Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, was without doubt the theatrical sensation of 2017. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, the show has become a runaway box-office hit in the UK and the US.
Hamilton is one of America’s most influential and, prior to this production at least, less recognized founding fathers. Having served as a senior General under Washington in the Revolutionary War, he wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers. To this day these documents provide the most authoritative interpretation of the US constitution. As a member of Washington’s first cabinet, Hamilton ran the US Treasury and founded America’s first National Bank. A trained lawyer, later in life he helped to end the legality of the slave trade. But how did such an unlikely hero and from such humble beginnings emerge to scale such historical heights? Or, in the words of the libretto, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Hamilton the musical endeavors to wrap up the mystery.
Behind every great man, or so the saying goes, is a great woman. From her first entry Hamilton’s would-be partner and will-be long-suffering wife looks to take centre stage. While gender inhibits her own ambitions, a partnership with Hamilton brings promotion to higher echelons and locates her at the centre of a historic social circle. There is much to be exploited and enjoyed. That is until she discovers the humiliating details of her husband’s infidelity. Beating a tragic retreat Elizabeth, in her own words, “erases herself from the narrative,” swapping politics and power for seclusion and solitude.
Elizabeth’s story doesn’t finish here. In the grand finale she announces her comeback. From hereon she “puts herself back in the narrative,” and in the closing moments of the production she prophecies a long list of future achievements. In the years to come Elizabeth Hamilton would become a renowned social reformer and philanthropist in her own right, speaking out against slavery and among other feats, establishing New York’s first private orphanage. As the curtain falls Elizabeth Hamilton is warming up for fifty years of campaigning, fundraising and social activism.
The story of Elizabeth Hamilton haunts me. Not simply because my youngest daughter can’t stop singing it! In times of personal disappointment, rejection or failure, many of us long to withdraw and hide. No matter how much we long to be the centre of attention, we all experience times when we would rather “erase ourselves from the narrative.” For some, failure leads to an identity crisis or a crash of self-confidence. For others betrayal by loved ones, colleagues or even the organisations we serve, paves the way for intense anger, suffocating bitterness and the occasional irrational outburst. Where some find themselves wracked with fear and anxiety, looking over their shoulders — the first symptom of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ — others endeavour to carry on regardless, working through gritted teeth and all the time concerned that this next year might just finish them off. It’s no wonder that we feel tempted to erase ourselves in or from these challenging narratives. However, as with Eliza Hamilton, there is another option. We do have choices.
As we think about the choices that we can make in 2018 here are a few things to remember:
Remember — You are not a victim. As a coach, I often hear people using the language of victimisation. In my charitable work for WeSeeHope I spend a good part of my year supporting children and families in Africa who have had their lives turned upside down by HIV and aids, war, famine and other atrocities besides. These people are the real victims in our world. They have little control of their own story or personal narrative. In my work as a coach I have occasionally witnessed a genuine victim in corporate life. However, the great majority of people I have the privilege to work with wield significant influence, are well remunerated, enjoy fantastic lifestyles and could choose to do something else at a few months or moment’s notice. By playing the victim we adopt a defeatist posture. We cheat ourselves. We start to pretend and eventually believe that we are not the authors of our own story or that others have chosen to erase us from the narrative. Shifting our posture from the powerless victim to a person who can make authentic and powerful choices, is a critical first step to a more positive future.
Remember — Our nightmares rarely come true. Insecurity and anxiety can play foul tricks on our imagination. In this mode we have a tendency to turn drama into crisis and crisis into catastrophe. The fear of an oncoming catastrophe brings out our tendency to give flight. Now we are running away from the narrative. In my experience, the best way to fight off an impending catastrophe is to phone a friend, or even better to buy them a coffee. In most cases the extraordinary scenarios that our anxiety creates do not survive careful examination with our most trusted friends and mentors. Under the spotlights of facts, wisdom and experience many of our worst fears will dissipate. When catastrophizing take time to ‘cross-examine’ your fears and expose them for what they are. If the anxiety is extreme, seek clinical support.
Remember — Revenge is not a solution. Sometimes we are damaged or hurt by others. It happens. People let us down and sometimes try to put us down. It hurts. At times an organisation will do this, sometimes out of intention and sometimes by simple clumsiness. Getting your own back at best works for a moment. In the long run the cognitive dissonance is often more painful and costly than the initial hurt. Trying to erase someone else from the narrative is no way to direct your own story. Becoming someone you do not want to be, just to get your own back on someone or something that has hurt you, is too high a price to pay for the briefest moment of relief. Far from making things better in the long run psychologists tell us that this is one of the the first steps on the way to psychosis. No one should end up here. Believe me when I say, it is better to forgive. When we’ve been wronged, forgiveness provides the only proven way to wrest control of the narrative, set ourselves free from the hurt we feel and move on to bigger and better things.
Remember — Back yourself or no one else will. Having originally believed that marriage was her only route to influence, only to be publically humiliated by her husband’s infidelities, Elizabeth Hamilton became a major figure in her own right. If you back yourself, people will agree with you. If you don’t back yourself, people will also agree with you! Take time to pause and reflect. Remember your most successful moments. Analyse them, relive them, explore them, embody them. Take confidence from your proven skills and strengths and think about how you can use them to affect the narrative in which you find yourself. Remember who you are and what you stand for. You are bright and talented. You have capability and skills. You have ethics and values that can set you apart. Have the courage to be your unique self. Some of the things you are committed to are of such importance that you must press on, as Eliza Hamilton did, despite your hurts, fears and insecurities.
Thanks for reading and make sure whatever you do in 2018 you take control and put yourself back in the centre of the narrative. Our world is richer when you do.