half truths and hanging rocks

Hanging Rock is a tourist icon. The summit provides panoramic views of farming plains amidst a maze of rocks that form caves, crevasses, tunnels, arches, cliffs and walkways. Being a kid-friendly 20 minute walk to the top, it is little wonder it draws families and tourists from afar.

I was there on the weekend as part of our annual Ergo staff and families weekend away. In between some workshopping, eating, drinking, playing board games in front of the fire and watching some more Olympics, we loaded everyone up and convoyed across to spend the cold Saturday afternoon outside among the rosellas, kangaroos and the famous Rocks.

The other reason these Rocks attract so many people is the legendary story of The Picnic at Hanging Rock. The mysterious disappearance of three girls and teacher from a private school picnic, the subsequent discovering of one of the girls three days later with no recollection of events and the suicide of the headmistress by throwing herself off one of the cliffs at Hanging Rock … this is background conversation of every first time visitor to Hanging Rock.

Even though it is just a story, there are clearly benefits of perpetuating the ambiguity about the line between fact and fiction. Apart from forming part of Australian Folk Lore, the revenue from tourism in the vicinity is significantly enhanced. The author of the book, Joan Lindsay, refused to say whether there was any basis in real history, but the total absence of any newspaper or other records of such events speak for themselves. It got me wondering about how we can unconsciously (or consciously) perpetuate stories that are not true because of the apparent benefits.

For example, there was a time in our business when we believed we could do anything for anyone. It allowed for innovation and confidence to work across a variety of industries offering diverse solutions. Even though it delivered some benefits, it was healthy for us to identify the belief as a myth and reassess our self understanding of who we were and our associated competencies.

I wrote recently about a senior executive who believes he understands where his staff are at. Unfortunately he is misguided, but he believes his own rhetoric. He is not alone. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, our family, our colleagues, our workplaces and our world everyday. The stories make sense to us, but they may or may not be truthful. Yes, they will have dimensions of truth. But often the pieces of truth we base our stories on are a very narrow perspectives. Yet it serves us well to hang on to the stories. “I am competent”, “I am hopeless”, “Melbourne is the most liveable city”, “We are better than our competitors”, “We are weaker than our competitors.” Etc etc.

You often hear people described as ‘calling a spade a spade’ as a way of describing their forthright manner. That’s not necessarily what i am talking about here. I am talking about the wisdom that says, “I can see a spade, but I wonder why? Do others see a shovel?” “How does it serve my self interest to call it a spade?” We may end up agreeing that it is indeed a spade, but let’s keep in mind that the worm perceives it very differently.

If all that is too esoteric, just think about the Picnic at Hanging Rock. Who benefits from perpetuating the ambiguity of history? Is that OK?

What are the stories that you believe about yourself, your family and your colleagues? Do they need a re-examination? At the end of the day, even though there may be real or perceived value in cultivating half-truths, my view is that searching for a fuller appreciation of truth is a more secure route. It liberates us to face things that might be difficult but ultimately allow us to navigate life with confidence and grace.