In the 1970s, there was an electrician in Philadelphia. The man’s job was to install freezing cases in supermarkets. You know, the long aisles with glass doors where you pick up your milk and frozen pizza. To set up his own little workshop, the man bought an old bakery.
One summer, he decided to rebuild the front wall. It was made of bricks, about 16 feet high, and 30 feet long. After he had torn down the old façade, he called his two sons to the site. They were twelve and nine years old. He told them they were now in charge of building a new wall.
The boys’ first task was to dig a six-foot hole for the foundation. Then, they filled it with concrete, which they had to mix by hand. Clearly, this wasn’t just a job for the summer holidays. For the next year and a half, every day after school, the boys went to their father’s shop to build the wall. To the young brothers, it felt like forever. But eventually, they laid the final brick.
When their dad came to audit what they had done, the three of them stood back and looked at the result. There it was. A brand new, magnificent, 16 by 30 feet wall. The man looked at his sons and said, “Don’t y’all never tell me that you can’t do something” — and then he walked into the shop.
The electrician’s name was Willard Carrol Smith. It’s the same name he gave his oldest son, the 12-year-old in the story. Today, we know him as Will Smith.
“Brick by Brick,” as we might call it, is a story about the value of hard work. It’s also a story about what it takes to sustain hard work in the first place. When Will told it on Charlie Rose in 2002, he said it affects how he works to this day:
I think, psychologically, the advantage that that gives me over a lot of people that I’ve been in competition with in different situations is: It’s difficult to take the first step when you look at how big the task is. The task is never huge to me. It’s always one brick.
Is single-mindedness a competitive advantage? Probably. But in a world of abundance with enough room for millions of creatives, entrepreneurs, and entertainers, it pales in comparison to the ability to win the fight with who you’re really up against: yourself.
The market won’t stop you. Fear will stop you. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being feared and fear of fear itself. Fear will concoct all kinds of convenient, well-disguised symptoms, like boredom, laziness, and purely psychological fatigue. Those are the real enemies you’re up against. A set of abstract concepts in your head.
Just for second, imagine it was gone. Remove all fear from your mind, and what can’t you do? Barring physical limitations, I can think of few things. I guarantee you Will can’t either. Rapper, TV actor, Youtuber, Hollywood superstar — his many labels defy our expectations of what one person can do.
The way Will built this long list of achievements is one goal, one wall, one brick at a time — because when all you do is lay one brick, fear won’t bother trying to get to you. That’s exactly what Will’s been doing all these years:
You don’t try to build a wall. You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say, “I’m gonna build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. You don’t start there. You say, “I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. There will not be one brick on the face of the earth that’s gonna be laid better than this brick that I’m gonna lay in these next 10 minutes.” You do that every single day, and soon, you have a wall.
When I first started writing, I wanted to cover one topic in depth so people could come to know me for it. I chose productivity. It made perfect sense. I would learn how to write more and better while teaching people something they’re already interested in.
In the course of writing a 5-post series spanning some 15,000 words, I came across every productivity book and system you can imagine. Getting Things Done, The One Thing, Deep Work, Essentialism, Eat That Frog, you name it, I’ve seen it.
What I realized was that all these systems work — but only if you stick to them. Therefore, if a system was hard to stick to, it would be hard to make it work. That’s why the system I ultimately designed for myself and tried to teach people was mostly designed to be easy to stick to — and that’s why it greatly resembles the above story about the wall.
I used a set of questions to figure out the ONE goal — yes, just one — that mattered most to me. Then, I broke it down into little chunks, and from those chunks I derived a set of small tasks I could work on each day. These small tasks were the bricks.
With those bricks neatly lined up, I then optimized my routine for good nights, good mornings, and minimal distractions so I could actually “lay [each] brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid,” to quote Will again.
It’s been four years since I came up with my system, and my routines have changed countless times thereafter, but, at its core, the same idea remains:
Whatever goal I choose to go after, I build that thing brick by brick.
I’d like to think I can credit at least some of the millions of words I’ve written and some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have come my way to that system. I suggest you give it a go.
What’s your biggest goal? Can you imagine it? See yourself clearly as you hold the result in your hands? If not, think hard until you can. This is the first trap you might fall into: Thinking you can build more than one wall at a time.
Once you’ve settled on one, the only one that matters, don’t get lost in the mental image of the wall. It becomes daunting really fast. Instead, tear that fantasy down. Scrap it. Until there’s nothing left but a six-foot hole in the ground. Good. Now you can build your foundation.
The next trap that stunts wall-builders is choosing bricks that are too big. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. My first goal was to write 250 words a day. Often, I ended up writing 1,000. For you, maybe it should be to write one sentence. To send one email. To run half a mile. The task can never be huge to you. It always has to be one brick.
Finally, remember that it’s normal to feel like building your wall will take forever. Imagine how it must have felt for two pre-teen boys to work on one project for one and a half years. That’s more than 10% of their whole lives up to that point. In fact, Will remembers “standing back, looking at that wall, saying, ‘There’s going to be a hole here forever. There will never be anything but a hole here.’” Of course, eventually, there was.
That’s the final and worst mistake many people make in their quest to accomplish their dreams: they stop laying bricks. They have everything they need. The foundation. The vision. The right size for each block. And then they stop. Because they get tired. Or forget. But it’s just self-sabotage. Fear. Again.
If you have no idea whether your next brick could be the final one, then please, I implore you, keep going. Soon enough, you’ll be standing in front of a magnificent wall. Not because anyone told you to build it, but because you chose to. Just like you chose to send yourself a message — the same message a Philadelphia electrician once imparted to his two little boys:
“Never tell me that you can’t do something.”