I am typing this missive to you today with hands covered in construction adhesive and a bruised thumb, a thumb that I hit with a hammer while hanging a joist to support some decking my wife and I are installing at our house. This kind of construction work is not something that I ordinarily do for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because I am very bad at it. However, this year, I have taken it upon myself to try to become a better husband, which from my wife’s point of view means being a little more like her father, a man who, in his retirement, builds houses for other people just for fun.
In the field of philanthropy, we speak of “building” things quite a bit; however, what we build are things like “capacity” or “networks” or “relationships.” How many people in philanthropy actually have a background in construction? I venture to say not many. As members of the professional managerial class in the United States, we rarely have an opportunity to get dirt underneath our fingernails, at least during work hours.
So I have recently found myself reflecting on the audacity of some of the things I find myself saying in my professional life—especially one thing: At the Hilton Foundation, we speak often about our endeavor to “build a global sisterhood.” Let us put aside for a moment what the “global sisterhood” even means; for now, let us focus on the “building” part.
I thought I would offer a few (sometimes painful) lessons I have learned over the past year about working with my hands to build material things that I think apply equally as well to working with our minds to build immaterial things like the global sisterhood
- You need a plan, even though everything will not go according to plan. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. Before he was president, he served as a general in the United States Army where he gleaned the following piece of wisdom: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Yes, you must have a good plan, but the plan itself is secondary to the insights you gain from engaging in the careful thinking and conversations required to develop consensus around a good plan in the first place. Through planning the good ideas are identified and developed and bad ideas are exposed. You also learn who your friends are, the people you can trust to help you adapt when the original plans inevitably go awry.
- It will take longer than you think it should. See that line that looks straight? It is not. What you thought was a perfect shade of red color looks pink in this light. The floor is not level. Beams do not line up the way you thought they would. Unseen things—mysterious wires, mold, termites-- are hidden behind walls and underground. Sometimes it rains for days on end. Contractors do not show up on time. Delay is the norm, so do not let it frustrate you. Plan on it.
- You cannot do it alone. This is obvious in the case of physical construction—thanks to gravity, sturdy, human-sized things tend to be quite heavy. We simply cannot lift them on our own. But because ideas do not weigh anything, it is easy to forget that ideas can, in a sense, themselves be heavy, too. I would venture to say “global sisterhood” is a heavy idea that needs a lot of people to help bear its weight and figure out how it “fits” in the world.
- It will get messy. You get dirty. Things will break. You will probably hurt yourself. You may even hurt others. This happens. You can be careful and reduce risks, but you cannot eliminate them. Construction sites are dangerous and not for the faint of heart.
In all of this, I am reminded that Jesus was a carpenter—a builder of things (the Greek word is teckton). As Christians, it seems to me that we are all called in various ways to be builders ourselves. Certainly ASEC is a shining example of something you have all helped to build, so let us take time to celebrate, and, in spite of all the challenges, delays, frustrations and messiness, let us keep building!