On Houses of Cards

There’s no better way to over power a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.

This week has been a week of getting back to basics. In my life, whenever things start to slip, to fly out of control, my strategy is to fall back to my core. Simplify. Find my center and balance. Tug the anchor that is my foundation to make sure I’m not going to drift in the storm. What an old, wise friend just wrote, about being true, to yourself and others, to find the nuggets of shiny truths that exist in the chaos.

The other day, I had a “premeeting meeting” with my coworkers about a pretty important stage in our project. It became clear that there were some pie in the sky goals that are, quite honestly, a bit daunting. I looked at my partner in crime on this project, who plays the good cop to my bad cop, and he said to me “I’m not worried, Vic. Because we have built this thing the right way, it’s solid. We know it’s gonna go.” And there was the bottom line: we took the time to plan our approach, we were realistic about our chances of success on every possible path, we did the work to give us what we needed to make informed decisions and assessed “disaster checks,” and we were nimble enough to switch paths when one was clearly leading to a dead end. There was no ego in its conception and creation, just vision, grit, and authenticity. We had absolute confidence in the foundation of the project and everything we were building on it. Because of that, any unforeseen challenges would be met with the resolute knowledge that this was grounded in reality.

Contrast that to another time. When I was still working for the startup company spawned out of MIT in Cambridge, MA, I had a number of smart and ambitious coworkers. That type of environment caters to egos, and the sheer magnitude of work and the high expectations can cause ego to turn bad when you have a number of “stars” all trying to grab the limelight. I had many roles in the company, and one of the most critical ones was in data analytics. I designed a framework for gathering key pieces of data from all facets of our work, from chemistry, analytics, biological responses, and process development, and looked for structure-function relationships to guide research efforts and predict device performance. I had teased out a model that demonstrated the driving variables that correlated bench data to real world data, and had put together the story to present to the wider team. I sent the information to be collated with everyone else’s update to a coworker who coordinated that weekly. A few minutes later, I surprisingly got a call out of the blue from him asking if it was okay if he slid some slides in before mine, since he had some data he thought might compliment my work. I acquiesced. Imagine my surprise when during the meeting, the “compliment” was him stealing my conclusions and presenting them as his own, with my data slides supposedly supporting his “insights!” To further fan the flame, he continued to take credit and take over the model, which, being a remote and part time employee, I decided to let go. One picks one’s battles, and this was a losing proposition. However, since my work was usurped by a person who had little understanding of the fundamentals of the system and therefore the key assumptions and caveats in its derivation, he could not understand that the model was limited. I knew, and had already started to extend its utility. But since I’d been cut out….well. Let’s just say that this knowledge was never translated, and the house of cards my coworker built upon a tenuous foundation collapsed in a spectacular way a few months later, to his embarrassment. If you give enough rope to a person, they take care of themselves.

We all have a foundation, a set of innate talents, values, and philosophies, which define us. It supports our fondest wishes, reflects our deepest dreams and desires, and is what we rely on to achieve our goals. It’s what we build our relationships on, and drives our daily activities. But sometimes in life, we face challenges that break us, sometimes so destructive we crack to the core, and we are faced with rebuilding that foundation. It could be a lay-off (the treasonous coworker above admitted to me much later that he was motivated by fear of job loss to steal my work, which did not absolve his actions), a marriage soured, friendships betrayed, bad health, an accident, or loss of a loved one. And that’s when, sometimes, the pieces we chose to rebuild our foundation may be weak, false, and not serve our true selves.

I’ve written before about the lies we tell ourselves, and being authentic. No where is having a strong foundation revealed more clearly for its truth than when we work to reach our true potential. When we find cracks in our foundation, let light shine in to reveal why our core was broken, and show us how to strengthen it and make it unbreakable. Doing soul work requires complete exposure, honesty, revealing every strength, weakness, the dark and light parts inside of us, and the raw courage to accept, love, and change, if needed, ourselves. When we do, we are able to grow to be so much more than ever imagined.

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