Opinion

Embrace the chaos – success doesn’t mean being a eunuch in a suit

In this guest post, marketer Cathie McGinn argues that the professional world has more to learn from the happy toddler in the BBC blooper than her stressed dad in his suit

Last week a man had a bad day at work. Trying his hardest to interpret a complex political situation on international television, he is interrupted by his adorable children. A momentary embarrassment. But it’s caught the attention and the imagination of the connected world.

Not only was the story of Korea expert Prof Robert Kelly covered by every major media outlet in the world, it has spawned a bewildering array of think pieces (and here’s another!) on what the video reveals about everything from racism, the patriarchy and the thanklessness of working in academia, to child abuse. There are memes, parodies, tweets. First we loved it, and the inevitable backlash followed swiftly.

The reason this video struck such a powerful chord was not about parenthood, or the peculiar myopia of people less familiar with mixed-race families than having nannies: what unfolded tapped a mainline into the collective unconscious.

It perfectly depicts our daily struggle between the free, untrammelled, unfettered self (pictured here in a jaunty yellow jumper) and the imposition and limitation placed upon us by convention (symbolised by that dreadful tie).

The tensions playing across Professor Kelly’s face play across your brain, every day. No matter how much you love your job, no matter how well paid or fulfilling or status-enabling it is, somewhere in your heart beats a fierce desire to flip the table and moonwalk out of there, perhaps waggling your arms like a happy little duck.

We watch his face with the shock of recognition. What we saw was the moment when the mask slipped, the moment when the carefully constructed professional persona was revealed to be the fraud we secretly know it to be. We all wear those masks at work, different ones again at home, and we know that they sometimes chafe. It was a moment of pure jubilation to see someone, someone relying on a cultural shorthand we well understand, struggle to keep his securely attached.

And it was in part because we’re so familiar with, and so tired of, the particular tradition to which Robert E Kelly cleaves: the white male authority figure in a book-lined study, imparting selected extracts of the knowledge to which he is the gatekeeper – that made the undoing of that construct so delicious.

With fake news abounding, and the meteoric rise of DIY content, it’s clear that the fourth estate has changed beyond recognition, and the insistence on adhering to outmoded signifiers of eminence is increasingly ludicrous.

The question is why we insist that professionalism and authority looks like this. White House spokesman Sean Spicer wears a poorly cut suit and an ugly tie. It doesn’t demonstrate his integrity.  What professional and influential ought to look like, in 2017, is something more real, more truthful.

To be informed, educated and highly capable shouldn’t mean a denial of your humanity. We loved Robert Kelly’s kids because they broke through the veneer of respectability to remind us of the glorious, joyous spirit within us all that we try so hard to compartmentalise during work hours.

In the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum, “life finds a way.”

In any case, relying on people in suits to interpret the world for us plebs is not working. Marking the 28th birthday of the internet this week, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee outlined three major threats to the future of the web: one of these was his belief that “it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.”

What we ought to be worrying about is how we tackle misinformation and “alternative facts,”: how we ensure we, and future generations have the skills we need to navigate decentralised and proliferating data sources, and find the nuggets of truth amongst the sludge.

What the video calls into question is why we continue to create and maintain structures which require us to pretend that the person is invisible, and the professional (an idealized eunuch-person, with no children, partner, or love or chaos or joy in her/his existence) is the optimum worker. Does it make us happy to position our personal and professional lives in binary opposition? It does not.

It makes us less productive, results in a lack of diversity and imagination in our creative industries, and it creates painful internal struggles that compromise both work and home life.

Why do we view success as “wearing a suit without interruption”?

I will not deny the existence of myself as a messy, whole person, who may be, by-and-large, excellent at her job, and whose children are mostly healthy and happy, but can barely keep all the plates spinning much of the time. I don’t want to #LeanIn. I want to get real.

The lesson is LET GO AND BE THE HAPPY LITTLE DUCK.

The biggest question of all will, I expect, remain a mystery: was Professor Kelly wearing trousers?

  • Cathie McGinn leads marketing and communications for the Australian College of Midwives and is a former Mumbrella journalist
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