A Builders’ Lesson – A Poem by John Boyle O’Reilly

A Builders' Lesson - A Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly
This entry is part [part not set] of 15 in the series Poetry and Management

This poem was first published in 1891 by Irish poet John Boyle O’Reilly, and is often cited for its description of habits, and how easy it is to get dragged by bad habits across one’s life.

This is the tenth contribution to my Poetry & Management collectionPoetry has always been one of my favorite forms of expressions, probably one of the eclectic sides of my multipotentialite trait. I feel it can be really useful as support in our management and leadership quests, as it is probably one of the greatest tools of sense-making and self-expression. Which is why I will be sharing more of these over time.

A Builders’ Lesson

‘HOW shall I a habit break?’
As you did that habit make. 
As you gathered, you must lose; 
As you yielded, now refuse. 
Thread by thread the strands we twist 
Till they bind us neck and wrist; 
Thread by thread the patient hand 
Must untwine ere free we stand. 
As we builded, stone by stone, 
We must toil unhelped, alone, 
Till the wall is overthrown.

But remember, as we try, 
Lighter every test goes by; 
Wading in, the stream grows deep 
Toward the center’s downward sweep; 
Backward turn, each step ashore 
Shallower is than that before. 

Ah, the precious years we waste 
Leveling what we raised in haste;
Doing what must be undone
Ere content or love be won!
First across the gulf we cast
Kite-borne threads, till lines are passed,
And habit builds the bridge at last! 

John Boyle O’Reilly

Source: Selected Poems, 1913

A Short Comment

Breaking Bad Habits is the main concept expressed in this short poetry, which calls for how difficult it is to un-bundle and undo habits created over time. Because bad habits get formed unnoticed, yet are built as a result of an effort, “stone by stone“. We must untwine to be freed by the negative influence of such habits, till they bind us neck and wrist. Break bad habits or they will break you is an often mentioned saying, the very well captures the meaning of this poetry.

What is needed is a process of undoing, unlearning, rebuilding from scratch, doing what must be undone. An important lesson as we address any moment where change is needed. Undoing past behaviors is the most important step of any change process, and the most difficult one. Yet is necessary, to start building the habits that can bridge us to the future selves we want to be. An important lesson, perfectly explained in these few lines of poetry.

What do you think of this poem? Write a Comment below.

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Cover Image: An archive photo of John Boyle O’Reilly at work in Boston

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