“I once saw a cartoon,” he told me. “It was about a huge tree, cut down, stripped of its leaves and branches, and then fed into a factory which whittles it down and down until, at the end, out pops a single toothpick.”
“And I am that toothpick” he said, with sadness. “Once, I had wide-ranging interests, a full and varied life, but I’ve allowed myself to become narrowed and withered by my single-minded pursuit of my career, and it’s years since I’ve touched any of them. It’s not how I intended to live.”
You can see some stills from the cartoon, produced in 1939 by Walter Lanz of roadrunner fame, here, including the striking final frame where the toothpick is born.
It was a rare moment of vulnerability and truthfulness among a group of senior corporate leaders. And I had a strong sense of the opening that this could be for him and for the people around him to do something about the condition they, and their whole organisation, found themselves in. Because, as I’ve said in elsewhere on these pages, often we don’t get to see what our doing is doing to us and to those around us.
More of us have become toothpicks than we might care to admit, armouring ourselves against our deepest longing, living a divided life. And in doing so, we have other people become this way too. It exacts a huge cost from everyone.
As Giles Fraser argues this week, feeling and articulating our own essential human vulnerability in this way is the first real opportunity to have our most human needs met, because it’s the moment we admit – perhaps for the first time – that we have human needs at all, and so does everyone else around us.
It’s our first opportunity to put our lives back together. And no amount of hardening ourselves by denying, defending, posturing, or using status or seniority as a mask can do this for us.