“An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.”Balzac
“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”– Rita Mae Brown
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”Sigmund Freud
I once worked in a large bureaucratic organisation. I was struck by many aspects of the toxic culture, but one aspect of the experience remains with me to this day. Many people in the organisation appeared visibly much older than the age they actually were. It didn’t take long to figure out why and it had nothing to do with genetics or environmental pollution, but everything to do with caged lifeforce. It led to an effect I call the “Reverse Dorian Gray” effect. Before I explain what this is, a very quick recap of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray may help (skip if you know it already).
The Portrait of Dorian Gray
Set in Victorian England, Lord Henry Wotton, observes artist Basil Hallward painting the portrait of Dorian Gray, a handsome young man. While sitting for the painting, Dorian listens to the opinionated Lord Henry espousing his hedonistic worldview. Dorian becomes convinced that beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing. Dorian wishes that his portrait would age instead of himself. Dorian embarks on a life of debauchery and damage to others until the story ends, like it begins, with the painting.
Dorian’s wish came true and the painting had grown older and hideous just like Dorian’s true character. At the end of the story, the grotesque deformities of the picture come into being in Dorian’s own body, while the painting of Dorian is restored to its original image of spotless beauty. In the end, Dorian gets everything that was coming to him; his choices during life bring about his doom in death.
He becomes the painting, the character that he had hidden away in the attic.
Now, back to the point of this Thursday Thought and my observation that people in some organisations can sometimes look and feel much older than their biological age. Dorian Gray hides his true self in the attic and remains young in life. However, when we lock away our true selves in the attic of our minds, we start to manifest our feeling in our physical appearance. We age, we become ill and we feel trapped.
Former guest on The Innovation Show, author and researcher Francesca Gino surveyed more than one thousand employees in a wide range of industries and found that some companies “urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door.” It is a great tragedy when we cannot express who we truly are. It is an even worse tragedy when someone becomes the mask they wear. It is an interesting exercise to imagine what is going on with those people who are angry, bitter and toxic at work. Maybe they were once full of life, energy and enthusiasm for the job, but bureaucracy has worn them down? Perhaps they are so fearful of leaving the job, that despite their frustrations they stay, they have become unemployable and they effectively become a cancer cell within the corporate body.
Perhaps you have a person in your work who is simply horrific to deal with? In large organisations, there is always a Doctor No (perhaps a Doctor Gray). Have you ever noticed that they often look much older than they are or they have a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp? They have long ago locked their true selves away and they have forgotten who they once were.
We are witnessing a great resignation, but I see it as a great awakening. The pandemic has given many of us a chance time to pause, time to look in the mirror, to truly look at ourselves. We have dusted off the portrait of our authentic selves and decided to strive to be the person that we had forgotten that we once were.
It is not easy, it will be hard at the beginning, it takes courage to embrace yourself, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”