Build strong personal and professional walls
Why you need small stones and big rocks to built strong foundations
Last year I had a plan. I would run two marathons on one day. Not on the road, but on a trail. And not a flat track, but on steep terrain. A whopping 87 kilometers with over 3000 meters of elevation. I started building a training wall with small and larger bricks. My tendency is to focus on the big boulders and miss the details and that’s exactly what happened. I would go for long training runs, rest a day or two and then go for another long run. I kept going at this pace until my body started to protest. I was close to injury and it was time for a change.
The parable of the shepherd
In a country with hills and an occasional tree, a shepherd wanted to protect his livestock against predators, but he wasn’t particularly strong. He could never win from a bear in a solo fight or hold back a group of sly foxes, so he had to use his brain. So he started to build a wall, with the rocks that were lying around in the field.
He wanted to preserve his energy and so he used only stones about the size of his hands. Tiny ones, some a bit bigger, but none too big. It took him some time to finish the wall and as he sat down it became dark. The sun set and the day turned into night. The man heard predators but he wasn’t too scared.
“I’ve built a wall, so my sheep are safe.”
A few foxes came and indeed, they could not get over the wall. The stone fence was a success. But later that night a bear arrived, broke into the pen and killed many sheep. The small stones were no match for the bear.
But the shepherd did not give up so easily. He started to build again. This time grabbing rocks he could barely carry. With all of his willpower and strength, he finished the project at the end of the day. The smaller pen was strong and the remaining sheep would surely be safe. Then it turned to night again. The time of the predators. First, the bear arrived. The large boulders stopped the bear in his tracks and he could not get close to the sheep.
“Ha, my wall is strong enough to stop the bears, my sheep are safe.”
But the large boulders left huge gaps for the sly fox, to easily slip through. A double loss.
“These sheep are important to me and I must protect them.”
The shepherd didn’t give up. The next morning he started to build again. This time he grabbed both large boulders and smaller rocks. The larger stones to create a strong wall and the smaller rocks to fill the gaps, creating an impenetrable fence that no predator could pass. From now on the sheep would be safe.
What can we learn from the shepherd? Obviously, never give up. But that is not the real lesson here.
Too often we find ourselves focusing on the first two walls. We either fixate on the little things or we focus on “the bigger picture”. Neither of which is particularly helpful (in some cases it might even be unhealthy). Focus only on the details and your wall will be destabilized when something big happens. Focus only on the headlines and you might miss subtle details that could destabilize your job, project or relationship.
The third wall is a nice metaphor for a healthy and strong life, project, relationship, you name it. The large tasks are the foundation. These are important to give you direction, a plan and something to fall back on when a crisis occurs. The smaller stones you need for building a good, deep and meaningful life. I’m sure by now you have a broad idea of the boulders and stones in your life. But I’d like to give you a more detailed example.
You can apply these tricks to your jobs and projects as well. When you finish a big project or milestone (pun intended) it’s time for the grind. How can we make this project better? Which details matter to our team, our suppliers and our customers? Combine your great achievements with the everyday things that need to be done and you will build a strong wall.
Some days it might be hard. Remember, our shepherd had to build his wall three times before he had it right. Maybe you need to rebuild parts of it every day. That doesn’t really matter. In the end, what matters is that you build a stronger wall. In your life, your projects, your career and wherever you can.
Small rocks, big rocks
The first time I read about better training was on a trail running website. There they spoke about how a strong wall needs both larger and smaller rocks. It took me a couple of weeks to incorporate it into my scheme and not long after I saw huge improvements. My mileage didn’t increase and I ran more days instead of fewer. But I was feeling better and stronger. The long training runs combined with easy days that felt more like walking than running was a great mix to build a strong wall.