Becoming the Third Bricklayer: Lessons in Cognitive Appraisal

forces of habit lessons in cognitive appraisal

Becoming the Third Bricklayer: Lessons in Cognitive Appraisal


Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?”

The first says, “I am laying bricks.”

The second says, “I am building a church.”

The third says, “I am building the house of God.”

The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling


What about the three bricklayers is so different?

How can each of them have such varying perspectives on what is happening?

Why can’t we all be the third bricklayer?

It’s all a matter of intention.

The Bricklayer parable highlights how even the most mundane tasks can mean the most profound of things. Modern psychoanalysis has discovered that how we think about changing our lives is fluid—no one has to live a meaningless life, we can use the lessons from cognitive appraisal to become the third bricklayer.

But how? Can a situation really be anything but what I see? And if it were really possible to change how would I?

Below you’ll find the answers to those questions and much more. Creating an intentional life isn’t easy. My hopes are that below you’ll find what you need to start becoming more aware of the various ways our interpretation can be altered, and in turn use that information to modify how you present your life to yourself—together we can become the third bricklayer. Let’s get started.

What is Cognitive Appraisal?

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. –Viktor Frankl

Cognitive appraisal is the personal interpretation of a situation; it is how an individual views a situation. Appraisals refer to direct, immediate, and intuitive evaluations made on the environment in reference to personal well-being.”

Our mechanisms for appraisal are powerful tools that provide a window into how each of us subjectively experiences life situations. They are strongly correlated with our emotional states, and are seemingly automatic—we will work on that soon enough.

To use the parable as an example, each bricklayer has made an evaluation of the situation given what he or she knows. Yet through the changeable perceptions of the circumstance, each yields distinct outlooks—they have different cognitive appraisals.

So it seems that though nothing externally has really changed, it is as Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl said, our attitudes that shape what we perceive. But perhaps the parable isn’t a good enough example.

Real World Examples of Appraisal

Let me give you a personal example,

I work at a warehouse full time for 12-hour shifts on the weekends. Under some circumstances, standing for 11 hours a day, doing the same task can be considered mundane, mind-numbing, or perhaps even slave work.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Now consider the following appraisal to my situation as I perceive it:

Where I work we pack food that helps people lose weight.

I took this simple detail and transformed my job into a profoundly meaningful duty.

I’m not the guy who just packs boxes all day. I am the guy who with each box is potentially combating the obesity epidemic in our country. Each and every box of food we ship out has the potential to make the difference in changing someone’s habits. Some people have not learned how to control their eating habits which have led to years of poor choices. I have been given another opportunity to live by my life creed; this packing job is part of fulling my greatest self.

I’m part of changing someone’s habits for the better—I have a calling.

Notice how quite different my warehouse job now seems, Each day I am excited to go and work because I know how much this means to someone else, and I have made it mean something to me by reappraising a normal job to fit my personal model of living.

If you think that what you’re experiencing is somehow worse, and therefore it’s not possible to change your situation. Let me give you a more extreme case.

Psychotherapist Dr. Viktor Frankel was captured and imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp during some of the most brutal periods of mass genocide during the Second World War. Professor Frankel endured a time when you were more blatantly likely to die at any given moment for no specific reason you could ever rationalize—consciously aware of his mortality with little ways to guard it. Many inmates found it hard to see existence as anything but meaningless, hopeless, and disparaging.

Yet Frankl found purpose. Frankl wanted to rewrite his manuscript that he believed to be a solution to mental health issues of his time. He immersed himself in his calling. Any situation he encountered became another mechanism to share his insights about how we could all live through anything just as long as we own had a why.

He recounts, “When in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.”

Appraisal Matters.

Given the examples you how much our appraisal really changes what we are experiencing. The situation is only a small matter in comparison to our appraisal. But how can you start recognizing these opportunities for reappraisal in your own life?

For a more in-depth look at Vitor Frankl's experience, go check out A Man's Search For Meaning.

Questions for Guiding Cognitive Appraisals

These questions cover the various degrees that a situation could be interpreted. Each question gauges the common determinants for how humans tend to appraise their lives. By asking yourself these questions, you can start reappraising situations in your life towards your calling.

Is it this situation pleasant?

When a situation presents something we desire, we automatically evaluate it in view of that. Before we can even cognitively deliberate what is happening, our prior happenstances have already created an evaluation model. We have to start asking ourselves what that appraisal is to access its usefulness. Pleasant or unpleasant, what matters is that we have noted what our immediate reaction was as a reference for what it can become.

How much attention does the situation call for?

An easy way to interpret a situation is to weight its impact on your attention. Is it something that requires your undivided attention? Are you able to ignore it? Or perhaps it is something that you can avoid having any attention on whatsoever. We need to understand the toll of attention a situation takes on our lives to access whether this is a matter even worth redirecting.

How certain am I about what is happening?

When we feel certain, we feel at ease. Part of changing our interpretation is finding a level of certainty amongst the waves of uncertainty. Questioning the unpredictability of what is happening provides insight as to why we may be focusing the level of attention we are on the situation. Part of the reason something may feel as though it is ruling your life—taking up all your attention—is because of how certain you feel about the situation.

Are there obstacles in this situation? How much effort is involved?

Knowing the obstacles offer a measure for reinterpretation. If you’re like me, knowing situations have obstacles makes it very enticing because anything that presumably offers a challenge is a method of strengthening my being. Any complications in a situation that arise can become a means of reaching our personal calling. When we ask ourselves about how much effort this particular situation takes, we become aware of the level of attention we are giving an event. If a situation requires a lot of effort, it becomes more important to ensure our appraisal is oriented towards our calling.

What control do I have over the situation? Is this situation my responsibility? Do I deserve this situation?

The extent that you believe you have control over a situation in your life matters. When you are experiencing a situation that is controlled by external factors it seems as though nothing can be done. We need to know the basis for which a given situation is under our control. Once we start addressing only those things in our control, we can become more comfortable with what isn’t. Such awareness legitimizes the situation. It’s no longer just a situation you’re a part of, it is an event you are observing. Like an outsider looking in from a distance, asking these question putting you in a position to pinpointing exactly what’s responsible for what.

Be The Third Bricklayer

No matter the actual substance of the experience, you take only what is of pragmatic value. It’s important that you develop enough awareness of what actually is happening to remove yourself from what you think is happening. What you experience is fluid, and in no way have to be what you’re making out to be.

Our defining moments are exactly that; ours.

Part of intentional living is asking all the right questions, it’s my hope that I was able to provide you with some questions to change how you are presenting your life to yourself. It's only through asking these questions that I believe we each can orient our lives to always to focus on a calling—to become the third bricklayer.

My Motto: Today is the best day of my life

I treat every day as the best day of my life because no matter the praise, disappointment, obstacles, or success I know that I am doing everything that is in my control to live to the standards of my greatest self.

How? It all starts with my 5 habits. Find out more here.

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