that it doesn’t provide freedom to think clearly about other things at the same time.
2. It requires patience.
My latest wall project stretched over six months. I could blame the interceding winter, but even in the best weather, it takes time to attain a finished product that meets our own picky standards, just like writing.
Organize your tools, lay the foundation, carefully select the right stone for color, length and thickness, trowel on some mortar, set the level, raise the string, step back and give it an eyeball, and then do it all over again. And just like a finished wall that doesn’t reveal those ugly, misshapen stones buried in the back, your readers shouldn’t have a clue about the scribbled notes, early drafts, dead ends, scratched paragraphs and general anguish that got you to the finished piece you’re rightfully proud of.
3. It provides a bond with those whom we otherwise might never have an opportunity to work. Churchill a member of the Workers Union? If he had been accepted, I’m sure he would have found common ground with his fellow bricklayers about something. Who knows? Maybe it would have influenced his writing and his politics for the better.
Dealing with those at the local stone yard, hardware store or with contractors who handle other projects around our house reminds me that there are a lot of viewpoints in this world, and they’re all due at least some respect. We’re better writers and managers for listening to or working with those whose opinions differ from ours. It tempers our work and makes it stronger.
4. It reminds us to keep it simple and stick to the basics.
I taught English Composition while in graduate school, but I’m not about to give you “Ten Content Writing Tips You Can’t Afford to Miss.” Lord knows, there are enough other bloggers doing that.
Building stonewalls hasn’t changed much over the millennia, and writing isn’t much different in that sense. Better tools and technology sure help, but the task of communicating honestly and persuading your audience – without relying on trendy buzzwords, gobbledygook or too much cynicism and sarcasm – is a basic one. That’s not to say it’s easy. But you’ll know when you come up with something solid, substantive and original, something that stands the test of time. Just like a wall.
5. It adds value.
Real estate agents will tell you that curb appeal creates a lot of value in a home, and attractive elements in the landscape – e.g. a stonewall – sure do that. I’ve probably milked this analogy too long already, but writing provides an obvious investment in ourselves and in building our personal brand. First, it’s only when we’ve written about something do we really know it. It becomes an ingrained part of our gestalt, and informs our future work. Second, from a career perspective, it never hurts to have a book or e-book, white paper, journal article or set of blog postings under our belt, in our portfolio and on our résumé. But you know that, so I’ll conclude with the analogy there.
I’m no Winston Churchill, but building walls works for me.
It gets me away from the desk and into the fresh air, challenges a few underused muscles, gives me a chance to be with my own thoughts without interruption, and allows me to create something of permanence and beauty that makes my wife happy, too.
What might be your hobby that helps you professionally the way building walls helps me? I’d like to hear from you!