A Man Painting a Sign

On today’s walk, I saw a man painting a sign. He was old, maybe in his fifties or sixties, and he wore the typical white pants as he stood on a ladder with a paintbrush in his hand. For half a second, I was insanely jealous of him. I thought nobody in the world could have a more noble job than painting signs and making the world a little brighter. Nobody else in the world could be as happy or fulfilled as that man. He is the person I want to be. He climbs down the ladder, goes home, and probably drinks a beer, and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about him. 

The rest of us have deadlines, and a growing list of unanswered emails, and meetings, and worries about promotions or workplace conflict or why we’re not getting that raise we deserve. We wanted these jobs, and then we got them, and now we wonder what it was that attracted us to them in the first place. 

I am envious of the man painting the sign because I assume he’s figured out the real meaning of life, that elusive secret to happiness. While the rest of us are stressed and overwhelmed, he must be living the dream, painting beautiful signs one stroke of colour at a time and never sending a message that begins with I hope this email finds you well. While the rest of us are busy trying to climb the career ladder and feeling bad about ourselves when we’re still stuck on the first rung, he’s busy climbing an actual ladder and probably finding more fulfilment at the top than we ever will – even if we do manage to get our own office one day – because we’ll be forever climbing…just one rung more…just one rung more…

Of course, I know nothing about the man painting the sign. He might hate his job and his life and wish he had never picked up a paintbrush ever. For all I know, he might be completely miserable and full of regret over the choices he made, wishing he had decided differently. Happiness is always what somebody else has. And it’s always out of our reach: in a different city, or a different relationship, or a different job. 

Sometimes, I wish I was born without ambition. Or at least, I wish I had never developed the beliefs that giving up was failure and failure was bad. Or that not having ambition was laziness – and laziness was also bad. We push ourselves to accomplish things because accomplishments prove to the world that we are good enough, worthy enough, and deserving. We forget that nothing we do or don’t do really matters in the way we think it does. If we don’t cross everything off our to-do list, the world won’t end. If we die tomorrow and can’t do our job, somebody will replace us. We’re not as important as we think we are; and the things we yearn for or lose sleep over aren’t as important as we think they are either. 

Someone told me: don’t think about what you want to do, think about how you want to feel. When I heard that, life made a lot more sense to me. I thought I might be as wise as the man painting the sign. In my mind, he was happy. And I hope he was happy in real life, too.  

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