Cornerstones and Capstones

My favorite dichotomy and why 2021 is the time to rebuild

The distinction between cornerstones and capstones, both in architecture and in analogy, has become one of my favorite dichotomies.

cor·ner·stone
/ˈkôrnərˌstōn/

  1. the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation

  2. an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based

cap·stone
/ˈkapˌstōn/

  1. a stone at the top of a wall or building

  2. someone's greatest achievement or the greatest part of something

Historically, the cornerstone was the first stone set in place during the building process. The cornerstone sets direction and orients everything else that is built around it; without proper alignment of the cornerstone, the rest of the construction is shaky.

Cornerstones are foundational pieces that often shy away from the limelight — a mindfulness routine, a prioritization system, a proclivity for gratitude.

Conversely, a capstone is a finishing stone that sits on top of an architectural feature. It’s typically the last piece placed during construction and literally “caps off” the building process.

Capstones are crowning achievements that we’d eagerly place on our digital highlight reels — a degree, a promotion, a home purchase.

Whether it’s admission to a prestigious school or a prized job offer, I’ve pursued capstones, often myopically, for 20 some-odd years of my life. I focused on collecting culminating accolades and tried to leveraged them as a shaky foundation for my identity.

Only over the past couple years have I actively focused on reframing life through the pursuit of cornerstones rather than capstones. Professionally, I’ve seen how booking a blowout quarter is preceded by investment in an unsexy core of backend data pipelines and efficient sales processes. And personally, I’ve seen how doubling down on habits and systems that generate marginal progress sets you up for far more impactful accomplishments later down the line than continuously chasing the next big thing.

In 2021, I’m challenging myself to think more critically about my pursuits through this framing. Is it an end in itself, a gleaming trophy? Or is it a means to an end, an unpolished building block? If 2020 was the time to build, 2021 is the time to lay foundations and rebuild.


There’s a lot wrapped up in this idea that I intend to unpack through future newsletters. And rest assured that I intend on leaving no stone unturned. Thanks for reading my first newsletter of 2021 and bearing with my puns — you rock!