They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Stonehenge wasn’t, either. And for some reason, that surprised me.
I don’t know about you, but I always assumed Stonehenge was just... built. Wham-bam, fully conceived in its form and function, then just put together and left to sit for all eternity. That’s how we often view brilliant creations, whether they’re companies, ideas, or enduring monuments. All we see is the final product, so we assume its creators had a grand plan from the start.
But then I listened to a fascinating episode of the podcast Tides of History, which detailed the evolution of Stonehenge over multiple phases and thousands of years.
As it turns out, Stonehenge did not just get built. It started small, then it got larger, then it finally took on the form we know. And although today Stonehenge is basically a giant rock construction in the middle of open fields, back then it was part of a much larger ecosystem of structures where people lived, feasted, and traveled to visit — and throughout that time, it was always a work in progress. The way people used it kept changing.
When I heard this, I thought: Of course.
Great things don’t just spring out of the ground fully formed. That’s not a realistic understanding of how anything is created. World-changing concepts are grown — in a variety of climates, no less, each of which exerts new pressures that shape the thing as it’s developing.
This is a helpful reminder for those of us who build things. Rather than pressure ourselves to come up with something fully baked, it is much more realistic to build in stages, adapting to the world as it moves.
Just like one of the greatest, most enduring marvels of the world.
DID YOU KNOW:
The site where Stonehenge sits was developed over the course of about 1,500 years, in five distinct stages, starting around 3,000 BC? Here’s what it may have looked like in the beginning, via Evan Evans tours:
Structures like Stonehenge were actually very common and familiar back then. There were lots of henges! In fact, it turns out there was basically a second Stonehenge nearby, but it was made out of wood so it didn't survive the passage of time. Here’s a reconstruction:
And that wasn’t all: Surrounding the henges was a vast landscape of even more stones, burials, ditches, banks, and land features.
There was a period of about 500 years when Stonehenge remained largely untouched after its initial stages of construction. Then suddenly, around 2,500 B.C., the ‘bluestones’ — the smaller stones we now see at the perimeter — started to arrive. But they were initially placed in the center, and were moved later on.
Those big stones we associate with Stonehenge now didn’t arrive until ANOTHER 500 YEARS later.
The Neolithic culture that originally built the structure died out. Then another culture (the people of the Bronze Age!) found it and started using it for their own purposes. Both cultures seemed to regard Stonehenge as a place to honor the dead: Cremated human remains live in little ditches around the perimeter of the henge as it currently stands.
This (very abridged) timeline really helps you see Stonehenge in a different light: It was a progressive project.
We have a lot of these in our day-to-day lives — and, lucky us, we get to watch them develop at hyper speed (at least, relative to the Stonehenge timeline).
Take Airbnb. Nobody just came up with that concept; it evolved along with a changing social structure. The short, sloppy version: The 2008 recession drove a radical change in the way people thought of property, and that led to an exploration of how people can make money off things they already have. That in turn inspired entrepreneurs to start thinking differently about industries that seemed to operate under consistent rules, and that is what led to Airbnb — or at least, the initial concept of it. A lot of iteration followed.
Now apply that to everything. Imagine all the things that had to change — both in the world and inside a company — for radical new ideas like Venmo, Spotify, or Lime scooters to exist. All of which is to say, if you want to understand something, you can't just look at the thing itself. Look at everything around the thing and everything that came before it, because things — buildings, companies, mysterious prayer sites — do not just arise in a vacuum. They develop in response to other things. They take time.
They work because they’ve been refined.
If you want to build something amazing, let this take some pressure off. You don’t have to know the final form of the thing you’re building. Start with the now; work towards the later. Remember, those big, iconic stones only arrived at the very end.
🕵🏻♀️ Want more lessons to help you change? Check the archive.
💌 What do you think? Let me know!
💬 Got something to share? Leave a comment! I always respond.
🎧 Latest podcast: Why you should be excited for sex robots.
Cover credit: Getty Images / Peter Adams