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A Builder's Mentality

Today, I reflected on a story my close friend Marcus once told me about construction workers. In his opinion, these were some of the hardest workers he knew. Just think about it, if you live in Chicago or have visited before, you will be amazed walking through the busy streets of downtown marveling at the beautiful architecture. But have you ever stopped and wondered how these buildings came to be?

Back in 2016 on an early Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on Marcus’ 12th floor balcony, as I watched several dozen construction workers carefully placing five large steel beams on the hard concrete of an abandoned parking lot. These beams were for a new high-rise apartment building in the South Loop. Marcus noticed me looking in their direction and calmly said “Those pillars will be a reflection of your life this year, make sure you stay prepared.” A little confused, I asked him to explain what he meant by this. He replied, “Every morning those workers will be down there building until a high rise is standing ready for business. Today you may not notice it or even tomorrow, but remember every day, they are building. Treat your life the same and you will see amazing results this year.”

In the moment, I only took that as just another parable Marcus was using to illustrate life in a deep philosophical way. But his words were so profound, I couldn’t help but remember them. Sure enough, the following morning at the crack of dawn, I heard loud klanks that echoed through my window. The loud noise irritated me and disrupted the last 15 minutes of my sleep. Annoyed, I opened my blinds to see those very construction workers up early to Marcus’ proclamation. The workers were digging holes to lay the foundation for the steel beams. It must have taken a month for them to dig holes deep enough but eventually they were able to plant the beams into the ground that firmly stood erected in the now busy lot.

When I visited Marcus’ apartment again, he peered out to his balcony saying “You see that? Those beams represent the process you go through to create anything. That hole in the ground acts as the firm foundation they use to hold the high rise up. If they hadn’t dug the hole first, the building would easily fall over. Similar is life. In order for you to make true progress, you must first get to digging and plant yourself where you feel you can grow. Growth is like a tree that has roots running through its soil. The sturdiness of the tree is defined by how deep its roots run.

This process is often one of the most difficult experiences because you're forced to go down instead up immediately rising up. In this lower place you will find your darkest thoughts, doubts, negative feelings and discomfort. Learn to appreciate them rather them fighting and avoiding this place. Fighting or avoiding it will only delay your process and keep you stuck beneath the ground.

With the amount of wisdom Marcus was feeding me, it was tough to really grasp everything he was saying all at once. But coincidentally enough, his lessons were both accurate and timely. Within the first several months of 2016, my life was filled with frequent setbacks that ranged from growing debt, the loss of my job and the death of two close family members. I felt like I was stuck in a dark abyss and lived in a constant state of fear, doubt and self-sabotage. Once things appeared to have calmed down, I was able to realize that my life was the very reflection of those steel beams Marcus described to me months ago.

With that in mind, I felt encouraged by his words and started anticipating the morning noise of the construction workers who continued to work tirelessly adding layers to the new building. I also started to notice the progress they had made. Instead of five steel beams, there were now ten and the flat foundation had been filled with cement and layered with concrete floors. I was starting to see the skeleton of the building slowly coming to life.

As time moved on, these construction workers were joined by electricians, water pipers, window installers etc. etc. (the list goes on). When I saw Marcus next, I asked him what he thought this meant. He replied, “Great things can not be created alone. You must learn to enroll other people around you to support your vision and growth. In order to do this, you need to learn how to lose the pride which can self-sabotage your potential. The ego wants to make everything about itself to keep it safe and serve its own intentions. Little does the ego know, that same mentality is keeping it stunted and applying pressure that it can’t always handle. As a result, the opportunities it has are delayed until the ego learns to ask for help when it truly needs it.

Yet again another profound statement. “This man is good’ I thought. For someone like me, I had grown accustomed to doing things on my own. After losing my mom in 2011, I learned how to be self-reliant in order to support the things I felt I needed to survive. After much grit, I was finally able to position myself in a way that made me fairly successful for someone my age. “A 24-year-old black boy from Chicago, making it on his own” was a fantasy I idolized. Little did I know the same mentality was also keeping me stuck during these difficult times of financial instability, emotional duress and uncertainty.

I had to do something I thought was very difficult for me at the time; I had to learn to ask for help. I perceived asking for help as weakness and the loss of power. I avoided the feelings of “owing someone” or being “indebted” by someone else’s generosity. So rather than ask, I’d try and find alternative ways to get what I needed. Usually this resulted in actions that were outside of my integrity that I’d justify and defend myself from feeling ashamed.

Little by little, I peeled back these unfamiliar sides of me. The more I attempted the more I started to understand. To my surprise, many of the people I had asked for help were happily receptive to my requests and offered up their assistance wherever they could. This alone brought me so much joy and acknowledgement by simply being accepted during these vulnerable moments.

And just like that high-rise building, I grew. But rather than marvel at the external building of my character, I was amazed by the people who helped build me up; my construction workers. It was this self-less process of discovery, and collaboration that brought my year to completion.

Today, I remember those people as I continue to down my journey knowing that my high-rise is still yet to be complete. I am still digging, still building, still collaborating. But most importantly, I'm showing up daily, ready to work.

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