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Even bad jobs can spark masterpieces

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Painter James Rosenquist is recognized as one of the greatest American artists today, a position solidified by recent exhibitions of his work at the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Spain.

Yet, Rosenquist didn’t polish his skills at cushy art schools. He started out as a billboard painter back in the1950s. A typical assignment: painting a 75-foot-tall Van Heusen shirt while dangling on a scaffold.

What career lessons did he gain from experiences like those?
  • He learned the most from experienced co-workers, not from “experts” who’d never done the job. Older billboard painters showed Rosenquist shortcuts to produce huge images accurately the first time. Those skills have never left him.
  • He accepted blunt feedback. It was not uncommon for other painters to shout corrections like “Kid, that beer ain’t strong enough!” (He had to mix in more dark tint so the beer he was painting looked less like water.) He learned to accept feedback and adapt—quickly—even while hanging high above the ground.
  • He made use of every resource at his disposal. Rosenquist took leftover paint home and used it in his paintings. Some of those early paintings are now fading because of the cheap paint he used, but art historians now regard them as important milestones on Rosenquist’s unusual path to leadership in his field.
Lesson: Leaders don’t gripe about being in the wrong place to move ahead. They turn the wrong places into the right places and reach for their dreams.

— Adapted from an interview with James Rosenquist on National Public Radio.

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