Originally published in Thrive Global on March 17, 2017.
The building was beige. The logo out front spoke with an architectural-fortitude, blocky and blue. It conveyed trust and solidity. The orderly cubicles contained the worker bees, every one of us in our allotment of the honeycomb. Directors had a double wide because they were special, but not too special. Vice Presidents and above were in an office. The meticulous grounds spoke with a forced fecundity rivaled only by the finest PGA golf courses and the poppies of Oz. There were lots of khaki pants, blue button-down shirts, and an army of gardeners scurrying about their business.
This was Silicon Valley.
Several times a day en route to the restroom, I passed a framed print on the wall that gave me pause. It was like a nudge or a poke, and I would avert my eyes.
The print is Golconda by René Magritte.
Magritte is famous for painting pictures of men in bowler hats and suits. If you don’t readily know him, you would probably recognize some of his paintings if you saw them. The men he paints are expressionless, their faces wiped out in ignominy. They are dressed alike, no individuality. The subject matter is stylized, architectural and rigid, utilizing straight lines and in this case a muted palette.
I appreciate Magritte. He is wonderful. Hollywood even made the movie The Thomas Crown Affaire, which features Magritte’s Son of Man, depicting a single bowler-hatted man with an inviting green apple blocking out his face. I love this painting.
It wasn’t the print that was wrong. It was the context. It was how it spoke to me. It was what it told me about myself.
Runnymede Farm can be seen from highway 280 in Woodside, California. The Tudor-style horse stables and surrounding acreage have been in the Rosenkrans family for over 80 years. The family is heir to the Claus Spreckels beet-sugar empire and has a tradition of supporting the arts: Alma de Bretteville Spreckels gave The Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum to the city of San Francisco in 1924. In the 1980s, John and Dodie Rosenkrans continued the family tradition of supporting the arts by building a private outdoor sculpture garden on the property. It is art al fresco in the landscape of Steinbeck.
I had the privilege of strolling the golden hills one sunny Mother’s Day long ago. The Rosenkrans’s had opened the property to the public that day, and I took my mother to see the art.
I have a vague recollection that the event pamphlet acknowledged the importance of sculpture placement. Understanding this was also inherent in the experience. The surroundings of well-placed sculpture serve it. Conversely, poorly chosen surroundings diminish it. The surroundings help to tell the story. They help to evoke the emotions that touch our hearts.
Some of the Rosenrkans’s sculptures are as big as buildings. The landscape frames the sculpture and sometimes the sculpture also frames the landscape. It was apparent that the Rosenkrans’s understood that the interplay between form and environment is integral to art.
The company I worked for tested my personality a lot. Sometimes, it was at my request. I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test twice over the years and eventually did something called an MBTI Step II Instrument that delivers a deeper analysis than the original test. I took the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. I took the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument.
It was common knowledge at the company that out of the myriad of different types of personalities possible, that eighty percent of the company tested as a single personality type. I was not in the eighty percent, but rather my personality represented a thin sliver of the pie.
The tests were helpful. Because of the personality divide, working at my company was a little like working in a foreign country, although you don’t have the benefit of others recognizing you as a foreigner. They don’t give you the benefit of the doubt for your differences or your fish-out-of-water cultural gaffs.
The reason these tools were helpful was that they gave me an understanding of the great chasm of style between me (an artist’s sensibility) and eighty percent of the company (an engineer’s sensibility) and some tools on how to deal with this largely male group of engineers.
In short, the onus was on me to change my style in order to be effective with a dominant and formidable force. You could give the eighty percent all the correlated training to be effective with me also, but the reality is that nothing was compelling them to alter their style. Everything was compelling me to alter mine.
In 2014, The Davis Museum at Wellesley College held a temporary exhibit of artist Tony Matelli’s sculpture. Matelli specializes in lifelike figure sculpting. As part of the exhibit, his sculpture Sleepwalker was placed out of doors on the main road at the college. Sleepwalker depicts a man in nothing but his skivvies, arms outstretched, somnambulating. From a distance, he (or rather it) looks like a real, albeit very cold, man. Depending on the weather, he looked as if he were trudging through the snow. It made him appear creepy and frail and vulnerable. He was out of place at this women’s college.
The sculpture caused a ruckus. Sleepwalker was so lifelike that it triggered painful memories for some students who had endured sexual abuse and trauma. On the other end of the spectrum it was comedic, this nearly naked man in a woman’s world.
Students started a petition to remove the figure or at least get it inside the museum. Some argued that this statue was in exactly the wrong spot because of the emotions it brought up. It was after all, in an unavoidable public place on campus.
There was a great deal of discussion that ensued about this Sleepwalker and art in general among students, alumnae and the public at large. Creative freedom, social issues, and art itself were up for debate.
Per the New York Times:
“The reaction to the sculpture also surprised Mr. Matelli, who said he intended the sculpture to be a vulnerable depiction of a man, in contrast with the aggressive, monumental figures that are more typically wrought in statues of men.‘What they see in the sculpture, is not in the sculpture,’ said Mr. Matelli…”
The sculpture spoke to people in many different ways. It told a story and to each person who viewed it, the story it told was theirs. Instead of being in the exact wrong spot, it was in the exact right one.
It is not only sculpture where environment is important. It is also true with paintings.
The color of the paint on the wall of the museum: Important. Where the painting hangs on the wall and how much wall surrounds it: Important. The configuration of the paintings hanging together and the order in which they hang: Important. The overall feeling in the room and the flow of the wall space: Important.
Placement is important.
The more unhappy I became at work, the louder and more insistently Golconda spoke to me. It was as if a talking cricket had leapt onto my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “Pssst, they are turning you into a drone.”
It was in the wrong spot.
It struck a cord.
It did not let me ignore it.
Golconda depicts a raining sky of expressionless bowler-hatted men over a dreary city street in straight regular lines into infinity. All the tight neat buildings have tiny, regular windows. Everything is the same, no variety.
That painting was busting the bounds of its 2D frame. I was living in this painting, as far as I was concerned. My company was the 3D version of it. The common dress. The blank expressions. The calm, number focused talk. All that tidy efficiency, from the lined-up cubicles to the rules of order in meetings.
Windows like zeros and vertical men dropping from the sky like ones. Golconda was an echo of binary code. The imagery in the frame was amplified by the surroundings of my office.
This was a very well run company. Part of the reason it hummed along as well as it did was all of that imposed consistency.
Golconda. Not a woman in that raining sky. Not one.
I was a square peg in a round hole.
Women accounted for around twenty percent of the company at the time. Our ranks in the higher echelons were miniscule. There was only one woman on the executive staff. Even the human resources and marketing organizations, typically the bastion of female management, were run by men.
Once, a previous Executive Vice President of Human Resources held an ice cream social in the afternoon, Wednesday before Thanksgiving. While I believe his heart was in the right place, the gesture was myopic. I went to the event because I felt that it was important to be seen for my career, albeit I showed up only briefly. All I could think when the invitation arrived in my email was that this man was obviously not cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.
“It is so grey here, Susie-Q,” the cricket on my shoulder needled. “No room for individuality. No room for you.” I was turning grey and faceless like those people raining from the sky in the painting.
I worked very hard at using the tools and insights I learned from the personality tests to adjust my natural style to be effective and to be heard. I worked at it from the moment I entered that beige world in the morning to the moment I left in the evening, day after day, year after year.
The personality tests were helpful because they gave a common ground for analyzing style. They gave a method for getting your point across when your communications hit a roadblock.
One of the fundamental differences between my personality and a typical engineer is the methodology for solving problems. I would envision a solution and then map the steps to get there. The engineering personality typically looked at the situation as it stood and then figured out how far they could take it, given the constraints. They were notoriously risk averse. I was okay with taking responsible risks. They tended toward a linear argument while I was more associative in my thinking style.
At one point, I had a boss with a very similar thinking style to mine. It was wonderful. Our conversations were in shorthand and during staff we would get from A to Z very quickly, although often the rest of the staff members would be scratching their heads as to how we got there. We would then have to translate back through a different style so that we could all level set together.
Engineers start with the numbers and finish with the idea. My natural inclination is to start with the idea and then back it with the numbers. I got better at the language of engineer over time, but I never achieved fluency. In the beginning, they often looked at me as if I had ten heads and a cricket on my shoulder when I started to speak. I quickly learned that if I wasn’t vigilant in translating my ideas to engineer speak, my ideas would often be dismissed out of hand.
It was exhausting.
“You should practice lowering your voice as you drive to work in the morning,” one boss had coached me. “They have done studies and men don’t hear in the range of a typical woman.” This is the level of detail I had to consider in building my career. While I did not like this advice, I believed there might be something to it.
The reality is not that men have difficulty hearing. The study my boss referred to out of the University of Sheffield in England, indicates that a different area of the brain is activated when males listen to males versus females. According to a Discover Magazine article on the study, “Women’s voices stimulate an area of the brain used for processing complex sounds, like music. Male voices activate the ‘mind’s eye,’ a region of the brain used for conjuring imagery.” While the study is inconclusive in terms of how this plays out in the world of gender dynamics, it suggests that physiology may make a difference in how people pay attention.
Gender bias is an extremely complex topic, but in a world where women in power are routinely accused of being shrill and electronic office assistants are routinely assigned female voices, there is at least a correlation.
Watch the movie The Iron Lady. The movie portrays Margaret Thatcher going through all kinds of vocal gymnastics, training her voice into the lower decibels. You can also listen to a clip of Hillary Clinton giving her 1969 Wellesley College commencement speech. Compare Clinton’s voice as a young graduate to a clip of her 2016 presidential concession speech. I don’t know for sure, but based upon the evidence, I surmise that Clinton may have gone through voice training.
I appreciated that my boss was trying to help me. Yes, I actually did try to practice lowering my voice on my commute from time to time.
What I don’t understand: while I practiced changing my natural manner of speech, why aren’t men concurrently being coached to practice how to listen? If they don’t learn to pay better attention, they likely will miss something important.
I liked to imagine that Golconda hanging on the wall near the restroom was a corporate art curator’s passive-aggressive inside joke to my company as he or she let the door hit them on the way out.
I didn’t think it was funny.
The breaking point for me came in the form of a management decision that I was asked to carry out. I had solid objections to the decision, including the decision process. My objections fell on deaf ears, and I was told that I must carry out the directive.
“Hey, Sue,” the companion on my shoulder said. “Why are you working here anyway?”
I quit the next day.
I gave two weeks notice in the letter. I was free. I embodied a combination of unbridled joy and extreme terror at what I had done. My veins cranked on pure adrenalin, pushing those equal and opposite emotions through my heart at the same time. I didn’t regret it.
The following afternoon, the Executive Vice President called me to his office. He was a man I respected a great deal. I believed that he was someone who valued a diversity of gifts, and I believed that he valued my contribution. I told him why I quit. He told me I was too emotional. He told me that he was emotional too, but he knew how to hide it better. He told me that I should hide it better, too. I told him about the painting. He told me to take a two-week vacation.
“When you come back, you will have a new boss.”
We walked down the hall together after the meeting and before he forked toward the restrooms, I pointed out Golconda hanging on the wall.
“I have been working here all these years, and I never even noticed that painting before,” he said.
I went home. I researched Golconda. I researched Magritte. According to the University of Houston’s Dr. Sandra Zalmen in her book Consuming Surrealism in American Culture: Dissident Modernism, Magritte was highly critical of the bourgeois class, and his paintings were a commentary on it. Magritte did have to work, and so he started an advertising agency with his brother to support his wife and make ends meet. Thus, Magritte was part of the bourgeois class that he criticized. This prompted BBC filmmaker George Melly to state, “’he is a secret agent, his object to bring into disrepute the whole apparatus of bourgeois reality. Like all saboteurs, he avoids detection by dressing and behaving just like everybody else.’”
Like me, Magritte transformed himself into the ignominious, bowler-hatted bourgeois mensch. Like me, he would have much rather been doing his art. But, maybe there was more to it.
I thought about Magritte and Golconda a lot on my vacation.
Magritte was a surrealist.
Could he be poking fun?
After all, men raining from the sky is inherently fun.
I returned to work after two weeks and a much needed break. After my research, the painting had palpably changed for me. Now, when I went to the restroom, I didn’t look away. It spoke to me differently.
“You’ve got this,” it said. “Like a secret agent.”
Similar to art, people impact environments and environments impact people. Placement is important. Sometimes it takes time to evolve the context, time to shape it with your presence and for it to shape you. Sometimes you need to know when your gifts would thrive better in a new place. Sometimes you need to change the story you tell yourself, reframe it to take back your power.
Disengaging from the cricket on your shoulder and those little whispers in your ear isn’t the answer. Usually that little guy (or gal) is telling you something important. Pay attention to it.
Golconda was in exactly the right spot.
I identified with Magritte who had to be a part of the bourgeois world in order to earn his keep. How delightfully playful this painting was that hung outside the restroom. How free René Magritte was, even as he drew within the lines.
Please follow Susan von Konsky at www.vonkonsky.com and on Twitter @susanvk_1