Everywhere we look there are layers.

Photo by Luc Tribolet on Unsplash

I found the story of an amazing technological breakthrough last year that is a mixture of biology and digital technology: Alphafold. See here for the full blog post on this amazing, pioneering technological advancement and there’s a short video on this too.

Alphafold is all about proteins.

Proteins underpin every biological thing on the planet. Over 200m are known to exist. Within each protein, lies an intricate string of amino acids. Interactions between the amino acids strings make the protein fold.

In thinking of layers, what Alphafold does, is using Artificial Intelligence, maps the 3D-shapes of proteins so they can be not only understood but deployed in different ways, altered even to perform specific tasks based on the order of the strings of their amino acids.

Mapping the proteins shapes and strings out; particularly knowing the sequencing of the amino acids, means we can understand diseases more quickly by the shape of the chains, which will help us develop cures and vaccinations more rapidly and effectively; we could develop enzymes that safely dissolve single-used plastics, or even de-carbonise the atmosphere with specific proteins.

All because we understand the order and layering that’s involved in proteins.

In my operating sphere, the world of work and people at work, there’s a tremendous amount of layering going on.

  • Layers of structure that shapes the way the organisation operates.
  • Layers of data and information that is aimed at helping people in the organisation operate.
  • Layers of learning — either historically through the years by people and passed down, or in exploring new territories and frontiers for people and the organisation.
  • Layers of people — past and present — that make the organisation ‘who’ it is.

Of course, there are then layers within those people there and within people more generally. The way people talk and behave, the way they use language, what they affiliate to, who they affiliate with. The beliefs system they have deeply embedded in their psyche. The things they value. The tensions and anxieties they have. And of course sometimes, even the disturbing elements of psychotic and dangerous thoughts and tendencies.

And when you combine the human cultural and interactive systems, we even see layers and patterns of behaviours. You know, on first meet: pleasant, enthusiastic, open. Then once you’ve spent more time with them, they’re narcissistic, cruel and short-tempered.

You might think ‘How could I have ‘assessed’ them so wrongly?’

It’s our layers at work here.

We can put on layers that project a certain way we are. Or move them aside or lack them even.

In my view, there’s a lack of layers or filtering of them in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He seems as cocksure, caustic and direct as anyone I’ve come across in sport. His latest challenge to athletes to stick to sport and not get involved in politics was pretty emphatically smashed into pieces by LeBron James. LeBron has many layers to him: supreme athlete, team player, educator, justice spokesperson and more. He seems content — even driven — to show the world the many layers to his way of being.

So back to when we first get to know people. We’re peeling off the layers. What people say and do isn’t always who they really are. They can appear to be a certain way but really, only time will tell. As the layers are peeled away and we get to see who they are more coherently.

It may sometimes take years to reveal the layering that’s involved with people. Because some of us are adept at showing certain layers and not others. Except that in the end, actions peel away those layers and you get to see, hear, sense, feel and know who they really are.

I’ve got layers that I don’t show.

Some I’m not so pleased about wanting to let out, others I’m very happy to share.

For example, I’m a deeply sensitive and I’d say, fragile soul. So when things are harshly presented to me, I really feel it. A sense of weakness flows over me. My normal tactics to deal with adversity get somewhat blurred in that moment and I am even more stuttering and incapable. It takes me a while to gain some composure. Even then, I’m not as confident as I was before the conversation began and I have the sinking feeling of being pathetic.

And then in others, I’m presented with complex and challenging issues and I can sense my thoughts bursting through layers of thinking to my consciousness. I can even see shapes and words forming shaped by the layers of processing in my mind. As my heart races ever faster and I can sense a tingling sensation, I utter the words and they really seem to work. I feel a sense of euphoria and fulfilment that what I did mattered. My layers of insight, experience, imagination whatever, all combining.

And then I get to know people, I appreciate and understand them. We develop into being closer to each other, and then I see some layers I didn’t believe existed. Selfishness here and there. Lack of consideration here or there. Sharp words here and there. Lacking commitments here and there. Lacking forgiveness over some unintentional act or lack of. And the reveal of layers like this means I’m not so keen anymore. My fragile self kicks in: Who’s fooling who here? What’s going on? I thought…but I’ve done…and I’d hoped…

And the connection frays and withers and often ceases. Sometimes abruptly, other times, gradually.

I recall being 14, having a circle of friends and the normal ‘rebellious’ tendencies you have at that age. Except I had some layering that I think protected me. I recall vividly the experience. ‘Where are we hanging out tonight?’ I asked. ‘We’re doing a car park sweep’. Came the answer. ‘What’s that?’ I said. ‘Well, we’ll see if anyone’s not locked their car doors in the car park (this was 1981 and so car security wasn’t all that) and if the doors aren’t locked, we’ll see what’s inside we might help ourselves to’. Not at all comfortable with this, layers of learned behaviour and sensing what’s right and wrong kicked in. My reply was ‘I’m not into that. It’s stealing, count me out.’ A bit of street art on the side of the lock-up garages is one thing; actual theft was another. I declined, went home early. My friends ‘hauled’ a few cassettes, some cigarettes and the thrill of danger I suppose. Thankfully that never came into the conversation again but I saw a layer in my friends that I didn’t like, and a layer in me I was pleased about — a discomfort in something illegal and immoral. Later in life and to date: No drinking and driving, I didn’t shoplift, never took recreational drugs, I didn’t even do ‘cherry door knocking’ (for the uninitiated, knock on some random door and just run away). A pointless pursuit I thought even at 12–14 years old and hanging out with mates. My layers included a level of discomfort for things like this.

The layers we have explains why some people last with you, and others drift, get disdainful of you/you of them.

So what’s the point of all this?

I guess we never stop learning and revealing our layers and seeing them revealed in others at an individual level.

And in my work, I’m trying to remove some layers in organisational life to make things more evident, less ambiguous, more applied through self-managed systems of working.

Where people aren’t confused, stifled or hidden by layers. Where we have clarity, accountability and togetherness and avoid either the lacking space to innovate and improve because of the layers of bureaucracy, are infantilised by layers of managers or able to get away with too little effort by layers of impenetrable process and structure.

And it became apparent to me, in getting to know people through lockdown — which is a different experience to getting to know people pre-lockdown — the layering has become even more apparent to me. I guess because we have to force or go beyond the small talk now, and every conversation is telling in getting to know them/you and seeing the layers. Layers within people and layers of people in your life.

Casual acquaintances are harder to maintain perhaps in a locked-down situation. I’ve actually found this quite therapeutic. Like the really rich, genuine and diverse people I know and really care for, are still there with me and our connection is stronger. Not just because we’ve had endless Zoom calls, because in many cases, we haven’t. But they’ve revealed their more virtuous layers in exchanges and thoughts and kind words and gestures.

And the rest, the layers of others, have revealed themselves to be a little more surface level in terms of the layers of my network; and to have layers that perhaps weren’t what I originally sensed in them.

The newness of people is sometimes where we only see that initial layer. We then get to know them past that. And some people during the lockdown, whether because of the circumstances or because of who they are (or both), are layered more ‘nicely’ than others. I say nicely in quotes because that’s an awfully judgemental word for me to use. But it means kind, committed, generous, all those good qualities. Others, less so, despite initially appearing that way. And I’ll include me in that. My layers aren’t all I’d like them to be or the world to know about.

I saw this excellent idea to reveal more of the layering of us: ‘A User Manual for me’ by . A really smart concept for revealing more about you through the pandemic-restricted lens of calls, messages and top-half imagery.

This could be an excellent way to reveal some layers within you.

So back to the point in this:

  • Are you aware of the layers you have? The complexities of you. The layers you show the world for all the right reasons.
  • Can you spot the layers in others? So you can see and sense who they really are even if they try to layer themselves for their gain over yours.
  • Are you layering your circles? So that you are attentive to the core layers of who really matters to you, and understanding and appreciating the other layers of people in your life.

We can’t be all things to all people. We can’t be liked by everyone no matter how virtuous, sincere and impactful our acts might be.

We all have layers we’d rather not show the world and not just because they’re hidden layers of negative, dangerous or toxic ways; perhaps because they’re our most vulnerable, fragile and delicate layers we need to protect.

The whole world is made up of layers. Sediment, fauna, hierarchies and complex personality traits.

I quite like to sum up my posts with a quote. And this from Pultizer Prize-winning author Thornton Wilder seemed quite apt as an exaggerated, but poignant reminder of our layers.

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017-2019 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan