I recently started reading “Atlas Shrugged” and one of the character’s opening passages struck me as very significant to the story and spoke to some of my own experiences as well. It is no doubt a mechanism of foreshadowing (but no one tell me any spoilers!) but it also serves as a true observation of some of the biggest businesses around.
The character Eddie Willers is walking down the streets of New York City admiring the pinnacles of human industrial achievement in the form of towering skyscrapers ascending higher and higher around him. While observing the power and attention they command he also feels a hint of an uneasy emotion he did not expect. He cannot form words to this feeling but is drawn to a memory from his childhood of a majestic oak tree on the banks of the Hudson river that he used to marvel at. This sentinel became a figure of strength, resiliency, and trust for much of his youth. A figure he respected and revered for challenging time and the elements.
One day after a storm he found the tree had cracked in half. Its core was rotten and filled with nothing but air. It was a mere shell of what its outward appearance suggested. The strength of its bark was only a facade for its empty heart. It was a truth he only discovered when allowed a glimpse inside his fallen companion that he had once trusted.
Eddie’s ominous feeling and memory of the downed oak tree while surrounded by the New York skyline brings me to think of the companies and establishments who have hollowed out over time. From the outside they are shining examples of innovation and progress but if you ever get a chance to study their inner working you discover that it is a charade. Their gleaming shells do not tell their full story and from the inside you can see where their substance has given way to air.
Most of us will likely work for one of the “oaks” of our industries at one point or another. That name on your resume that commands attention and respect but also the name that produces a guilty feeling somewhere in your gut. A shame knowing the real value of the name from the perspective of an insider and hoping no one else can see the disconnect as well.
These experiences also teach us to value and appreciate the institutions that are the opposite. The ones who do not (yet) command the respect their substance deserves. Their bark is not nearly as recognizable but their core is as solid as stone. These are the places you can pour yourself into. The places where you have no desire to count the hours when before you would keep a work log like Tom Hanks in Castaway on the cave wall.
Strength and trust are built from the core and a shiny exterior can only stand so long on its own. Beware of the hollow structures around you because its only a matter of time before they crack!