Natural and assumed selves

One night last week while I lay in bed reading I had classical music playing in the background. The first piece was by Ravel – his Piano Trio in A Minor. Tinkling piano is overlaid with sinuous violin – very Ravel. It’s a thoughtful, quiet piece that draws you in with the sense that there’s something going on beyond the music.

I would pause occasionally in my reading to listen more closely and the thought occurred naturally in me: this how I want to live. But what did that mean? I think that I wanted to live with music like this playing a more central place in my life – slowing me down, encouraging me to be thoughtful and to peer into the depths that the hustle of everyday life keep us too busy to look into. I wanted to be present, in the moment, as I was as I listened to the music.

I probably could have said the same thing at multiple stages of my life, though mostly there were other things that drew me away. This time, it feels as if the time is right. I’ve reached the end of the path and, if I chose, that’s the direction I could turn to.

The next day I had an early appointment at the hospital, after which I went into the office, where my team had gathered.

That afternoon I had a meeting with a vendor we have an vital relationship with. Also there was the head of digital, and my direct boss, B.

I used to have a great relationship with B. He’s a very decent human being, affable, intelligent, mostly authentic. The relationship soured a little bit when I was sick. As I’ve written, I felt neglected and sometimes forgotten. When we spoke it often felt as if he wasn’t listening completely. I felt he was a stooge for the company, more inclined to their interests than mine. He was certainly very clumsy with some of his language and behaviour.

It took the gloss off our relationship but I excused most of it on the grounds that he was very busy covering my role as well, and that he was just one of those people poor at managing awkward situations.

I returned to work in February to find the project he had inherited in my absence had been mismanaged. Conscious of my part-time status and the fact that I was no more than an interested bystander now, I tried to influence and direct the best I could to plug the holes and get the project back on track. I even had to step up at one stage and managed to get a few things done.

Overall, it was too late to make much difference, and I felt at times as if my interventions were seen as unwanted interference. I understood that and was sympathetic – it was an awkward position for both of us. Sometimes I was ignored, at other times my suggestions were rejected (wrongly, as it transpired), and occasionally they would be followed up.

By the time we met with the vendors last week I felt uncomfortable to the point of being disenchanted. By that time the go-live date had been postponed twice, and issues had emerged threatening the next deadline. The issues were those I had warned of and raised months before but had been fobbed off or ignored.

I sat in the meeting and realised that I had lost faith in B. He sat there with a grin on his face making comments that were not quite correct. Beside him, I was more incisive and direct – I know the product backwards. Then there was the head of digital, who favours B.

I understood why. B is a nice guy. He’s reliable and he won’t rock the boat and there’s a little of the unconscious martyr in him – you can load him up with work and he’ll get it done without complaint. He’s smart too, though it’s of a particular type. He has a technical mind and that’s how he sees the world. He’s blind when it comes to the operational, and even the functional. His thinking runs in a straight line, which is great for some roles, but not for others. Above all, he’s biddable, and I think that’s why he’s in favour.

What’s strange is that I started in my role appointed by the previous head of digital. He was disdainful of B and planned for me to take his place. But then he left. I wasn’t unhappy. I liked B and I was pretty sure I didn’t want his job.

But now, sitting there, I felt a kind of disgust. Not for him, but for the situation generally. I had realised a little while before that I was tired of hiding my light under a bushel. No-one knows what my experience is or the range of what I’m capable of. For the most part, I’ve kept silent, unsure of what I wanted.

With my health slowly returning I realised that I no longer wanted to hide away. I had no ambitions. There was no scheming in it. I just wanted to be honest with myself and others. And I sat there listening to people who knew a fraction of what I did, while I had a fraction of their authority. Let me tell you, it’s frustrating to listen to uninformed nonsense when you’ve made a living off what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, the project went live. It was good enough, no more. I was embarrassed to be part of it. This morning, as I lay in bed, I had a delegation of key stakeholders contact me rather than B, reporting issues. I can only guess they came to me knowing I would do something about it.

I spoke to B and ended up telling him he had to do a better job. He’s my superior. He hung up. I dealt with the issues while he spoke in platitudes. He laughed with the vendor. He spoke of what a good job had been done and how we must celebrate. Pardon me if I’m churlish, but I want nothing to do with it. I can’t celebrate a project done badly with mediocre results.

So we return to where we started. I want to live differently. And I’ve lost faith in B, and quite possibly my job in general. These seem to be compatible notions. In theory, at least.

In the real world, I’m not so sure. In the real world practicalities apply. I have to make a living. I have to earn a wage. What’s especially important for me is to put aside as much as I can for when I retire. That’s an urgent requirement.

In the real world I have to put up with B, I think. I’ve lost some respect for him, which makes it hard, but I still like him as a person. The sensible thing would be to stick to the original plan – hang in there until I qualify for long-service leave – maybe a year? – then defongerate.

Maybe then I can begin to live differently. I’m still as smart as I ever was and no-one disputes that. There’s a lot I can do, though it’s much too late to change career. What I can do now is prepare myself for different things and perhaps begin the transition, mentally at least. I know some things I must do and there seems no good reason why I shouldn’t start now.

It means that I have to be patient though, as well. I’ll be honest, upfront, I’ll be myself, but there’s no value in rocking the boat too much at this stage. What feels strange is that I’m very good at what I do, which seems very different to how I want to be. My assumed self is accomplished and authoritative, but what I long for is to be my natural self – or so it seems to me – who is a very different man.

There is a new head of digital starting in July so who knows what changes that brings. I know right now that if anyone attempts to clap me on the shoulder for a job well done on this project, I’ll shrug them off. Unearned praise is no recommendation.

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