One Brick at a Time

by Dave McKenna – Editor February 6, 2019

It’s February in Dallas and the bricks on my front porch are covered in mold. The wife is concerned for the safety of the Amazon Prime delivery guy…could be a slip hazard for the daily deposit from the Palace of Bezos. Time to bring out the gasoline-driven power washer. After a good, long blast from the roaring water-laser, I’ve made one clean brick and I realize just how much time this honey-do item is going to extract from my weekend.

For the next three hours I am taught several valuable lessons. First, don’t put off your honey-do’s for six months and end up power washing anything in February. The other thoughts came to me as I lost feeling in my frostbitten toes. Here are three good ideas that came to me while enveloped in the icy spray.

Have Some Idea How Big the Project is Before you Start …Then Get Started

My front porch is about a 10-foot semi-circle of bricks. There are bout 2.5 bricks per square foot. So…

Area = π x r2 means I have about 400 bricks to wash. Turns out my high school math teacher was right. When I said, “I’ll never use this in real life …” and he said, “Shut up already, McKenna!”

Here’s an example from a software company I was recently a part of.  I said, “Hey, we should get into this new market. There’s a real need and we’ll make a lot of money.  I’ll have us to market in six months, no problem!” Two years later we’re done – – and we made a lot of money. But it sure would have been nice if I had known someone who could calculate the area of that circle before I bought the power washer!

But here’s another secret: whatever number you come up with will be wrong. The point isn’t to have perfect knowledge before you take on a challenge. That is a recipe for paralysis and mediocrity. The point is, pick something worth doing and be prepared to go the distance. The calculations just tell you it will be hard and tests your resolve. Life teaches how hard it will really be.

Be Systematic, But Stay Flexible

The only thing worse than no-plan is a bad plan no one wants to call bad. “Four hundred bricks …this is going to take all afternoon!” I start to make broad, sweeping passes over the worst of the black slime expecting the 2500 ft/lbs of pressure will erase the slippery mucus from the hard-baked surface. Nope. Tighter passes. No joy.

I learned that the only way to really clean a brick covered in black algae is to focus the power washer-beam on a spot and robotically creep up one side of the brick and back, allowing the inch-wide water pick to strip the growth from underneath.

That works. Each brick takes at least four passes. But they’re clean baby! It’s starting to smell like the lake; with all the black-green algae water pooling up next to the house.

Here’s a tip. Don’t waste time on an approach you really want to work. If it’s not working. Stop and adjust. Don’t get too attached to any one solution. In the end what you want is a happy spouse with a lovely clean porch. You must be willing to abandon your best idea and try a new one. Rinse and repeat, until you get to your goal.

But what if your goal is the bad idea? Well, sometimes it is. But usually not. Your gut knows. Really, it does. Trust that…and keep at it.

Pay the Price

Every good thing is only achieved through a sacrifice of some sort. There is no avoiding the cold, wet spray and hours of tedious blasting. Even then, there’s no guarantee your efforts will pay off. But they almost always do. Sometimes the payoff isn’t what you expect. Sometimes it is exactly what you hoped for. Either way, you’re better off for having tried. Occasionally much better off.

So here’s something to think about: once you have found a thing is working, you’re only 10% of the way there. The rest of the journey is just about grit. If you know you have four hundred bricks to clean, and you know how to clean one brick, you can win. The only question is how cold are you willing to be in order to get what you want? There was a point in my career I had found a good idea I was passionate about. I had a clear idea how to make it happen. The only question was whether I was willing walk away from my comfortable, well-defined job and risk going out in the cold to get it, not knowing if I would achieve it or what I would do if I failed.

No one believed it was worth doing. But I realized I’d rather be cold and wet on a great, failed adventure, than to be safe and warm and never know what is possible. I found the courage to take the chance and as Robert Frost said, “That has made all the difference.”

Three hours later I had a nice clean porch and an idea for this blog post. As I put the power washer away, congratulating myself on my work and feeling quite pleased with myself about this future post; the handle on the machine jammed open and I accidentally blasted a long, clean strip across the pebble-crete sidewalk.  

A bright swath of tan stone set in a field of dingy dark grime spanned the walkway from one end to another. And this, I say, “Can wait for the Spring!”