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Loving the Middle, & Building Cathedrals
If you have to fill the Grand Canyon with bricks, it's gonna take a while. Get comfy.
Most people acknowledge big things take time, but this isn’t reflected in what we celebrate.
Spoiler: there’s a great poem by chatGPT at the end.
At a talk recently, Ira Van Eelen talked about the idea of “Cathedral Thinking”– the thesis of which, is pretty simple: Cathedrals are magnificent, but they took a long time to build. Often more than a lifetime. That can feel discouraging, but nonetheless, if you ever want to see it through, you have to put brick after brick. This isn’t news: big things take time. It’s like trying to fill the Grand Canyon one brick at a time.
Another idea I’ve recently been toying with in my head, has been how we should learn to love the middle. Everybody likes to celebrate the start of things, and their completion. Yet, rarely do you see crowds around the middle, boring, mundane day-after-day exercises.
The middle is dry, boring, hard, often lonely, and generally not fun– it’s the middle of a marathon, the middle of an exam, the middle of a project, whatever it is. Most people, when they realise people don’t cheer you on all the time, switch to something else, which gets celebrated (since it’s the start of something new.) That feels good for our monkey brains; celebration gives us an instant gratification hit.
But, if you’re somebody who’d like to set out to build something, I wanted to share a philosophy around loving the middle. Often, you won’t build anything if you don’t learn to do so. The sooner you learn it, the sooner you can build what you want.
I suggest spending time making your middle as pleasant as possible, because the bigger the thing you want to build, the longer you’ll spend there. Imagine it’s a house, isolated, and in the middle of nowhere– if you spend some time making yourself comfortable, finding your own pace, and avoid distractions, you can make your life substantially better, and still fulfil your larger goals.
One of my favourite (Portuguese, roughly translated) quotes:
"he who runs for fun doesn’t get tired”
Some people struggle without instant gratification, and find themselves constantly switching, while others may actually be really good at pushing through the middle, but sometimes make themselves miserable in doing so. I suggest, if you learn to love the middle, you can make your journey substantially more rewarding, whether you’re a switcher, or you ram through things.
Adopting this outlook has made it substantially easier for me to turn down opportunities that seem shiny, which was typically my struggle, and re-focused me on making my day-to-day a really ideal situation, where I wouldn’t change anything.
I’m striving to make my ‘middle’ something that I would still do, even if I were to die tomorrow. That, I believe, is the ultimate goal.
With that said, here’s a poem GPT gracefully put together for me (which I think encompasses this idea pretty well):
In the heart of the journey, unseen, unsung,
The middle's where battles are truly won.
Not in beginnings, nor in ends so neat,
But in middles, where challenge and growth meet.
It's the silent ascent, the unmarked trail,
Where the winds are fierce and the climbers frail.
No fanfare here, no applause rings,
Yet it's the middle that shapes queens and kings.
Honor the start, respect the end,
But adore the middle, it's there you transcend.
The middle's the voyage, the heart, the core,
It's the love for the middle that helps you soar.