As a young boy I lived with my family in Cuba, where my father was stationed. We lived in a village near the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and I played with the neighborhood kids or fished off the back deck of the house (when I wasn’t in school).
I have a vivid memory of a street vendor, wheeling a rickety cart down the dirt streets each day selling oranges. To a young child’s eyes, these oranges were huge (so sweet you had to smile while eating them), and the vendor would peel it for a buyer. He was full of fun, jokes, and laughter as he made his way down the dusty street, clearly enjoying life, his customers, and followers (us kids).
What I remember most was him peeling the orange – he had an old kitchen knife, sharpened so much that the cutting edge of the blade was curved like a replica of the Bay – but sharp as all get-out!
He started at the top of the orange and create a single ‘rope’ of peel precisely a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch – it would cascade down in curlycues from the orange at almost blinding speed. Perfect every time. One long peel every time. A peel-rope with ¼ x ¼ dimensions every time.
We kids would follow him for a while, begging for the peel and playing with it until we only had a handful of pieces left…and then we’d beg for another one from the orange vendor.
As an adult, I look back to that experience fondly, realizing that I was seeing an artist at work. He chose to spend his time enjoying those around him and chose to create and meet the challenge of peeling the orange in a distinctive and incredibly difficult way – drawing satisfaction from his creation. I realize now that I was in the presence of a true master – an artist creating a unique experience for the buyer (or the kids following him around).
Illustrations of the orange vendor at work today – the ‘bagger’ at the Costco checkout who engineers a precisely packed cart.
I think about the expressed desire by many in business and public service to have the higher-ups create a challenging and rewarding role for them – and wonder if the manuals, regulations, and procedures we’ve put in place have extinguished the ‘artist’ in each of us?