Skills and Humility

Steve Maxwell
Steve Maxwell

There’s something about skill that always impresses me, especially natural-born skill. I always feel a tingle of the divine when I come across a person who can just do something astonishingly well, without much practice or training. A young lady I was painting beside this spring offered a case in point. Though she’d never painted before in her life, she had her heart set on tackling one of the hardest painting challenges around.

The job involved applying a pickled white finish to the underside of exposed wooden ceiling boards. This ceiling also had wooden beams every two feet, and the pickling detail needed to stay on the ceiling boards only. The rough beams had to stay paint-free.

The job took some trial and error on my part to figure out, but I eventually settled on a process for her: dilute white latex paint 15 per cent with water; mask sides of beams where they meet ceiling boards to keep paint off while wiping; brush paint over a small area; wipe off excess; continue until that section of ceiling was done.

As I was showing this woman how to do all this, I realized the situation was a minefield of potential problems. She probably shouldn’t even attempt it. The wiping stain was thin and drip- prone; the surface was overhead; the beams were rough and eager to hold onto drips, spatters and runs if they extended beyond the masking tape. On top of all this was the ever-present risk of inconsistent wiping and a mottled and ugly result. The work was also slow and boring enough to test the patience of Gandhi.

I turned over the paint pot, brush and wad of shop towels to my young student without much hope. Working elsewhere for a couple of hours, I came back to see a stunning pickled effect applied to a substantial part of the ceiling. No drips, no mistakes, no inconsistencies. Her clothes were clean and there was a lot more progress than I expected. It was a divine tingle moment, and that always gets me thinking.

We tradespeople are prone to a type of pride that ordinary people never know. We’re often in danger of thinking that our skills are entirely our own, and that we’ve pulled ourselves into competency entirely by our bootstraps. I’m not so sure. While we can be proud of the time and effort we put into getting better at what we do, isn’t it also true that we really can’t take credit for the biggest part of our skills, the part that’s there from the start? Perhaps this is why the best tradespeople I know are just as skilled at humility as they are at their work.

Steve Maxwell

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