3 Powerful Things You Need For You and Your Ideas To Break ThroughShare
A vital look at how to cultivate breakthrough thinking, from an unlikely source.
The evidence is overwhelming. Breakthrough ideas come from those places that lie just beyond your borders – the borders of what you know, the ones around your comfort zone, the glass-walled enclosure containing the immediate and the obvious. It sounds ominous, doesn’t it? So just how on earth could a 10-minute video about three Mexican window-washers in Chicago help you see beyond those borders? You’d be surprised.
The short documentary is titled Paraíso, Paradise. And while your brain may not immediately connect the contrasting stereotypes of window washing and paradise, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s a wise film aptly named.
While sparse on actual vocals, Paraíso is rich with visual voice. The images of the three men preparing for work, spending precious moments with their families, and flinging themselves over the sides of buildings with scant more than a harness and a rope to catch them, are evocatively pregnant with truths and ideas – about work, success, and striving. Paraíso is the land of the possible.
Only occasionally do we hear these men speak. But when they do, their deceivingly simple words burst forth with depth of thought, far beyond what our biases might expect. “There are lots of people who are pretty fast, but they are dirty,” one of the three men says about the window washing population. “They do a filthy job.” It’s his first utterance after catapulting himself over the edge of a 60-story building to hang from a thread above downtown Chicago’s asphalt jungle. As he swings into his work (literally), he doesn’t gasp nor even comment on the wind that buffets him left, then right, then back the other way. Instead, calmly, reflectively, he offers an observation about how some see their job and define success in it: speed. Translation: Get it done. On to the next. Whatever, just pay me. And then, as if reading aloud from his own version of Japanese Kōan, he offers the central philosophy that allows his thinking to breakthrough that of most of his peers and become something stretching far beyond the sashes, lattice, and casements before him:
“First you teach yourself to be clean. Speed comes later.”
Sure. In a literal sense he’s talking about the job of cleaning windows and about acquiring a skill set to do that job. But as you watch him work and observe him measuring his words before speaking, he’s clearly talking about more – not just about work, but about what comes before and after it, about what matters most, about patience and purpose, and seeing something greater than the immediacy that defines the job.
Listen closely and you’ll soon realize he’s knowingly talking about three things: vision, view, and value,the very things that separate common ideas from creative ones, and of-the-moment accomplishment from true and lasting success. It’s preciously rare insight into the sometimes high-wire balancing act we must each embrace if we want to come within reach of our dreams. No matter the path in life we travel, vision, view, and value are what drive breakthrough thinking.
Vision – what the job is vs. what the job is all about
If you really thin slice it, the job these men do is this: Toss water and soap on windows and wipe it off. It’s the minimum sign of having done the work. But to these three their job is different: to give the people on the other side of their work a fresh view. That’s how they talk about it, that’s what they believe. It’s akin to the story of the old woman sweeping up shards of stone, wood, and glass in the cathedral left by others who saw their job as only to sculpt, carve, or make windows. She sees hers as “building a cathedral to the glory of almighty God.” Did the sculptor, carver, and stained glass window maker do their jobs? Indeed. Even arguably well, that is at least for the task of the moment and the assigned task.
But what more is there to see beyond the boundaries that most often define our work? And how might the ability to see more move us from simply surviving to thriving? We may discount their tasks, but the thinking of the three window washers in downtown Chicago, like the old woman’s, is visionary.
We tend to think of vision as something that must be said out loud by the CEO and from the podium, or formally printed and framed on a wall. But it’s not so. Those forms of vision are meaningless. Vision only becomes valuable when you carry it with you every day, in your heart and your head, gently injecting it into even the simplest task of tossing soap and water at glass. Just ask the cathedral builders.
View – seeing a long-term reward vs. a short-term payoff
There’s a material difference between “I’m done faster” and “I’m around to do it longer.” Which would you guess is worth more? Jus for a moment, dream you run a company housed within one of those Chicago skyscrapers held together by all those windows. Pretend your company is the market leader, one with a captive audience of customers who can’t get what you offer anywhere else. Imagine it’s time to design the next generation of your product. With no competition to speak of, you chose to skimp – cheaper materials that won’t last long, for example, or consciously choosing to ignore customer concerns and complaints and leave in the errors in the product they worry about or hate. I mean, what are they going to do about it, right?
Slowly your view blurs. You see customer loyalty, they see biding their time until something better comes along. In this imagined view, you and your company are akin to every manufacturer of any form of mp3 music player before Apple’s iPod, or taxis before Lyft and Uber.
Just as being speedy isn’t everything, neither is thinking your job is to satisfy only a version of the world that exists today and nothing beyond that. To paraphrase a line from an old movie set in Chicago, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop to look around once in awhile – and take in a bigger view, you could miss it.”
Value – intrinsic value vs. extrinsic
The men in Paraíso have a clear pride in their work, something we too often regard as a nice-to-have. In truth it’s everything. Each person in this film knows that he’s not going to get rich hanging off the sides of skyscrapers. But knowing “that if my parents became ill, I could help them,” one says, makes him feel accomplished, valued. Powerful. It’s a way of looking at value we too rarely choose, one that weighs the intrinsic alongside the extrinsic and recognizes the need for both. The man’s comment on value isn’t “giving up” talk. Without a doubt, these men aspire.
At one point, late in the video, one of them muses, “I’ve always wanted to walk down Michigan Avenue…,” Chicago’s ultra high rent housing and commercial district. “With a Starbucks…” he continues, “all relaxed like that.” But over the entirety of this short masterpiece, it becomes abundantly clear that these men are consciously playing for the highest odds of a consistent and satisfying reward over the long-term. They understand value as something ultimately greater than just what you get paid.
“It’s the only job that is always needed,” one man points out. Though it appears he’s talking about window washing relative to other jobs like construction that come and go with the fluctuations of economies, it may be more accurate to say he’s talking about vision, always seeking a clean and fresh view of the world, and striving for the value that comes both. One thing’s for sure, he and his friends are firmly on the path to breaking through.
Larry Robertson is the author of two award-winning books: ‘The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity’ and ‘A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress’. He’s the founder of two ventures, one for-profit and one non, and a highly respected thought leader in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, advising individuals and organizations across a broad spectrum. Larry is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.