A summer on a painting crew can impart valuable lessons about the nature of work. Photo via University of Notre Dame
I was a couple of weeks into my first summer job, working as a painter on the maintenance crew at my South Bend high school, when I managed to spill a bucket of paint in spectacularly bad fashion.
The day had started well enough. After some easier tasks the previous week — sanding, scraping, and painting lower-trafficked areas of the campus — I began working on an area outside a beautiful historic Studebaker mansion on the school’s grounds, painting the trim of the doors that opened from a ballroom to the courtyard outside.
I knew the day’s work would take extra care. I primed the wood meticulously, careful to avoid smudging white primer on the door’s glass and knowing full well that there would be an event here within a week, one where attendees would want to enjoy the view from this door.
Everything needs to look good, I thought. And so far, it does. Not bad for a new painter.
And that’s when it happened. I moved my ladder so I could start the next section, forgetting the mostly full bucket of paint I’d left perched atop it.
Paint splashed everywhere, covering much of the nearby glass. When I showed my supervisor what had happened, he just shook his head — undoubtedly using all of his strength to keep from laughing. I spent the next few days on cleanup duty, sopping up the wet paint with rags and later, once things had dried, using a scraper to chisel away the remaining evidence of my absent-minded mishap.
I don’t remember thinking about it too much at the time (other than scrambling to clean up the mess and get on with the next project), but looking back, I can see it was a good teaching moment. There’s a certain attention to detail that comes naturally when you take pride in your work, but neither the attention nor the pride comes easily in every job.
Take my example that summer. I had just finished an academically difficult year at my high school, where the core curriculum constantly pushed me. I hated math at the time, and I preferred the reading and writing that came with our humanities seminars. But in truth, it all pushed me past my comfort zone. That was good for me, of course, but in a weird way, it also wasn’t challenging. There was always something new to tackle, and it was either interesting or a problem to be solved and cleared off my plate. Ultimately, that combination of excitement and stress was stimulating — there was never a dull moment.
This summer job, on the other hand, was anything but stimulating. It was a way to make a few bucks, sure, and it was nice to be outside, but it could be tedious. The projects varied, but the routine that summer mostly stayed flat. I sanded away splinters and scraped away old clumps of paint, then put down a new coat. Sometimes it was a simple, ground-level job. Sometimes I’d climb a ladder. And sometimes I’d be on the roof, working around some of the windows. I remember thinking it was good I was getting a strong education, because I certainly didn’t want to do this kind of work any longer than I had to. It felt to me like mowing a lawn, but slower and seemingly without end.
But the truth is, painting, like most anything, is a craft, one in which you can improve over time with mindful practice. There are plenty of little tricks, whether it’s prepping a surface, perfecting your technique with a brush or a roller, or learning the art of sanding well, but the big trick for me was to learn to stay focused and keep at it. And over time, I did get better. Instead of getting bored and sometimes spacing out, I’d increasingly find a way to focus and keep moving forward with my work. It was, in a weird way, satisfying.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I was learning to take pride in my work. Back then no one was publishing books on grit, and Malcolm Gladwell hadn’t popularized the idea that the true masters of any craft benefit from thousands of hours of mindful practice. But I was getting a taste of all of these things. I was focusing on accomplishing the task at hand, learning what worked and what didn’t, and doing a better job each time. I was, on some level, learning that I didn’t have to be entertained all the time. I could just put my head down and get started, and there was a certain fulfillment that came with doing things well.
And while I may not have realized the lesson I took away from that summer, I internalized it. I slogged through the more challenging courses my high school offered, including the calculus and physics classics that initially baffled me. When I got into Holy Cross College, and later, Notre Dame, I knew I could take whatever came my way. And I also knew I didn’t have to love everything about my latest challenge to apply myself and do good work.
It turns out I did OK as a painter, too. A couple of summers later, I took time off to tackle some home maintenance work my parents would’ve otherwise hired out. Part of that was painting the front porch — sanding down the wood columns to prepare them for a fresh coat of white paint that would make them stand out, accentuating the charm of our family’s Dutch Colonial home.
Years later, when it was time to paint the home’s peeling exterior, my parents hired out the job. While much of the outside needed work, the painter told my dad, the columns were still somehow perfect. He asked who had painted them and was surprised to learn it wasn’t another professional.
“He did a great job,” the painter said. And when my dad shared the story with me, I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction. It was all in a day’s work.
Josh Stowe is alumni editor of this magazine.