Phantom of the Workplace
“Close your eyes for your eyes will only tell the truth, and the truth isn’t what you want to see.”
- Music of the Night from the Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart)
I was listening to the musical score of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera again, recently. As I listened this time, it occurred to me that the story could be applied, metaphorically, to the problem of uncovering creativity in the workplace.
“The Phantom of the Opera is there…, inside your mind.”
- Angel of Music from the Phantom of the Opera
In Phantom of the Opera, the heroine, Christine, is searching for her “angel” of music. This “angel,” spoken of by her father, will help her to unlock the talent within her and will lead to her fame and success as a singer. But the “angel” is hidden in the shadows and draws on the dark and uncontrollable forces of the night. The only way for Christine to discover her voice is to work with the Phantom. At the same time, she is engaged in a struggle not to be overcome and wholly possessed by him.
This is often our experience in the workplace. We have a talent that lies dormant within us. To learn about it and to express it will require stepping outside the normal boundaries of daily responsibilities into an ill-defined shadow world. It is a world that is both alluring and frightening to us.
The daily jobs before us are carefully spelled out in job descriptions with duties and tasks that are laid out in great detail. We have looming deadlines and supervisors who expect us to remain on schedule.
But every once in a while we catch a glimpse that there could be more for us. We could pursue a path that would take us to a new and exciting place. That path is the path of creative discovery. It might lead to a more effective way of doing something in our organization. It might be the opportunity to start an initiative that will address a need we have uncovered. It might lead to a new product or service that will be valued by our customers. It might even be the opportunity to unearth the talent that we had, dormant, within us that had never before been expressed.
“Nighttime heightens, sharpens each sensation.”
- Music of the Night from the Phantom of the Opera
There is, of course, a catch. To get there we need to cross into a world of shadows and danger, like the underground caverns inhabited by the Phantom of the Opera. The face of our deepest talent is very much the face of the Phantom, half disfigured and resentful that it is unacceptable to the sensibility of everyday life, and half filled with a beauty that is profound and moving to the deepest regions of the soul.
Because the disfigured form is repulsive but also because the beauty is not able to be controlled and brought forth on schedule, there is no room for this Phantom talent in the ordinary day-to-day of our work world. So our personal “Phantom” remains hidden beneath the masks we wear in our daily interactions.
Of course, no true creativity is part of the ordinary day-to-day of our work. It is extraordinary. It is beyond the humdrum of our regular responsibilities. That is what sparks our dreams of a better and a more fulfilling way to work. That is why the moments when we do catch a glimpse of the potential that lays dormant within us is so disturbing to us. It becomes harder to endure the routine, but it also takes great courage to pursue.
We are tempted to throw off the ordinary and explore these dark caverns of creativity.
Yet we are also afraid to enter and so find ourselves resenting both our insight and that no one else has thought of it and brought it forward so that we won’t have to take the journey into the night. The metaphor of the Phantom suggests that it is only our decision if we are to encounter this talent within us; no one else can do this for us. Do we enter the shadows and pursue our creative ability or not?
Most of us are like Christine. We are placed in the role of the understudies and someone else in the organization is the one recognized to be talented and beautiful. Surely, we think to ourselves, we do not possess what they bring to the workplace. We do not even acknowledge to ourselves that there might be music deep within us waiting to be released. We are afraid to see if there is an “angel” within us, even more frightened to struggle with its darkness so as discover its beauty and find its release. However, the “angel” will not work with any other hero of the organization. It is our creativity that we glimpse. It cannot be passed on to another. If I do not encounter it within me, it will go unexpressed.
This is our dilemma. There is a clear path to follow in the workplace. It is laid out in our job description and carefully supervised by our managers. If we follow the clear path we will be the good understudies who are paid for doing what we are told. But, every once in a while, we realize that there is something more. The creative urge is one that will take us off the well-defined road into a more shadowy, more dangerous and potentially more fulfilling role.
Do we risk it?
Encountering the “Phantom” of our talent will take us out of the day to day routine. Many creative projects are initiated outside of work hours and off the work site. Once we have glimpsed the creative talent that lies deep within us, it is difficult to ignore it. The talent begins its process of possessing us.
“Christine you must have been dreaming, stories like this can’t be true.”
- The Mirror from the Phantom of the Opera
At first, it may seem like we are only dreaming. Could this idea really find a place in our organization? Why would anyone listen to me? What could I offer that the “star” of the organization has not done and done better than I? To put forth the idea is to risk rejection. In my metaphor, this is what the disfigured side of the face of the Phantom represents. The creative impulse is not one that is readily accepted or easily finds in place. It is often experienced as strange or even repulsive because it is new and different. When our talent is rejected it is easy for us to become resentful toward the organization. This is the dark and dangerous side of our deepest impulses. If we never allow ourselves to become acquainted with the creative impulse we will not have to deal with the shock or dismissal by others. The price is that we will also never encounter the beauty of the music the Phantom produces.
The whole creative endeavor would be easier if someone could guarantee success. It would be easier if the organization or someone would provide us with a map of the cavernous regions the Phantom inhabits so that we never risk becoming lost. Where is the book titled “5 Steps to Creativity,” provided for us in the form of a workbook? Where is the 100% money back guarantee that we will be successful? The journey toward encountering our talents offers no such security. It can seem too vague, too dark to enter. What if I try and fail? What if I bring forth my creative talent and it is rejected? These are the rational arguments to leave the creative endeavor alone.
Yet the idea will not go away. It frightens us, but it also inspires us.
“Let me be your shelter, let me be your light….”
- All I Ask of You from the Phantom of the Opera
In the story of the Phantom, it is here that Raoul enters. Raoul is the young man who has fallen in love with Christine and who promises her “no more talk of darkness, forget these wide eyed fears….” His promise is to stay with her to protect her from the fright of the creature who threatens to possess her. Christine wants this to be true and begs his reassurance. It is the assurance that for which we all hope. We look for the strong and powerful figure that will bring out the best within us without have to journey through the dangerous and dark regions of the underground.
He is unable to rescue her, however. She must encounter the Phantom, be taken by him and enter his underground world before she will truly find her own voice. There is no rescue from her journey. His promise cannot be kept because she will not allow him to keep her from this quest.
The desire to design the workplace that will rescue us from the struggles and difficulties of our creative impulses contains an equally hollow promise. In my metaphor, the well meaning Raoul misunderstands the nature of the Phantom. He sees the Phantom as evil, as the fallen angel. But the Phantom is a more complex figure who represents the reality that some of those aspects of myself that are most valuable only emerge with great struggle and great courage. The workplace that is without challenge, completely efficient, with no chance to encounter the messiness of our own Phantom does not rescue us but dooms us to a shallow and meaningless work experience.
“What raging fire unlocks the door, what rich desire unlocks its soul?”
-The Point of No Return from the Phantom of the Opera
We often yearn for the executive who will provide a comfortable job that is completely safe. We hope for the organization that will be always at our side, protecting and soothing our fears. The price of a career that is completely safe is that we will never find our true talent. It is a journey that no one can take for us. If we are to be truly alive and to truly express our deepest talent we must voluntarily travel past the point of no return.
It is a journey that some will never take, too afraid of the chaos or the potential to fail.
Others battle with the Phantom and are able to discover how to bring their talents into the light of day. This is never an easy process but becomes the opportunity for both the individual and the organization to find new ways to grow and flourish.
Organizations and executives must resist the impulse to take the role of Raoul because they cannot promise to make us safe from ourselves. A fully efficient and safe workplace offers no real opportunity for growth. We must design our organizations to tolerate the darkness and danger of the discovery of talent. Raoul becomes effective in his efforts for Christine only after she has entered the underground of the Phantom and he follows her to find her in the darkness. Christine did not need a Raoul to keep her safe, she needed someone who could help her to face her challenge with courage and who would stand beside her during her journey. This is the true role of the mentor. It is also the most common quality that is mentioned as a description of the leader who is truly effective and who brings out the best in his or her employees.Most new ideas have taken years of work and struggle and even defeat in order to be truly beneficial to the human community. It is a struggle that is metaphorically similar to the battles related in the Phantom of the Opera. The organizations that have been able to foster those discoveries have had to find ways to be patient with the messy processes of creative endeavors. Those who are unafraid of the dark caverns of creativity are those who have built the American culture we all enjoy today.