Become invisible to stand out.

As John and I came down the staircase I reflected on how the interview had gone. John was responsible for selecting leadership coaches for a multi-national company, although we’d never before met he’d been the one who’d recommended me to their Paris branch. I’d been coaching one of their European leaders for over a year, he’d been my first ever coaching client and it’d been an unmitigated success. I’d bided my time before arranging to meet John since I first wanted to be sure he’d heard news of our success, making it more likely he’d recommend me for further assignments.

As we were finishing John told me that he gives work to people he remembers. Although it’d gone well, I wasn’t sure if he’d remember me come October when the new budgets for executive coaching were announced. On top of that I was surprised when he sent me three pages of questions to prepare for our “meeting”. His idea of a meeting had felt much more like an interview to me.

So what would it take for John to remember me? I didn’t know, I was beginning to think John is a trickster. A couple of his questions had been set as traps, he was pleased when I didn’t step into them and so I thought I’d passed his test. I realised now with his half smile and tantalising comment that he’s not going to tell me one way or the other. If I’m to get any more work John would need to forget me, and then somehow remember me again just in time for October.

The image of Oliver Twist with outstretched hands popped into mind, ‘Please sir, I want some more.’ Begging would certainly make me unforgettable, but it wasn’t the way I wanted to project myself as a leadership coach. My imagination, though fruitful, was offering me no help that I could see.

As we reached the lobby I looked up at the cavernous interior; it was certainly austere but not how I imagined a Dickensian workhouse. I recalled my brother-in-law once saying how he’d got a job on the strength of the conversation he’d had with the interviewer on their way to the interview room. I hadn’t managed this on our way up or down; perhaps there was still time as John escorted me out of the building.

John motioned me toward the receptionist’s desk, ‘You can sign out now.’ 

‘Ah no, I didn’t sign in.’

‘Really, you’re sure?’ John paused as though expecting my memory to return.

‘Uh no, I didn’t sign in.’

‘Okay, that’s odd. They’re usually very strict about that’, John replied trying to reassure himself.

We continued walking through into the outer chamber and then across the open foyer toward the Front Desk, he scanned my jacket until his eyes found mine and then enquired, ‘Your badge?’

‘Ah, no I didn’t do that either,’ I responded as I caught the attention of a nearby security guard.

‘How did you manage that? No one gets past without being noticed: they even check my badge and they know me – I’m here every day,’ John glanced over in the direction of the same guard as though to rebuke him, the guard immediately looked away.

‘I made myself invisible,’ I announced.

‘Oh,’ John replied looking genuinely puzzled.

Before he could make sense of me I added, ‘Yes it’s something I do sometimes, it’s a very useful skill.’

‘How?’ John’s question seemed to take us both by surprise.

‘I can teach you if you’d like? Next time we meet.’

As he took my hand John’s face beamed with a warm smile, ‘Yes I’d enjoy that, I very much look forward to it.’ Now I was certain that John would clearly remember me. As it turned out I wasn’t wrong, and yet John would not be in touch; not this October nor the one after.

As I turned on my heel to leave, a rush of excitement rose up into my chest. The excitement met with a relief moving down in the opposite direction as the tension fell from my shoulders. I managed to stifle the urge to skip, at least until I was out of view. I recalled again my brother-in-law’s story, and thought ‘Wow, somehow I managed to seal the interview before we’d even met!’ 

I hope he doesn’t hold me to my offer; I hadn’t been entirely honest with him – I don’t think I can teach invisibility. I’m sure it has to be learned not taught… I wonder if John thinks it’s a super-power? Probably not; I’d said I could teach him and as everyone knows a super-power can’t be taught. Besides invisibility isn’t my super-power. Although I’m pretty sure he had seen my real super-power. It was fairly obvious from the start, although I’m sure he appreciated me being discreet about it, in any case he probably wouldn’t see it as a super-power; which is of course part of its power.

I think he had needed to see my super-power to know I was the right person. I hadn’t fully shown him in the interview; I think he properly saw it when I told him about my invisibility. Ah, now that’s it! That’s why I made myself invisible, I see now; I was masking my real super-power: my ability to not fit in.

Not fitting in can’t be taught or learnt; it’s something you’re born with. I discovered it as a small boy around the time I began learning invisibility. Of course as a child I couldn’t see it as a super-power, if anything it was a millstone. Like all super-powers it takes time to grow into; to learn how and when to use it. It took me way into adulthood to learn how to master its power and discover its many secrets: not least of all that it is the only way to really be seen.

As I stepped out into the oppressive London summer heat the atmosphere seemed electrified. The air-conditioned coolness I’d enjoyed had now left my body. The air had an ominosity as though a storm was about to break and yet there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. As I turned the corner, stepping out from the building’s shade, the full heat of the sun hit me. I was immediately transported to the many places I’d rather be in this heat, and yet I didn’t want to be anywhere else in this moment. 

I was elated and yet something felt odd or out of place. I thought again about the homogeneity of corporate culture; it was me that was out of place. The size of the entrance hall, the grandeur, the petty and peculiar politics it all seemed so ‘unreal’; and my fee was also unreal. I was in the centre of the City of Excess and I’d joined in, and yet I felt even more outside than before. I looked at the mass of people on the street moving in all directions; did they not know how mad this city is? How mad they are? Of course they do, and yet they’re walking around as though everything is fine. I don’t even really understand what this company does! This surely can’t go on…

And so it was; this was the summer of 2008, just a few months later, one month before the eagerly awaited October budgets, and Lehman Brothers went bust sending a shock wave around the financial world. Millions of people would suffer and there would be no more coaching work for me for quite some time.

Just like the security guard who knew he’d been looking directly at me and yet not able to see me, I too was looking directly at something, I felt it, I could even describe it, and yet I didn’t know what I was seeing. And now here we are again in 2020; it takes imagination to see that which appears invisible right before our eyes.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

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