Thoughts from a window cleaner

Or how to boost productivity, enjoy life, and succeed

Popular wisdom says embrace the unknown, brave challenges, fear nothing. Easily said and – like rolling a boulder uphill – done. Before window cleaning, my struggles and successes had been spiritual, but accomplishment was etched into my body by the scrubbing, lifting, and sky-scraping work of window cleaning. I was inspired by Napoleon Hill’s prompt to “create a definite plan…and begin at once, whether you are ready or not, to put this plan into action.” Without delay I left a comfortable office job in search of new challenges. I found them quickly, and little more, until the growth I longed for slowly showed up. Learning to love difficulty was my initial reward for window cleaning, but I gained much through the years: lessons I’ll treasure in everything else I do.

Don’t give up.

When I began window cleaning, I knew only that I was due for development. When the romance crumbled, and all seemed a steep climb to nowhere, my commitment to growth was paramount. One frigid Alberta morning, I was repeating failed cleans of a single window. My tools were faulty; my technique abandoned me. The frost bit my fingers while images of my prior work filled my mind like a toasty fire: What a fantastic job; I was paid by the hour; I was fluent, purposeful, and comfortable. Why not drop the manual labour and do what comes easily?

Because I need to grow, and so I repeated to myself:

Winners never quit. Quitters never win!”

I said it louder, and again. All around me, the wet snow drove down.

“Winners never quit. Quitters never win!”

That day a story ended, the fantasy of the easy way, and a true story pressed on, in which I became a professional window cleaner, and proved I can do anything I set my mind to.

The real work is on the inside.

A few seconds per window is all it should take, co-workers told me, as I struggled to leave windows clean at all. Meanwhile my team-mates left me in the dust. If I rushed, they sent me back to repeat, or instantaneously cleaned the glass for me. “You get paid for what you do!” If you don’t speed up, you won’t earn much.”

Or working with long poles: scrub, squeegee, scrub squeegee, precision work with 5 meter extensions.

“Hurry up!” If you’re slow, it hurts my pay cheque!”

“Watch what you’re doing, you almost ran into that lady!”

“Missed a spot.”

Under high pressure, I reminded myself that the real work is on the inside. The tension between workers was nothing. The movement of the squeegee was insignificant. All that mattered was how I moved on the inside. I decided to welcome criticism without condition. Competitive co-workers would always be right. My only business was to become a better window cleaner. Everything that contributed to that end, however uncomfortable, was a good thing.

Then a clear mind produced clean windows. A good attitude, the smooth glide of the squeegee. Rested in my heart, I cruised through 10 hour days. If I had to redo windows, or puzzle through 200 feet of tangled rope, it didn’t matter — the work was on the inside, and if I got that right, everything else followed.

Window cleaning was an avenue for inner growth, and inner growth was the only way to become a good window cleaner. Rushing, cutting corners, or projecting frustration onto others defeated every purpose.
One day the jobs would be done, the money spent, the grit forgotten, and what do I keep? The character I won from the work. Looking back, this is brilliantly clear, the reason I succeeded as window cleaner.
And not without persistence.

The person who makes persistence his watch-word discovers that “Old Man Failure” finally becomes tired and makes his departure. Failure cannot cope with persistence
-Napoleon Hill

Think big

At first I arrived at huge buildings in awe.
“We are scheduled to finish this by 5 O’ clock?” It seemed impossible, and whether we returned the next day or hauled into the evening, the work was done. As I grew quicker, overwhelming tasks became concise work days. When my mind opened to the task, the body strengthened to match. I realized that all projects could be done this way. Don’t think of cleaning windows, one at a time. Step up to towers and make easy work of them.

Enjoy little things

It can be tedious cleaning windows, row after row, hundreds in a day. Then I forget the multitudes to be washed, and tune into the glide of the squeegee. I behold the city-scape from its highest points. Each corner of town offers new angles, architecture, faces and experiences to enjoy. I savour the exertion and relax into it.

From grand views to tiny details, my noticings become smaller, sweeter and more internal. Again, I see that the picture on the outside is hardly relevant until it speaks to something real in me. Then plain labour becomes a fountain of beauty, and all day long I drink. The repetition of cleaning the glass allows me to notice ever finer streams inside.

Then my inner perspective opens like the skyline and I see that it doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter where I am or how I feel. I can do good work, and be a good person. I can be more than a person, a creature that goes beyond the trappings of streets and cities, and thrives in the extraordinary.

Employ imagination

My skills deepened when I put my imagination to work. I thought of The Dark Knight, and I was Bruce Wayne scaling buildings; or from The Last Kingdom, I was Utred, and a mere window cleaner became a warrior. The squeegee was a sword; the long poles were spears demanding strength and finesse. Suddenly I flowed with speed and skill, not just because the images brought life to the work, but because I naturally chose images that called up my deeper values.

Have no external references

Dissatisfaction exists in reference to something else:

“ I wish I were there instead of here, feeling that instead of this.”

One late and rainy night, I was stuck on a long trek home, hankering for a warm bed. I realized that the chill reached the bone because of my wish for something else. I accepted the journey and made a decision: I will alter my circumstances when I’m clear and able to, but otherwise, I will never wish myself an experience other than the one I find myself in.

The tough days window cleaning, I would think of a dreamy alternative, like swimming in a sunny river. I asked myself,

“Why would I rather be swimming in the river on a golden evening than cleaning windows in the cold?”

Obviously, swimming in the sun is more pleasant, but for what is long-lasting and substantial in me, there is no preference. In fact, working cold and dreary days suits me just right.

Find  Intimacy

Preference gone, I was connected to the beauty everywhere I looked. Then in each moment, instead of disconnection, I found intimacy. The 20 story drop between me and the ground was no issue. It was no chasm between me and death, but a connection to life. The earth is meaningful; gravity is a pull, and it reaches with conviction when you’re 100 meters in the air. The distance creates intimacy with the ground, with mortality. A life-pulse comes online in my body.

I extrapolate further: the gap between the street below and my dangling feet reminds me of love and sexuality. When I’m standing on the earth, I don’t notice its magnitude, but when distanced, I feel the charge. The love for another person is powerful because I am apart from that person. Otherwise there’s no distinction and nothing to notice. The gap is what fills with the feeling of love, the difference is how I notice the love that makes us one.

As many other attractions lose their glow, the magic faded as high-rise window cleaning became routine. I noticed that I was doing the motions, forgetting that I was flying. And that reminded me of something I know: there is always always a threshold to cross, always a new way to see. It was one sentence in my marriage vows that was truly a promise: “to be open to you in new ways every day.”

If I’m no longer in love, it is because I have drifted from the edge and settled where common thoughts and feelings wash out the extraordinary. In my marriage and life, I take myself to the brink of the unknown, so I cannot define the ground beneath my feet, or tell what world I walk into: the trees, the snow, or that other being looking into my eyes. Every moment, I can see and be new.

 All in a day’s work.