Precision as Brilliance

I'm working on a project that’s sometimes thrilling and sometimes terrifying, depending on how I happen to be thinking about it at the time. Watch this space, and don’t hold your breath. Without giving too much away, it has a lot to do with innate brilliance, the idea that within every person is a reservoir of brilliant potential. It doesn't have to be contrived, because it’s already there. It has to be discovered, appreciated, cultivated and applied. And then great things can happen.

Painting the Road in Midsummer

One example struck me this week. I was stopped at a traffic light at midday in Cape Town on the kind of summer’s day you imagine might melt the tarmac. The next lane was cordoned off with orange cones so the lines and arrows on the road could be repainted. A labourer was bent over in the sun, daubing paint onto the surface in the outline of a right-turn-only arrow. I watched him idly, waiting for the traffic light to change, selfishly appreciating the luck of not having to work in the blazing sun.

And as I watched him, something occurred to me quite suddenly. He was painting with absolute precision. There was no distraction in his manner, not even the distraction of self-consciousness. He moved the brush from paint jar to road with fluid, one-pointed focus, delivering paint with slow care to the exact outlines of the arrow. I knew that by the time he was done, every grain of tar within those borders would be a flawless bright white.

What quality do you bring to your work?

Meanwhile, luxury sedans moved past him in the left-hand lane, carrying men who might earn a hundred times or more than his daily wage. By our usual frames of reference, those CEOs and executives have it incomparably better than the labourer painting the road – materially speaking, of course they do. And yet, were they really any better off in that moment than the man absorbed in painting the road?

In a year or two’s time, the arrow he painted will be faded, cracked and dull. Someone will have to paint it again. In twenty years, the business empire a CEO creates will be stagnant, insolvent or disbanded. Impermanence cannot be escaped: at sufficiently large scales, all of our actions pale to insignificance. So what quality do you bring to your work right now?

Precision as Brilliance

When you do any activity with that kind of focus, something emerges in it that is transcendent. It shows up in the actor as serenity or grace, in the action as flow and precision, and in the result as perfection. I wondered whether the team’s foreman was aware of the brilliance his team-mate was displaying, whether he’d displayed it before, whether he was aware of it himself, whether it was a passing state or something he’d stabilised and could employ at will.

Were I a manager with that kind of man in my team, whatever operational skills he needed to do his job would be par for the course – but the one-pointed absorption and precision he brought to a task would be his particular kind of brilliance and the reason I’d consider his work invaluable.

In any context, whether CEO or manual labourer, brilliance is already there. It does not need to be contrived. It needs to be discovered, appreciated, cultivated and applied. Then great things are possible.