• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Don't step back to look at the big picture

Life lessons.

June 5, 2014

That piece of advice was given me by my father.  It's situational.  It was delivered while I was standing on a ladder, painting a house.  Under other circumstances, looking at the big picture is often a wise move.

I realized today that part of my perspective on the world, part of why I signed on to promote sustainable behaviors at Greenback U, was shaped whilst I stood on that ladder and others like it.  

I paid for a portion of my education by painting houses, as did my father before me.  I didn't work for one of those franchised (I'm guessing) outfits like College Painters or Student Painters or Will Paint for Food or Will Paint for Course Credits.  (OK, I made that last one up.)  I worked as a lone ranger, marketing in a couple of chosen neighborhoods where folks could see my previous work, sometimes years after I'd done it.  Rather than compete strictly on price, I kept busy throughout the summers by doing a top-quality job.  I charged more than the franchised (?) outfits, but less than established professionals.  And I did as good a job as those established guys -- in many cases, probably better.and protexts

What determines a good paint job isn't how well it looks when it's just been completed, but how well it looks and protects years later.  What makes a good paint job isn't the painting, precisely.  It's mostly the preparation that goes before the painting.  Remove any suspect paint from the last go-round.  Smooth out any rough edges.  Rough up any spots that are too smooth.  Wash away and film or grit.  Mask well, including the ground below the work area.  Use a good oil-based primer (if required), and thin it with a special additive to improve penetration.  Caulk well.  Apply two thin coats of good quality latex.  Then, when you're standing on the ground, take in the big picture.

Rather than focus on (and charge for) just the act of laying (spraying?) a finish coat on top of whatever happened to be there, I built a reputation on doing work before the obvious step, to assure a good outcome years after the obvious step.  That consequences followed a long time lag didn't seem a particularly abstruse concept to me.  That sometimes my competitors who cut corners would do a job that stood up for a long time -- implying, if you will, that the time and effort I spent on preparation might be for naught -- didn't strike me as illogical or unfair.  

So, the lessons I took from housepainting (a profession I left long ago and don't miss in the slightest):

  1. What makes a good job is often the part nobody sees or cares about.
  2. Whether it's a good job often isn't obvious for years.
  3. Efficiency is overrated.  Quality and certainty are often of more value than efficiency.
  4. A good paint job is more than just cosmetic.  A cheap paint job that looks OK for a while but fails to protect the house is a bad deal.

Somehow, those lessons come back to me whenever I'm told that sustainable behavior isn't practical because it costs too much.  A good paint job, arguably, might seem to cost too much as well.  In the short term.

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