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happy little programmers: lessons i learned from bob ross

“Traditionally, art has been for the select few. We have been brainwashed to believe that Michaelangelo had to pat you on the head at birth. Well, we show people that anybody can paint a picture that they’re proud of. It may never hang in the Smithsonian, but it will certainly be something that they’ll hang in their home and be proud of. And that’s what it’s all about.” –Bob Ross

Bob Ross at Easel

Bob Ross was the man who showed America how to paint. Besides having an amazing afro, he had a long-running TV show on PBS entitled, “The Joy of Painting” where he taught aspiring or novice painters his art. There was something magical about sitting in front of the family television as a young child and listening to Bob’s soothing voice as he painted a ‘happy little scene’ with ‘happy little deer’ and ‘happy little clouds’. It was completely hypnotic.

Bob Ross was a gifted painter and a humble teacher. At the beginning of every show he would start with a blank canvas and in less than 30 minutes time have an entire work of art you could hang on your wall. It wasn’t about perfection, it wasn’t about painting a masterpiece - it was about painting because it made you happy. He would routinely say this to the home audience - “You paint because it makes you happy.” I listened to Bob show me how to make art as I saw large blobs of blue and gray get shaped into ocean waves, or a smattering of orange get pulled into a sunset with his painter’s knife (I never knew painters had knives before Bob Ross). He showed me how to do everything, from beginning to end. There was no hand-waving or attempt to demonstrate what an amazing painter he was. He only wanted to show me how I could be as good as him. There was no ivory towers to be found.

The best moments in the show were when he would make mistakes. He’d make a stroke too far in the wrong direction, or misjudge the hue of a color and need to correct course. Bob would just smile, laugh his happy little laugh and go on painting right over the mistake. “It’s ok to make mistakes, this is painting, you can make mistakes in painting.” Oh how true Bob, so so true.

Why do I tell you all this? Because we can learn a lot from Bob Ross. He was not just an artist of the brush and the palette, but an artist of teaching and bringing along the new guy. After watching Bob paint an entire wooded landscape, complete with clouds, a full pine forest and small woodland creatures I often said to myself, “I could do that.” That’s what Bob did, made you believe that just by listening to the calm roll of his voice and the movement of his brush that you too could be a painter. We may think that what we do in front of the computer all day is only for the select few, but I want to tell you that it’s not. Anyone can program, given the right tools, the right teachers, and a willingness to learn. Where fear can be dissolved, passion can be born.

He dissolved fear, made mistakes and told you that you too could paint like he does, if you’re not afraid to blunder sometimes and you can give yourself a chance to succeed. These very same lessons I’m learning to apply in my career as a software developer. I’m working to overcome the fear of complex code. I’m striving to reach out and teach others the knowledge I’ve been given. I’m telling myself that mistakes are ok, as long as I’m willing to smile, laugh and say “That’s ok, it’s just code, it can be changed.”

Thanks Bob, for everything you’ve taught me.



about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer and leads the Infrastructure group at at Sprout Social.

Blake Smith

create. code. learn.