Behind Mona Lisa's smile, there may be another view entirely: a woman looking straight ahead, with a neutral stare, perhaps even a frown of disappointment. At least that's what one French researcher is suggesting, though art historians aren't so sure.
It's common for artists to paint over existing canvases. Picasso's famous The Blue Room was actually painted over another work of an unidentified man in a bowtie. Reduce, reuse and recycle, I guess.
But we paint over our hidden pictures, too. Each of us.
What is beneath your portrait?
Very few of us are truly authentic. I'm not. I try to be, but in small ways, I'm not. My Facebook posts don't have pictures of when I argue with my spouse. Many people erase photos of exes from their social-media posts the moment the relationships fall apart. Our LinkedIn pages don't mention the reasons we were fired. People who spend half their Internet time watching porn prefer to tweet out Daily Show clips instead.
We live a santized authenticity, a perfect picture, not only on social media, but also in person. Look around your office environments. Many people are cheerily going about their day. But these same folks are people struggling with real demons. Addicts. People suffering from mental illness. Cheaters. Thieves.
You never see the darkness these people have. There are two reasons for that. First, we don't want to. We need to frame the people closest to us in the way that best suits our field of vision. Life is a symphony that needs are constant conducting, and there is no room for discordant notes.
Second, people by their nature put the positive above the negative in their appearance -- physical, emotional, and psychological. They need to, both to interact effectively with folks around them, but also to cope with the problems they have.
Yet, we have to understand that there is another picture hidden under everyone's portrait, especially our own.
Some of our hidden pictures are simply abandoned or aborted. We started out wanting to do something else -- wanting to be someone else -- and we just decided that isn't the path we could follow. There is no shame in that. We tried something. It didn't work. We moved on.
In other cases, the picture underneath us was simply unfinished. Life takes us many directions, and it often means we are forced to prioritize things differently. Business leaders, in particular, live in a world charged with demands, for our time, our attention, our love, our emotion. Things that were once important to us sometimes fall away. We intend to return to them, but often can't.
Lastly, we consciously abandon some of our inner pictures. These are the paths we travel down, personally and professionally, that we need to stop doing. Divorces. Bad habits. For business leaders and entrepreneurs, it's the failures we are bound to encounter.
It takes a lot to see these hidden pictures. In the case of the Mona Lisa, it took a technique called Layer Amplification Method, according to the BBC, which measures the reflection of light to reconstruct images between layers of paint.
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But if they can be measured in any way, these pictures are real. Our inner pictures may not be visible to the eyes of others, but they, at minimum, provide a different texture to the portrait we present to the world. We need to embrace that, understand it, in order to move forward. If we have conquered depression, we don't need to share that with our co-workers and partners, but we certainly have to make sure that accomplishment is a layer of paint in the lives we choose to lead. If we've failed, we have to take comfort knowing the canvas was sturdy enough to bear a better piece of work. If we were once a man in a bowtie, we have to be comfortable being a woman in a room of blue.
We can't take joy in our accomplishments if we've never been tested. We are defined by a combination of the challenges we choose to face, the setbacks laid at our feet and the manner in which we tackle all of those. Each is a brushstroke, a layer of paint that sometimes resonates but more often needs to be covered by another color, shade or texture. The good news is that the result, from a masterpiece to Dogs Playing Poker to a child's watercolor, is always a unique, important piece of work, the fruit of our conscious, intentional labor and commitment.
Life and art are interchangeable, and, as Thomas Merton wrote, art "enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." It would have been tragic had the world not had Mona Lisa and her smile. It would be equally tragic if the world didn't have you, the way you face it. But we cannot forget the pictures we can't easily see. Instead, we need to embrace the foundation they provide. If you're successful, you will never look at your own portrait the same way again.