I never met my real grandfather. My dad was the oldest of three boys. He was six when his father died, at 32 years old, of a brain tumour. My grandmother was left with three children under the age of six, no skills to speak of and a house and mortgage to worry about. I can only imagine how difficult that was.
She met a man fairly quickly and she married him shortly after. He was kind, successful, decent and loved her very much. He would have had to, in order to take on the responsibility of three young boys who had lost their father. I’ve always respected him for that.
Given the ages of the three boys, my father was really the only one who knew what was going on. At six years old, he was old enough to know that daddy was gone and never coming back, and that a new man had stepped in and assumed the role. He never said so, but I imagine he was resentful growing up. I would have been. Who wouldn’t be?
Shortly after my grandmother remarried, and I suppose in an attempt to make her new husband happy, she removed all memories of my late grandfather from their lives. His pictures were thrown away, they moved to a new city leaving all his belonging behind, and my father and his two brothers were legally adopted by their new father. Their last names were changed (from Hoffman to Levitt) and my grandfather was as good as forgotten. They were forbidden to speak about him. In my grandmother’s mind at the time, she was doing the right thing and showing respect for her new husband. I’ve always resented her for that – especially after I became a father myself.
So my siblings and my cousins and I all grew up knowing the story, but never really talked about it. It had been engrained in all of us that it was simply a “no go zone” in my family.
When my wife was pregnant with our son Lucas, our first born, I went through a bit of an identity crisis. The importance of lineage and history became very important to me. I began a journey. I started asking tougher questions than I ever had…and with each attempt I came up largely empty handed. On a whim one day I bought a plane ticket to Vancouver (where my father was born), rented a car, and went in search of my late grandfather. I found the cemetery where he was buried, the house they grew up in, the hospital where he died and even some living relatives I had never known. I came back with a death certificate, some medical reports and a much better understanding of who the man was. It was an extremely emotional journey. I felt more connected to the man than I ever did my grandmother or step-grandfather.
I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what this poor man would see if he looked down from heaven. That his memory had been buried. That his children had no real recollection of who he was or how much he loved them. That he was forgotten. And I was determined to bring his memory back to my family. When my son Lucas was born, I (we) decided to make his middle name Hoffman -something that caused a lot of strife in the family, but that I felt was important. I wanted to make sure that my grandfather’s memory was dug up and brought back to life. I would want someone to do the same for me if I were ever to leave my kids to grow up without me.
It was intolerable to me that my grandfather’s death had unleashed a chain of circumstances that changed my family’s history and that we had to pretend it had never happened.
The silence, to me, was deafening. We should have been allowed to speak, share our feelings, help preserve the legacy of a man who died way too soon. This was a huge turning point in my life. I became highly averse to bullshit and games. Honesty and transparency I decided, was the best policy and not only how I was going to live my life, but what I would teach my children as well.
And I think this policy should extend to our work life as well. Because behind the happy masks we see at work, there is struggling, suffering, and pain that needs to be let out.
I took my own mask off about a year ago when I wrote a blog post about my own experience with depression. It changed everything for me. There was something about “coming out” that lifted a massive weight from my shoulders. I suppose I finally felt like I was being myself. I think that’s something we all struggle with.
For the sake of your health, career, team and company, I urge you to take off your mask too.
What We’re Hiding
We live in an era of mass disengagement at work, and we’re failing to acknowledge how life beyond 9 to 5 might play a role in this problem.
In 2014, ComPsych’s annual StressPulse Report, based on a survey of over 5,000 North American workers, found that the most common reason for employee absences (47%) are stress and “personal relationship issues” – even more so than illness and medical reasons (42%). Wow.
From Industrial to the Knowledge Economy
Personal struggles are spilling into work and affecting performance. Employers cannot stop this or continue to maintain the illusion that our professional and personal identities are separate – not when our inner state is the motor of the knowledge economy.
So what’s the knowledge economy?
50 or 100 years ago, if you worked in an assembly line, your boss didn’t care about how you were feeling. Your job was to assemble X number of units per hour, without mistakes and without getting injured or killed. Your value was measured in physical output. During the day, you were more machine than human. This worked because your emotional states, thoughts and personal issues had little bearing on your output.
In a knowledge economy, our inner state is the key to output, yet we are still expected to produce like a machine with a simple on/off switch. There is a contradiction between the on/off switch and the values that companies hold dear in the knowledge economy.
Facebook’s old mantra, “Move fast and break shit”, would quickly get you fired in the industrial era, but it is a recipe for success today. The most innovative companies want their employees to question more, experiment more, fail more, ‘ideate’ more and achieve constant innovation by levelling the present and building the future on its ruins.
Time no longer corresponds to output. Instead, we knowledge workers have to seek something far more elusive: quality.
Strength in Vulnerability
If you’re going through a brutal divorce, suffering from untreated mental illness, dealing with a child’s behavioral issues, mourning a lost friend or fighting cancer yet, you are expected to mask all the suffering at work and obey the “on” switch – how can you produce anything of quality?
For most people it’s not possible, and it’s simply inauthentic. Today, you have far more to gain through transparency and vulnerability.
Look at Sheryl Sandberg as an example. She has been completely open and honest about what she’s dealing with since the loss of her husband Dave Goldberg. I applaud her for that. By opening up to people and being transparent about her struggles, she has made herself seemingly more human and ingratiated herself with fellow employees and colleagues. If she wasn’t already a huge role model for women and men all over the world, she is now.
Rethinking the Workplace Persona
Usually, when people need time off, they say, “I have a personal issue to attend to.” It’s vague. It inspires concern and skepticism, not trust. I’m thankful to work with a team where people just say what’s really going on. I stand for a workplace where people can just be themselves, and that is the point of this post.
Look at your own experience – what do you really accomplish at work when you’re overwhelmed by personal matters and you feel compelled to hide them from your co-workers? When you suppress the personal identity that fuels your creative genius and permits you to be the most powerful version of yourself – the one that moves fast and breaks shit – how long can you maintain the charade before you burnout?
What’s the downside of being authentic? Will people doubt your abilities? I would argue that not being open is more likely to create doubts and suspicions.
All the repercussions are mostly in our imagination. When you’re in a tough place, colleagues will notice something. Share what’s happening, and they will understand. Trust that you work with people who have empathy and show them empathy in return.
The mind is the fountainhead of the knowledge economy, and the more we free it, the more we all have to offer. In the knowledge economy, it’s more “efficient” to be a human than it is to be a machine.
A doctor I spoke to in Vancouver, after looking through my grandfather’s medical records, told me that if he’d developed his brain tumour in today’s day and age, it would have been operable and that he likely would have lived. I can’t imagine how that might have changed my family’s course. We’ll never know. What I do know, is that I plan teach my children about their lineage and they will know where they came from.
I will also teach them to be open and honest and not pretend to be something they aren’t. To be who they are. Not to wear a mask. Something tells me my grandfather would approve.
Knock down the divide. Take off your mask. You’ll be healthier as a result.
I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave your comments here on the blog.
Read some of Jonathan’s other posts: