My Still Life: 5 objects that show what matters most
One of the most powerful elements of the Tallberg New Leaders Program was an exercise called Still Lives, led by British portrait photographer Elizabeth Handy and her husband, author and social theorist Charles Handy. Inspired by the 17th century Dutch tradition where aristocrats would commission still life paintings featuring objects that said things about their wealth, education, travels, etc., Liz decided to update it for this century.
The idea is simple: choose five objects that say something important about you – your values, your work, your family, your life story, whatever matters most to you – plus a flower, to add beauty to the mix. The objects can be just about anything, with a few key exceptions – no gadgetry (cell phones, laptops, etc.), unless they’re really unique to you; no photos of other people, they’re too easy; and no more than one book, to keep the objects diverse. Next, arrange them to be photographed. Finally, share the image with others as a way to explain what matters most to you.
On the second day of the NLP, we made our still lives, photographed by Liz. On the third day, we broke into small groups to share our images with each other. Later in the week, Charles asked me to share my still life with the full Tällberg Forum audience in the main tent.
My five objects (plus a flower) were:
- Rock – This small black stone is a piece of volcanic rock I pulled from a river of molten lava near the summit of Volcán de Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes. I stood twirling the clump of molten lava on a stick for nearly an hour, until it had hardened and cooled enough to carry home. It represents my son Mateo, who we adopted from Guatemala in 2007, because, like him, it’s a thing of immense beauty that came from a hot and violent place.
- Clave – This Afro-Cuban percussion instrument is what keeps the pulse in much of Latin music. “Clave” literally means “key” in Spanish. It represents my wife, Cilla, who is the key to keeping a steady rhythm in my life. She reminds me when it’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.
- Flute – The instrument I’ve played since 4th grade represents creativity, passion and mastery. When I heard Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, I realized that the flute is the one thing I’ve probably come closest to spending 10,000 hours working on.
- Notebook – A Moleskin notebook, like Hemingway and other great storytellers used, is a place to record ideas and inspirations. It represents my work as a thinker, a journalist, and a storyteller.
- Moss – The bed of moss in the back represents my work in the world, building networked communities, fostering interconnection, interdependence, and symbiosis. This patch of moss contained what looked like at least four different species of moss. I found it on a rock in the woods next to the hotel where the New Leaders Program took place. Knowing that this patch of moss could be decades old, after the photo shoot I returned it to the spot where I found it.
- Lupines – The flowers I chose were 3 blooming stalks from the same purple lupine plant, ranging in shades from deep royal purple to light lavender. I chose these to represent the importance of diversity, of multiple perspectives and facets that can exist, and should be nurtured, within a single being.
For me, the Still Lives exercise was a profound tool for exploring what matters most to me. It was fun, creative, and deeply emotional. It’s easy for me to get stuck in my head, viewing things from an intellectual, analytical perspective. This exercise invited me to explore my own story, and my own hopes and dreams, by asking myself what the objects I carry with me say about me. And it provided a deep window into the lives of my classmates in the New Leaders Program. I won’t share their stories here. But you can see the touching videos of two of them Lagu Alfred Androga and Anu Bhardwaj.
Try this exercise yourself. What five objects (and what flower) would you pick to show what matters most to you?