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What is Cathedral Thinking?

The creators of places like the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris knew they would never see their work completed in their lifetimes.
Leonardo Da Vinci conceptualized the idea of people being able to fly 400 years before the Wright brothers.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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The term cathedral thinking arises from people looking back at the way cathedrals were built in the Middle Ages. Those who envisioned just what Notre Dame or Chartes Cathedral would look like when completed made plans that they would never see completed. Early workers on cathedrals worked toward a common purpose of building something lasting and strikingly beautiful, and were contributing to a vision of the future, but once again were not likely to ever see that vision come to fruition. Instead the planners and early builders of these magnificent buildings looked far ahead, knowing they were building something amazing, and also being aware that creating these buildings would take several generations of work.

The idea of cathedral thinking has been applied to a number of different fields. Some look at most successful religions as having been started by those who had an ideal or vision of how that religion would succeed long after they were gone. People who first explored new countries may have looked toward the development of those countries far into the future. Explorers of space aren’t just there to look at a specific object, but also to further the vision that we may someday travel, and perhaps colonize other planets. Even a family may employ cathedral thinking by considering how actions in the present will affect generations to come, and certainly city planners, environmentalists, and many other groups aren’t planning just for today, but for many years from today.

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In the business world, embracing cathedral thinking often means constructing a vision statement. The vision of the company is not a statement of its immediate goals, but rather a very long-term goal and an idealist view of how that company will operate in five, ten, twenty or even fifty years. Such vision statements inspire people to aim for something that they can’t quite reach, at least not immediately, but that they should always be working toward.

Cathedral thinking in business isn’t necessarily as big, massive or generational as its initial construct in medieval society. A vision statement might only chart the course of a company for a decade. Yet the early actions of the company should be viewed as the “laying of stones” or the foundation for this vision.

People can use cathedral thinking when plotting the course of their own lives, the lives of their children, or their financial well being when they retire. You can even help children, who are often terrific at cathedral thinking, learn how small steps today move them closer to their vision of the future. Of course, the future is an unpredictable and murky place. As much as you may have a big picture in mind, circumstances in your life may not always permit you to move in the eventual direction you want. No doubt cathedral builders encountered problems on the way too, sudden storms, failure of material, and setbacks of every kind.

However when you construct a vision statement, and whatever that statement is for, you or a company must continually ask, “How are the actions of today advancing me toward that vision?” If your answers suggest that your actions today are not striving to achieve an ideal, then there is time for course correction or time for replotting. You can also assess whether your vision is reasonable or needs to be rethought.

Humans are fantastic in their ability to dream, to plan ahead, and to look toward the future. Think of Leonardo Da Vinci conceptualizing the idea of humans being able to fly a full 400 years before the Wright brothers realized Da Vinci’s dream. Yet we often get mired in the small details of today that keep us from the “Big Ideas,” and reaching for the ideas we want. We settle for what is, and think we cannot change the future. Cathedral thinking flies in the face of the small distractions of today and posits that we can indeed dream big, and by small actions today, advance ourselves toward amazing goals and achievements.

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