But after I met him [Kohler]..we sat around listening, waiting for the words of wisdom. He was a bachelor, and he had an old New England house down in some town south of Boston. He had a picket fence around his house, and he talked at great length about what a great thing it was to paint a picket fence. He got enormous joy and satisfaction out of this, and I thought it was awfully stupid. Finally he said, 'The reason this is so wonderful: it's the only thing that I do that has a beginning, has an end, and at anytime I know exactly where I stand.' Twenty years later it finally dawned on me that I'd heard some words of wisdom.' Kohler, now 62, was in his sixteenth year at Harvard when James Conant and Roger Adams presented to Kohler--'the King' he was called--the convincing case for Wallace Carothers as a new Harvard instructor.
Enough for One Lifetime by Matthew E. Hermes.Carothers lasted just three semesters before leaving Harvard for DuPont in 1927. The rest is history. I bring up the story because Professor Kohler's peculiar (and real-life) attitude about fence painting contrasts so starkly with that of the fictional Tom Sawyer, forever captured by Mark Twain:
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.Of course the guileful Tom goes on to convince his friends to paint the fence for him, and that of course is part of his charm.
What sort of character do we reward in workers and leaders today? Which traits do we admire in ourselves when faced with such a task?