Andrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.
It began innocently enough. My wife and I bought a fixer-upper—a cool, though neglected, ’60s suburban gem—and drew up plans with an architect for a “little remodeling project” that we would do, ourselves, to “save money.”
You can probably guess where this is going. And if you’ve been there, you also won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Several months later, I was staring at our back yard—from my vantage point on the front sidewalk, through the giant crater in the middle of our house. This was a view no one was ever supposed to see and that was now haunting me day and night. By that point, we had nearly leveled the house, ripping off the roof and even pouring new concrete footings and foundation walls.
My headache-du-jour was the entryway that we were supposed to build in place of the crater. This entryway would be a prominent design feature on the never-ending construction project that was now infamous throughout the neighborhood. More importantly, it would be the barrier to prevent passersby from walking their dogs in my dining room. True story.
But there was a problem: I had no idea what to do or even where to start. I felt hopeless. It wasn’t just the frustration of the moment; it was the accumulation of weeks and weeks of stress. Not only could I not make heads or tails of the architectural schematics, I didn’t have the carpentry know-how to cut, treat, and install the planks of tongue-and-groove cedar that were stacked in my driveway, mocking me.
Fortunately, my father arrived on the scene before I could find a stick or two of dynamite. An experienced builder and cheerful worker, he helped me break the task of building the entryway into bite-sized pieces. First we overlaid measurements on the underlying structure to make sure our work was plumb and square; then he showed me how to make mitered joints and cuts using a variety of saws; then we started applying timber oil to the cedar. Of course, I was overthinking each step and agonizing over my mistakes. But the act of doing, the deliberate repetition of small steps, gradually built my confidence and competence.
Before long, the entryway took shape—and our local dog-walkers had to choose new routes.
So my father won on two accounts. First, he showed up, and it’s hard to overstate how much I appreciated that help. Second, he sensed that I was anxious about my lack of ability rather than simply unmotivated, and he provided help in the form of unhurried coaching and teaching. Rather than delivering a pep talk, he helped me learn how to do what needed to be done, which in turn freed me from my feelings of frustration and despair.
How does this homebuilding homily relate to your work and mine? Consider it a warning about a kind of thinking that can sabotage our work: when we see someone who isn’t doing the right thing at the right time, it’s convenient—but often dead wrong—to make assumptions about that person’s lack of motivation.
For instance, in Influencer Institute’s work to accelerate the successes of microenterprise organizations, we’ve learned that it’s folly to assume that poor people are simply lazy. Instead, we’ve learned that they very often lack skills related to personal management, which they can develop through coaching and practice. Your conclusions about yourself and others can be no better than your assumptions, so train yourself to look for hidden skill gaps that underlie what appear to be maligned motives.
Reflecting on my ongoing renovation saga, what’s most interesting to me is that when it came time to build the rear entryway to my house (very similar to the front), I jumped right in and built it without hesitation, indigestion, or help.
Moral of the story? Never trust the architect.