A Mid-life Breakthrough

When you decide to go for an Executive Master’s degree in your forties, you go in with tempered expectations. After all, after a dozen or more training programmes, and 20 years of professional experience, you’ve learned a lot of what there is to know about your field.

Your goal will probably be to build on that experience with some of the latest knowledge and research that a university like INSEAD can provide.

Truth be told, the forties can be a confusing time for many: you’ve established yourself in your field, but you’re wondering if that’s what you want to be doing for the next 20 years.

The EMC took all my expectations and ran them through a shredder.

On the very first day of the programme, Professor Manfred Kets de Vries shared with us Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which I summarise here:

A group of prisoners is bound up in a cave since they were born, facing a wall. There is a fire behind them that casts on the wall the shadows of the fearsome warriors holding the prisoners captive. The prisoners spend their days studying the shadows, guessing which shadow will appear next. This is the only world they know.

One day, one of the prisoners breaks free and runs out of the cave, discovering a world of beauty and colour beyond his imagination. He is also shocked to discover that the “fearsome warriors” were nothing more but puppets passing in front of the fire, casting large shadows.

The now freed prisoner returns to his friends, offering to set them free. Instead of being grateful, they threaten to kill him.

I was that prisoner, and EMC was the programme that helped me break free of my bonds and discover a world that I never knew existed.

And now I am here to share this news with you, and I hope you will not threaten to kill me!

This world that I refer to is the inner world that each of us carries inside of us: the hopes and dreams we have for ourselves and our families, but also the fears and insecurities that hold us back so we don’t dare to turn around.

The fear of inadequacy that holds us back from taking on a promising opportunity, or that makes us pursue unreasonable goals to prove that we are worthy. The insecurity about listening to our inner voice, choosing a safe and reliable career instead, one that will make us a “success” (but in whose eyes?).

Inside our minds, conscious and mainly unconscious, is a cacophony of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that influence every aspect of our lives. They influence the decisions we make, the opportunities we pursue, the people we bond with, and the leaders we follow—and become.

We are prisoners to this mental soap opera that plays out day in and day out, fated to follow the whims of our unconscious mind as it drives us away from our fears while making us believe that it is good for us. And as with soap operas, the story feels new every day, but nothing really changes much year after year.

The EMC delves deeply into those individual dramas, but it doesn’t stop there.

We don’t live our lives in isolation. We interact with other people, each with their own drama playing out in their minds, hidden from us and even from themselves. In this interaction a new dynamic is created, a new world that lives at the intersection of our individual stories.

We interact as couples, as families, as teams and groups, and as organisations (and even as nations). In each of these levels of interaction there are tools and frameworks we can use to help us understand what is happening behind the scenes in our individual and collective unconscious. Thus they help us understand what is driving behaviours that might appear illogical, but upon further inspection are discovered to be inevitable.

The allegory of the cave in the context of the EMC programme must come as a bit of a surprise. After all, the programme attracts people who have significant life experiences and self-awareness (my class was made up of participants with impressive professional credentials and an average age of 47). What more could there be to discover? A lot, as it turns out.

The programme gave us many tools, frameworks and theories to help us understand the world better.

Most importantly however, and where the real magic is, it gave us a new lens with which to see the world. A lens that lets us see the hidden and hear the unspoken. It’s like a super power, but it’s a super power that comes at a high price: in order to receive it, you have to acknowledge that the world you’ve lived in all your life is nothing more than a trick, shadows cast on a wall.

Are you willing to abandon this world? Because once you do, you can never go back to the monotonous safety of the cave.