Skip to main

Finding the Good in Hard Work

Great Hearts Arizona May 17, 2024 -


Brandon Crowe, Superintendent, Great Hearts Arizona

The work to which we commit ourselves is lofty, and rightly so because history is the story of lofty aims. One of the most impressive human successes – and the process through which it was accomplished – has much to teach us about our own work, growth, and development. The awe-inspiring work I reference here is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If you’ve not seen it firsthand, you’ve almost certainly viewed images or studied it. As a quick fly-over, it is 500 square meters of fresco and includes 300+ figures on a vaulted ceiling 68 feet above the intricate marble floor. There are nine major Biblical scenes depicted plus an additional 12 large figures from Classical mythology and Jewish history. The Chapel’s architecture on which Michelangelo also worked is itself fantastic, and while the painted scenes are rich enough for days of discussion, the sheer visual splendor is second to none. It is an artistry against which all others are measured.

Sisteen chapel

The vault of the Sistine Chapel depicts an epic in a massive and ornate fashion with an integrated and distinct design. One 16th Century contemporary provided this description: “The work has proved a veritable beacon to our art, of inestimable benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness. Indeed, painters no longer need to seek for new inventions, novel attitudes, clothed figures, fresh ways of expression, different arrangements, or sublime subjects, for this work contains every perfection possible under those headings.” (Vasari)

What might not immediately occur to us is that this work of splendor was the product of incredible toil and difficulty. Not just that it is hard to paint a giant ceiling, but what is more fundamental than that even – it was a personal undertaking full of significant misery, self-doubt, confusion, worry. About a year into his exquisite work on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Michelangelo wrote (in poetic fashion) the following:

Portrait of Michelangelo BuonarrotiI’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin,
my beard’s pointing at heaven,
my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s.
My brush, above me all the time,
dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

What are we to make of this? And, what – if anything – does it have to do with our work? Initially, there are three things we should take away:

First, good work is hard. Challenge is what builds us. It sanctifies us and strengthens us – mentally and physically. President Kennedy famously told the country that we go to the moon precisely because it is hard. Herodotus’ Cyrus tells us that “soft lands breed soft men”. Most of us can assent to this in the abstract, but when the challenges come into our own life and work, we can forget.

Second, how we respond to punishing challenges and obstacles will direct our growth. What do you do when you face adversity? Nearly everything we know about life reveals that our own thinking about our circumstance is what makes all the difference. We should not naively pretend that trials aren’t real; instead, we must simply figure out how we will overcome. For every Michelangelo there are five artists who gave up. The stories of success we pass down are likely the exceptions that prove the rule – people often do give up, break, and quit. After all, only 50% of dissertations begun are ever completed.

Third, hard things are solved with other people. We need advice, encouragement, straight-talk, and love. We need that “second self” that Aristotle identifies and describes in a true friend. Albert Schweitzer, the well-known polymath, famously wrote: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” We need to form and deepen relationships with others who have the potential to do this. This is how we forge ahead.

Our calling – the formation of young people – is a high one. We must expect that it will be challenging, that we must respond with courage, and that we need our friends and colleagues to do it well. We succeed when we not only teach this but also model it for our students and

Brandon Crowe is the Superintendent and Managing Director of Great Hearts Arizona. Mr. Crowe joined Great Hearts in 2007 as a Humane Letters teacher at Great Hearts Veritas Prep where he taught for five years and held several leadership positions. He later moved to Great Hearts Glendale Prep where he served as Headmaster for six years before moving into an executive leadership role with Great Hearts Arizona. Brandon is a member of the Arizona Charter School Association Board of Directors. He holds both his MA and BA in Religious Studies from Arizona State University. Brandon and his wife are native Phoenicians and live in the West Valley with their four boys.