I stood, transfixed, on the corner of a market square in Peschiera, a small town nestled on the shore of Lake Garda in northern Italy.
Even though I was a teenager long before the meteoric rise of social media, YouTube and Fortnite, my favourite video games of Crash Bandicoot, the early Fifa games and that old classic, Snake (Nokia 3310 edition) were more than enough to significantly hamper my attention span. Nevertheless, my father and I spent nearly a full two hours, bathed in glorious afternoon sunshine, peering over the shoulders of the small crowd that had gathered to witness the scene. An atmosphere of quiet reverence prevailed as we watched on, utterly spellbound.
Hard at work, in a small shop, was a candle maker. His wizened appearance and the skill of his craftsman’s hands attested that this was the trade he had plied his entire life. All around the shop, carefully organised on the floor-to-ceiling shelves, were stunning candles, beautifully varnished and carved in marvellous patterns. The entire establishment was an array of colour, glittering majestically in golden sunlight.
The candle maker started with only a wick. Before him, bubbling at a carefully maintained temperature, were numerous vats of colourful wax. Carefully, he dipped the wick into one of the colours before immediately dipping it into a vat of cold water to solidify it. This process continued gradually, painstakingly, over almost an hour. Layer by layer, the wax built up until a substantial candle had been formed.
As soon as the last layer had been cooled, the candle maker carried the candle over to the other side of the narrow shop and hung it up. Beneath a lamp, with obvious skill yet amazing speed, he used a variety of tools to carve and peel back the colourful layers of wax, twisting and rippling it to create beautiful patterns. He then took a small brush and methodically applied varnish to every surface. In spite of the multitude of candles in the shop, this candle was treated as though it was the only one he’d ever made.
As soon as the varnishing was done, the candle was moved to a second rack, where it would hang until dried. This signalled the end of the procedure. Without prompting, the crowd burst into rapturous applause, drawing a humble smile and small bow from the candle maker. With no pomp or circumstance, he immediately took up another wick and set to work on the next candle. This, after all, was his livelihood.
Looking around at the candles and their considerable prices, I wondered why so many people were willing to queue and pay such money for something that would eventually be consumed like any other candle. It was then I realised they weren’t buying the product. Their payment was a mark of respect for the craft, the expertise, the reminder that creating something beautiful is a process. It is done layer by layer, step by step.
This story is a clarion call appealing to our remembrance of this very idea – it is one we innately know, even acknowledge verbally. Yet in so many cases, we fail to give ourselves or others the time to complete this process. In our businesses, our sports, our creative industries, our own professional or personal development, even in our family and romantic relationships, we have a tragic tendency to abandon the pursuit the moment something doesn’t appear to be working.
At what point would Edison’s electrical department funding have been cut because he was wasting too many resources? At what point would Fleming have been let go for being just a little too experimental? At what point do you think Michael Jordan’s high school coach, or JK Rowling’s first publishers, realised the grave error they made in failing to place their faith in people that were undergoing a process?
Effective leaders – and those that maintain meaningful relationships in all areas of life – conduct their business consistent with the principle that they, and others, are like those candles – value and beauty are built one layer, one experience, one piece of learning at a time. Remember there will be darker experiences as well as lighter ones; the variety of colours will only serve to create a more beautiful pattern.
Beware the temptation to give up prematurely on a person, pursuit or yourself by failing to remember that developing character, resilience, proficiency and expertise is all a gradual process. So long as we are earnestly seeking to take the next step or adding the next layer, time will do the rest. Have patience in the process and someday you will realise you will have built something of great beauty and value – not overnight, but over a lifetime.