Words of encouragement are not always the best teachers.
Some years ago, I landed a job with a residential construction company in Anchorage, Alaska. I Google-imaged Anchorage once or twice and then showed up at the airport with a tub of all the socks I could find. I would need socks. It was cold there, right? I was going to learn all about construction, have adventures, and come back grizzled with a pony tail and that look in my eye. It was going to be great.
While there I had the honor of working with Matt. He had moved to the Canadian wilderness as a teenager to trap for furs; afterwards wintering ten years in a canvas tent in Alaska. He had been fishing commercially almost every summer since the seventies, and when he wasn’t eating fish he caught himself, he would live off of moose meat and a tea made from a fungus that grows on birch trees. He had several of the top ten dangerous jobs in America on his resumé and was also a master carpenter. He was basically everything I had idolized as a boy.
One particularly drizzly day, I was working with Matt and a small crew on a big concrete pour. We had been working at this job site sixty hours a week for a few weeks, so I decided it was a sulking day. It was cold, rainy, muddy, stressful, and I had earned it. I absently did my assigned activity as I dwelt on how far away from home I was, how I couldn’t keep up with the older and more experienced guys no matter how I tried, and how pathetic I was in general. What I wasn’t thinking about was the rapidly curing concrete.
My job was to scrub the wet concrete off the bolts protruding from the walls, which would later be instrumental in supporting the floor and, in turn, the entire house. Though I was doing what I was told, I was not moving particularly quickly and was only giving about 75 percent of my effort.
Matt had laid countless foundations. He knew there is a time for everything, and that there is no extra time at all on a pour. Concrete was hardening on those bolts, and it was time he ripped me a new one. He pontificated obscenely and at length on my flaws in general, my inability to understand basic concepts and how I would be the ruination of them all and the entire &#%! multi-million dollar house. Without waiting for a rebuttal, he scampered frantically along the scaffolding to catch up with the concrete boom.
At first I was a little stunned. I hadn’t encountered such vitriol and was indignant at the treatment. Why could no one patiently clarify what my individual steps should be? But then I realized that if I didn’t want to get actually clobbered by a wet concrete trowel, I should probably do what he said and hurry up.
The energy with which I now approached my work was strong enough to force me to forget my personal problems. My reengaged mind raced over each situation as I scrubbed furiously on the bolts emerging from the top of the freshly poured walls, ran for tools the guys on the scaffold needed, shoveled excess material into low areas, and did generally whatever else was needed.
When we finally finished, I found a few moments for reflection while cleaning the tools. The earlier episode drastically changed my approach to the day in a way no kind or patient words could have done. As a result, I probably learned more about concrete work that day than on any job before. Matt didn’t apologize or even seem to remember the incident. I didn’t get any words of encouragement at the end of the day. The job was assessed, walls double-checked for plumb, we cleaned up, and went home.
I have frequently heard from older craftsmen how they had often been the objects of similarly expletive-ridden chastisement. While taking time to teach me how to frame stairs one day, Matt had reminisced, “Nobody ever explained anything to me, you know? I just got cussed at until I had figured it out on my own.”
Matt and most other craftsmen I have worked with have largely changed their approach to the next generation. They try to explain instead of abuse, and I have benefited from some of these changes. But after that rainy day pouring concrete, I wonder if it is possible for the pendulum to swing too far the other direction. Those men who grew up with that verbal fire chasing them are some of the best craftsmen I have ever seen. They survived the purifying fire of an older and harsher apprenticeship and have come through with deserved confidence and without dross.
It seems universally accepted today that the modern workplace should be entirely positive. We are told words of affirmation for successes should predominate over words of correction for mistakes. Corrections themselves should be carried out as kindly as possible, with the manager first exercising empathy to learn how to best handle a situation without causing offense.
I myself have had several fantastic bosses who were patient teachers, and will always try to incorporate what I have learned from them in my own leadership style. But I would be hard-pressed to determine if I learned more from them than from Matt. I cannot encourage an environment of verbal abuse, but I can vouch for the effectiveness of a timely ass-chewing.
So, bless those who cuss you, for faithful are the wounds of a friend, or righteously disgruntled coworker.