I contain multitudes
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman
There’s a movement going on, invisible but powerful. I’m not sure how it started, but I’ve been swept up.
I keep hearing, nowadays, that we should be able to bring our whole selves to work. That a sufficiently psychologically safe work environment doesn’t require us to be “professionals”, but to be our raw and honest selves. Only by being ourselves can we unlock the next stage of creativity and do our best work.
In Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux introduces us to organisations that are more like organisms, with no one at the “top”, full of people who are doing their best to contribute to their collective goals. In these “teal” organisations, concepts such as a strict hierarchy make very little sense, because the person closest to the work is normally the person with the most information, and therefore the best person to make any decisions. Management, and supervision, exist not so much to keep people in line and doing their jobs, but rather to make sure that the collective consciousness is constantly improving itself.
In a teal organisation, we encourage people to find the place in which they can thrive, generating energy and enthusiasm instead of exhausting themselves at their desk. We do this by creating an environment in which it’s easier to improve than to be static, allowing people to take risks and experiment with trust that if they fail, they can try again… and most importantly, we respect each other and understand that we are creating an organisation not just to make a profit (though that is often important), but to make a difference, both inside and outside.
And so, from my place of privilege, I do my best to be honest, and to improve my workplace culture so that others feel safe enough to be open too. I tell my line manager when I think he’s wrong. I constantly campaign for change. I work tirelessly to not just fix a problem, but fix the environment so that problems of that nature become less and less likely.
Throughout all this, I keep telling myself, “This is good, this is progress, but we’re still not bringing our best self, our whole self, to the workplace. We’re still holding back.”
And then it struck me. I keep using “we”, not “I”.
I strive to bring my whole self to my workplace, but I’ll never reach this goal. I cannot do it because the “I” that I refer to is not one person, but many, overlapping, contradicting, constantly in flux. There is the “me” of my childhood, always trying to be funny, never quite sure who’s laughing with him and who’s laughing at him. There’s the “me” that loves going to conferences, always chatting, never without a quip as I wander off. There’s the version of me that loves food, and the version that sees eating as a waste of time. With some people I’m serious, with some I wouldn’t dream of it. There’s the extrovert, and the introvert. The philosopher and the video gamer. The author and the doomscroller. The professional and the pain in the arse.
I have many selves, and they are all me. That “professional” I cast off is as much “myself” as the video gamer or the coffee aficionado. I am all of these, and more, and I have no right to present one of them as myself at the expense of withdrawing another.
I will always struggle to bring my whole self to work, because I contain multitudes, ever-contradictory, always evolving, never still.
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