What’s Frida Kahlo got to do with it?

“Have you ever seen Frida Kahlo’s painting, The Two Fridas?” I asked Ellen.

Ellen shook her head.

I opened my iPad, googled the image, and shared it with her. “What comes to your mind when you see this painting?”

I could see Ellen trying to make the connection, but failing.

“Ok. Let me reflect back to you what I’ve heard, so that I’m not missing anything.”

Ellen gave me the go-ahead.


Ellen was a thirtysomething marketing professional whose parents had immigrated from Singapore. Married with two kids, Ellen lived in New York with her husband, and within a short subway ride from her parents. Ellen was widely respected within her organization, Alpha, given her track record of execution.


However, Ellen was feeling a vague discomfort at work. In our coaching session she mentioned that she’d just gotten a new manager, Linda, as her previous one, Bruce, had recently retired. Ellen had gotten along fabulously with Bruce, working together for five years. In fact, Ellen had met Bruce at another employer, Beta, and when he’d decided to move, Ellen had joined him. 


“Tell me more about your discomfort with Linda?” I asked.

“I can’t read her. She’s a closed book. ” Ellen responded. “She’s new to Alpha. I don’t know what she thinks of me.” 

I then asked Ellen to describe her relationship with Bruce.

Ellen gushed about Bruce. How the two were a great team. They collaborated well on projects. Ellen was good at execution and as her manager Bruce gave her ample credit and projection.

“We clicked almost from the start five years ago. It was such a relief to work with Bruce at Beta. He didn’t make me miss Tim at all!”

“Wait. Who’s Tim?” I inquired.

“Tim was my manager before Bruce. I had worked with Tim for four years. Moving to Beta from Gamma, where Tim and I met.” Ellen clarified.

“And, where did you work before Gamma?” I asked.

“At Venus. I worked there for four years. Venus was my second job. After college, I started my career at Mercury where I spent three years.” Ellen elaborated.


Suddenly, something struck Ellen. “Ok. I see it now! I work for 4 years and then I move. THAT explains my dissatisfaction!”

“Possibly.” I smiled. “Can you tell me why you moved from Mercury to Venus?”

“Oh, my manager, Allan, quit Mercury to join Venus. He asked me to accompany him.”


It then clicked for me. “So, here’s my hypothesis. Tell me what you think of it.” I added “The pattern isn’t that you move every four odd years - it’s that you move with your manager. But, that pattern is now broken because Bruce retired and your new manager was hired from outside. So now you don’t know what to do, or explain the uneasiness.”


I continued: “The real question is: why do you move with your manager each time?”

As her energy shifted, I could feel that our conversation had taken Ellen to a sacred place, deeper than job dissatisfaction. “Because I don’t trust easily.”

I sensed a pattern of past betrayals behind that response, but did not probe further. Staying in the present, I asked “How do you think your trust issues impact your career?”

Ellen reflected. “I’m always someone’s sidekick. I only get credit for execution. But, I’m never seen as the lead. I now see that my trust issues create relationships of dependency.”


I showed Ellen The Two Fridas again. 

“That’s why I brought up The Two Fridas. One serves as the life force for the wounded other. But, you don’t need it. You’re whole. You could chart an independent path, if you wish.”


Having seen the myth she was living, and finding no reason to continue doing so, Ellen later applied for a more senior job at a competitor and now leads a department.   


(*) Name and tertiary details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.

We live a ‘constructed’ reality

“The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: “I don’t intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.” “Don’t you think God knows the facts?” Bethe asked. “Yes,” said Szilard. “He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.

-Hans Christian von Baeyer, Taming the Atom

Perception is reality.

It’s taken me a while to accept that. Yes, I understood it at an intellectual level, but not deep down. I kept persisting with the belief that there’s an objective reality called ‘The Truth’. No matter that truth has many faces, as captured brilliantly in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon. To be sure I understood the ‘Rashomon Effect’ - the contradictory, but plausible interpretations of the same incident by different people - but I never fully absorbed the implications until I found the link that had been missing for me:

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. 

-Thomas Theorem

It’s the interpretation of a situation that causes us to act. Our outcomes are shaped by the story we tell ourselves to make sense of an event. Ergo, perception is (causes) reality.

What brought this home powerfully was a coaching session with a client, James (*). The personal myth that James was unconsciously living was that he had no power – that he was at the mercy of forces bigger than him much like the Biblical legend of Jonah being swallowed by the whale (for disobedience). James had come to America fifteen years back after getting admitted to a Top 20 MBA program. Upon graduation, he’d secured a job where his employer sponsored him for the H1-B visa that would allow him to work and live in the United States. James faced a rough few years initially. He regularly worked extremely long hours. Even on major holidays like Thanksgiving, James would be busy modeling a prospective transaction handed to him last minute by his boss. When I raised my eyebrow at working through Thanksgiving, James remarked bitterly “His attitude was: be thankful you have a job!” James’ boss knew that he couldn’t quit, because he’d lose the work visa and have to leave the country. Then, how would he pay back his USD student loans? His life would be turned upside down… 

James suffered through this bondage in the ‘Land of the Free’, and became resentful and cynical of senior management. He developed a negative attitude and that reputation followed him in all succeeding internal assignments. Eventually, after the requisite years had lapsed, James became a U.S. Permanent Resident, and left his employer shortly thereafter.

At his new employer, James faced similar issues. He didn’t develop a healthy professional or social network, and continued fraternizing almost exclusively with other professionals who shared his heritage. This was another personal myth: I’m an outsider and will never get acceptance in America. I held a mirror to him and gently reflected how his perception and myth were holding him back from achieving all that he was capable of. He was merely surviving. To thrive he needed to live the right personal myth that would help him adjust culturally. I also asked him to examine his antagonism with ‘senior management’. James still carried the overarching perception that he was working in an oppressive system and to maintain his personal dignity and self-respect, he needed to be a rebel and not a “corporate slave”. But, I pointed out, things were different now: James not only had the power to choose his attitude, he also had the freedom to choose another employer rather than be miserable at work.

James was a prisoner of many personal myths he should have long discarded. Granted, rebelliousness may have helped his soul to survive a disrespectful environment to get what he wanted (U.S. Green Card), but times were now different. James had more options, and he could choose a new myth to guide his worldview, work interactions, and social relationships.


(*) Name and tertiary details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.