Jan is a Rastafarian. I’m not sure whether he embraced the faith because of its easy approach to pot or whether the dreadlock hairstyle drew him in. It’s a puzzling thing though with Rasta’s: after spending days on cultivating their braids, they cover them with a tea-cosy.
Jan is the best lawn manicurist I have come across. We travel 30 kilometres a fortnight to pick him up in town, and then pay him at least 50% more than the going rate for a local part-time gardener. His favourite equipment is the petrol trimmer. This infernal buzzer makes my blood boil and also disturbs and angers all the distant bee hives. But Jan persists in its use even against my instruction that he deploy the 4hp monster mower to cover most of the thousand or more square meters of open space. He cares little too about the need to have the trimmer’s driving shaft rings replaced regularly at nearly the cost of a new machine.
Perhaps it is because the grass is too delicate. It’s an indigenous species that, unlike kikuyu, would leave a small quarry in the wake of a rugby scrum. But I think it is more the mysterious union that happens between Jan and the trimmer. Strapped to his side, man and machine are locked in a magnetic merger that sees them float as one in a ballroom waltz across the lawn. The big mower is simply too crude and by Jan’s reckoning too slow. After his floating like a butterfly and threatening the world with bee stings, he has left behind a carpet that could rival the best bowling green.
We call them virtuosos. They are masters of their craft. These are folk that are, to say the least, totally captivated by the task. They do not need and often don’t have a lofty “transcendent” purpose such as contribution to mankind, and even less so a material reward as a driver. That’s not to deny the latter’s need for sustenance. But to them it is a simple matter of recognition, courtesy and respect for a fair deal. Virtuosos can be found everywhere, from Jan the lawn trimmer and Santiago the fisherman to Beethoven and Von Gogh. They exist in their thousands in all fields. We tend to recognise them and give them credit only when we are intimidated and in awe of the task itself – like in the creative and performing arts, or when they have excelled in an important field to the point of uniqueness. But in essence they are all the same – possessing a passionate love for the task.
We all have virtuosity in us – too often buried beneath six feet of soil that has been heaped upon it by the seduction of a material reward or money. So often the “workplace” is little more than a corporate mausoleum where we spend the best one third of our lives, finding some solace in cadaver camaraderie and of course that extremely important pint of pure blood at the end of the month. Some mausoleums even have trendy “fun things” like snooker tables and massage rooms to occasionally distract the corpses from the drudgery of their job description caskets.
But to be fair, precious virtuosos exist in business too. Indeed without them not only would many businesses fold, but some of the greats would simply never have started. Like Apple’s Steve Jobs, the Google guys Larry Page and Sergey Brin; or baby FaceBook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. These are the John Galt’s of the world – not the profit driven rogues that Friedman favoured and that many still insist are the engines of innovation and prosperity.
To borrow a sketch from Dan Pink: a fellow applies for a small business loan from his bank and explains to the “suited” bureaucrat that his business model is to give his product away for free and get people to supply the product for free.
“Not today, Mr Zuckerberg - not today!”
And to irritate profit theorists even further, these folk join the likes of Kellogg, Johnson, Ford, Gates and Ackerman in denying that they were profit driven at the outset. They all claimed to have had a transcendent purpose, wanting to make a difference, adding value to people’s lives, and doing something meaningful with their virtuosity. We call them liars or hypocrites simply because those statements don’t fit into our ideological paradigm and because, as one of the consequences, a large reward deservedly came their way. And even here, many of them want to give most of it away.
What is sad is that in so many cases, the passing on of the founding virtuosos leaves a large “public corporation” guided by narrow “investor” interests in turn driven by the metrics of EVA, EBIT, HEPS, RONA, ROTA, ROI and NOI – Warren Buffet disciples perhaps excluded. In fairness again, I can think of a good number of “successors” heading these giants that are virtuosos in their own right. But I can think of just as many, if not more, who have allowed money to muddy motive.
Jan the lawn trimmer is a case in point. Prompted by his spouse, he left his full time gardening service job based on flexible pay for one with more security and status at the local “Korporasie”. It did not take Jan long to discover his mistake, only to find his previous job taken. So Jan’s floating with a beloved trimmer is now restricted to a few times a month, although he does have other ways of finding a state of Zen.