Building the Foundation for a Calling
"Most of what I teach about management I learned from building houses," says Andrew Hoffman, author of the new book Builder's Apprentice.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In 1986 Andrew Hoffman quit an engineering job, declined acceptances for graduate school at Harvard and Berkeley, and accepted a carpenter's job in Nantucket. Unbeknownst to him, he had entered the world of high-end custom building. Hoffman's new book, Builder's Apprentice, chronicles his personal and professional growth during the journey from apprentice to builder. He says these experiences have formed the foundation for his teaching and management career on many levels.
"Most of what I teach about management, I learned from building houses," says Hoffman, associate professor of management and organizations and associate director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at Ross. "I go back to the well of these experiences often as I now teach management to eager young MBAs. In fact, without these experiences, I cannot imagine being the same teacher I am today. The PhD I earned helped me to put a language and structure to my lessons, but the real world experience gives me the legitimacy and authority to lecture to others about it."
Hoffman says his goal in writing the book was, first and foremost, to describe how uniquely high-end homes are built for select clients and to give readers a glimpse into the lives of blue-collar workers, architects, engineers, and clients. But he says he also wrote the book as a coming-of-age story and a celebration of the pursuit of creative impulses.
"I wanted to create a story that would inspire others to pursue their own dreams," says Hoffman. "As a professor, I see young people struggling with the desire to have more than a career; a desire to have their work be what really makes them passionate; a desire to have a 'calling.'"
He says he hopes this book will inspire people to defy the rules and find a personal direction for life guided by their passions. In the following excerpts from Builder's Apprentice, Hoffman writes about his road to becoming a builder and how his career became his calling.
Visit the Builder's Apprentice Website.
[Page ix] When I was 26, I fell in love. The object of my affection was not a woman, but a house, an extraordinary house that sits atop a gently sloping hill along a rural highway in southwestern Connecticut. It is a house that distracts drivers into averting their eyes from the road as they navigate the oncoming bend; a house that that lures guests to explore its many facets when invited inside; and a house that most builders would give their eye-teeth to have the chance to build, many waiting a life time for such a contract, and most never attaining it. That is why I was in love. Twenty years ago, I was the builder of that extraordinary house.
That love affair continues today. The house enchants me each time I see it. But it is not just the house itself that draws me. It is my intimate connection with it. When I look at the house, I see what everyone else sees, but I know much more, what people can't see. I know every leg of its structure and every square inch of its surfaces. I see both the beauty of the craftsmanship and recall the tradesmen that added their own particular skill to create it. I see the history of how it came to be; the plans as they were originally drawn, the alternatives that were considered, the changes that were made and the obstacles that had to be overcome. I see the anguished decisions of the clients and feel the frustration of helping them through that anguish. The memories pour over me each time I walk through its halls, rooms, porches, gardens, basements and attics; memories that present and future owners will never have.
This was the first of a series of houses that I can claim as my accomplishments as a builder, each one larger and more complex than the last. These were no ordinary homes. They were mansions, estates, whatever word you choose to define something so rare. They were on a scale and level of detail I had never imagined before. They ranged in size from five thousand square feet to almost thirty thousand, the latter able to swallow up the house of my youth more than ten times over. They sat on lots that ranged from two acres to nearly two hundred. They were custom-designed to the finest detail and to the owner's particular desires and tastes. Whatever the owner wanted, that was what the owner got. These homes were the standing product of what the owner wished, translated through architects and engineers and made real by the builder; me.
But what is most extraordinary about these accomplishments is not just that I was the builder, but that just two years prior, I had no credentials to claim such a title; that is, save one. I had a passionate and overwhelming belief that I had found my calling as a builder. I believed that this was what I was meant to be doing, and I threw myself into it completely. I quit everything that had been my short life thus far — a college degree, a suit and tie, an engineering job, graduate school acceptances, a close circle of friends — and set out on a new path, one that, for the first time, I had chosen for myself.
[Page 242] [After building three houses], I began to see more clearly how my role on the job had evolved from what it had once been. Or more accurately, how I had evolved. I began to see that my task was not to build the house, per se. It was to manage the many relationships that made the building process proceed. Just as I had begun to gain greater clarity on my relationship with Jack, I could see that I was learning how to manage relationships in order to do my job. In fact, it was this more than anything else that helped me conquer my fear of this project. I didn't know how to do everything in building this house. But I did know how to talk to people. I realized that it was through me that all of the people involved in making the Shaw house a reality could communicate with each other. With equal clarity I could talk to and understand the distinct wants, needs and languages of the multi-millionaire owner, professional architect, carpenter, plumber, mason or laborer. I was the binding thread in this intricate web of relationships, and beyond my relationship with Jack, I parsed my energies in four primary directions: the crew, the owners, the architects and the subcontractors.
[Page 324] What I learned most from building houses was that, in the end, for my career to be calling, it will not be what I designed, but will be the collective of what I experienced. It will not be aimed towards a fixed end of stability and certainty, but a continuous pursuit of growth and awareness. That growth will not be for others to critique and review but for me to judge and deem satisfactory. I now know that my very first decision to become a carpenter in Nantucket was but the first step in a journey I did not know I was taking. And that is what makes it so wonderful. For all its seeming irrationality, it was my announcement to myself and to others that my life was my own. Jack helped me to see that.
When I started this journey, I merely wanted to be a carpenter. But I surpassed my wildest dreams and became a builder, a distinction I did not even know existed when I started. And this realization led me to one overriding and inescapable truth, that a life well lived must be a creative endeavor. Whatever form that creativity takes — whether it's carpentry, building, teaching, raising a family, or writing a book — the challenge of looking within ourselves to find that creative element makes us who we are. But chances are, if we are genuinely open to the possibilities of a calling, we will find that that satisfaction will come from someplace far different from where we expected to find it.
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