Are You Being Observant Enough (And Why It Matters)

7976865746_d1ef1493bb_k Paul Wareham is a contractor and owns Custom Dry Wall and Painting. He is a man passionate about paint and meticulous in his work. After over 20 years in the business, he is highly skilled at what he does, a true master. His passion comes out in every stroke of his paint brush. Watching him work, you can almost hear the wheels constantly in motion as he assesses how the paint is covering, how it is drying, how it flowing.

“I picked up a paint brush the summer I was 12.” Later he signed up with a contractor and began doing dry wall and dabbling with paint. He learned the field through watching and experimenting, watching and experimenting. His mentor would assess his work only after it was finished and give him feedback on how to do it better the next time. But he said, “I always observed the methods of others to figure out how to match or even exceed the skill level I was observing. I value doing things well.”

Today, some of his fresh knowledge comes from magazines, marketing materials, talking with other contractors, and sometimes a sales rep. There are basic tools and products which do not change, but there are also advances that are important. As we talked, he began telling me about the products and the tools, stopped for a moment, and realized himself how very many products and tools it takes to do the work. “Sometimes it takes a long time to pack up after a job. It’s those times that I think about how much there is to what I do. But then I remember what a friend of mine says – when you’re good, you can use a piece of cardboard.” He laughs as he says this.

“Observation is paramount in my learning process,” says Paul. But Paul is not talking about watching others here. He is talking about watching how the paint goes on the wall, how it dries, even how it smells! “I can smell the paint once I crack the lid. I immediately know that the product will be nice, crap, or really great. Then I watch how the brush interacts as I dip it into the paint.” Everything is part of a continuous learning process. Every job requires a fresh look because the combination of products with the specific environment is unique. Talk about constantly having to bring in fresh knowledge!

When I asked my usual question about what three wishes Paul would want, he gave me the most straightforward response. “First, when a new product comes out, I want someone to give me some and ask me to try it. Second, I want to be paid to learn – in fact, that’s part of the beauty of being a contractor, because I can observe as I try and learn as I work.”

Paul’s entire approach reminded me of the wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work by Matthew Crawford. Crawford writes, “Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility. I believe this is especially so of the stochastic arts that fix things, such as doctoring and wrenching [and painting], in which we are not the makers of the things we tend… If we fail to respond appropriately to the authoritative realities, we remain idiots. If we succeed, we experience the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision, and the growing sense that our actions are fitting… Our vision is improved by acting, as this brings any defect in our perception to vivid awareness.” (page 100)

Observation – what a joy to work in an area that allows evidence to the eye. Paul understands this even as he ‘cracks the lid of the can.’ In Riding the Current, I talk about the value of observation even when it is not immediately evident to the eye. The best of those I meet and work with are those who take the time to ‘observe’ their own actions and the resultant behaviors and reactions of others. The evidence is harder to see than the paint on the wall, but if you keep at it, the observation becomes easier along with the fresh insights.

Photo by Juliana Pinto