Remember the Stonecutter’s Credo

The Stonecutter’s Credo is both an allegory for persistence and a caution about false attribution:

Remember the stonecutter's credo

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

— Jacob Riis

Most people focus on the persistence angle and evangelize the mantra of “never give up”. It seems like you’re making no progress but the next blow of the hammer might be the one that breaks the rock. As popularized by the book Grit, high achievers have the combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.

The Stonecutter’s Credo frequently shows up in sports. American football teams often use the strategy of “pounding the rock” (aka running the football up the middle) to wear down the opposition in hopes for a breakthrough play later in the game. The basketball San Antonio Spurs even posted the quote in their locker room and credited it for inspiration when they won their 5th title.

And yet it’s not that simple. Other research has shown that creating repeatable habits is more likely to lead to success than just pursuing goals. This is especially true for routine every-day pounding-the-rock type tasks like losing weight, saving money, exercising, or even blogging more regularly.

The stonecutter credo also reminds us that it’s not really appropriate to give credit to the last blow for cracking the rock. Despite breathless articles, tech companies aren’t overnight successes but rather the result of years of investment. Similarly, last-touch attribution, the common marketing model which gives the conversion credit entirely to the final touchpoint where a lead has converted from, is misleading and often simply inaccurate.

Jacob Riis himself is a testament to the stonecutter’s credo. In the late 1800’s, while a police reporter for the New York Tribune, Riis worked in the worst NYC slums and, as a result, became an early activist journalist advocating for reform. His articles were little noticed until the invention of flash photography which brought his words to life. Riis continued to lecture, write articles, and publish photos year after year until finally he broke through with the book “How the Other Half Lives.” After the book was published, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York.”

Remember the Stonecutter’s Credo whenever you aren’t making progress towards something you want to achieve despite pounding the rock over and over again.

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One Response to Remember the Stonecutter’s Credo

  1. George Eberstadt December 4, 2022 at 2:19 pm #

    Nice! Also: Most of the time you sow, and every now and then you reap. It feels like progress when you reap and not so much when you sow. Reaping is definitely more fun. But without the sowing, there is no reaping.

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