The Best Way to Reveal Essential Truth? Read Fiction!

The Best Way to Reveal Essential Truth? Read Fiction!

Image: Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain, [Fair Use] via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout a colorful and productive career, Pablo Picasso exposed form and color, disassembling his subjects and reshaping them in ways that at once obfuscated and illuminated them. In 1923, in a famous written statement, Picasso defended his craft to those who failed to understand his motives and his work: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”  

Although Picasso describes the visual arts, the truth-revealing “lie” of the literary arts often surprises and delights Books@Work participants. Essential human truths come to life with well-crafted narrative, characters and conflicts that mirror those we confront in our daily lives. In this post, I want to describe two short stories and some of the “truths” they reveal in Books@Work discussions.

Many know Dave Eggers’ book, The Circle, but a shorter adaptation, entitled “We Like You So Much and Want To Get to Know You Better,” hit home so profoundly for a senior team in a manufacturing company that elements of the story continue to feature prominently in the team’s shared language. A newly-minted college graduate, the story’s protagonist joins an exciting hi-tech company and is welcomed into the fold. As employees choose to participate in a wide array of extracurricular activities within the company, they earn a “social score,” a measure of the breadth and depth of their participation that ultimately enhances or impedes their career progression. As the line between inclusion and intrusion blurs, Eggers’ heroine becomes disoriented by the increasing attention and struggles to distinguish the personal from the professional.

Picasso signatureReflecting on this story, a senior leader expressed, “I realize that in our company we sometimes give people an unofficial social score. It’s made me far more aware [that] we have to think about how [our employees are] experiencing the company, and some of these simple things that we think make sense – the dinner after work, the gathering to do a particular thing – that they could in fact be impacting how we view people, and it’s creating a social score.” As his team began the rollout of their own commercial excellence program, they returned to the “truths” of the Eggers story to remain mindful of the downsides of some otherwise well-intentioned initiatives.

A little further from the corporate world, James Joyce’s “A Little Cloud,” published in Dubliners in 1914, describes the lunchtime reunion of two male schoolmates whose lives have taken very different turns: one sets out to see the world and lives glamorously in the public eye while the other, a clerk, marries, has a child and contentedly supports his family. The clerk becomes so envious of his friend’s life and his apparent success that he begins to doubt and question his own choices. In a distribution company, a group of Books@Work participants identified with the characters in the story. Some saw their own experiences in the choices the characters made (and one saw  both characters in himself). Another participant had met an old high school friend within the two weeks leading up to their session and was astonished at the similarity of their encounter.

The group went on to discuss the timeless struggle of choosing the familiarity of home or leaving town to reshape and remake yourself. They discussed envy, perception and satisfaction, and the fact that even the most certain choices become uncertain when we compare ourselves to others. Like Picasso, Joyce looked to reveal the truth in his art: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Over one hundred years after Joyce wrote this piece, a group of American workers saw themselves in his story, reinforcing the universal truth of his art.

Many still ask us why we do not simply offer business books, and why we recommend stories that, on their face, have little to do with their everyday work challenges. But until we are fully automated in everything we do, the workplace remains a very human space, complicated by relationships and the beliefs and ideas that both unite and divide us. Fiction provides a safe space to explore these ideas, to grapple with perennial human questions, to connect to our history, our future and each other: a very necessary and truthful “lie” indeed.  

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.