Masks and Mirrors

Would you like my mask?
Would you like my mirror?
Cries the man in the shadowing hood
You can look at yourself
You can look at each other
Or you can look at the face of your god

-from the album “The Mask and the Mirror” by Loreena McKennitt

Is it any wonder Romeo fell in love with Juliet at a masquerade ball? Masks have an almost magical way of changing not only how others see us, but how we perceive ourselves as well. In that sense, masks can also act as mirrors.

At a Halloween party last weekend, I did not just wear a costume, I assumed a role. Beyond simply dressing as a redneck-complete with flannel shirt, trucker hat, work boots, buckteeth, and copious mullet-I also sported a Southern drawl that would make Mater proud. I myself felt proud that I made everyone laugh and a number of guests asked me if that was my real accent. I also had great fun acting defensive when people “accused” me of wearing a costume.

After a while, though, I realized that I was something of a social outsider. At first, I thought it was because of envy-perhaps I had put too much effort into my persona and therefore my behavior fell outside of the ad hoc social norms. My second theory was that I was too fake. No one could pierce my character’s veil and see me as anything other than a caricature. The last theory, and the one that troubled me the most, was that accent and superficial appearances aside, my true personality was shining through the fa‡ade and that I might be plain obnoxious.

Although I instinctively settled on the second theory for the sake of my mental sobriety, after the party I harbored lingering doubts about my own identity. What did the costume reveal about me? What parts of me became exposed that I normally keep hidden away? My thoughts turned to my favorite author, the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote a short story called The Mirror and the Mask. Language and reality blur in the Borges cosmology, so when the protagonist commits suicide upon writing the perfect poem, Borges implies that reality can never be fully comprehended; it can only be interpreted through masks and mirrors.

In some sense, I have seen evidence of this in my own experiences. In class, I have felt reality shift around me as I adopt a different lens or learn a new framework. As a career team leader, I can testify that the Jungian divination of the unconscious fundamentally altered my team members’ motivations, and as a r‚sum‚ coach, I witnessed how simple heuristics altered students’ approach to their problems.

While I cannot refute Borges in an epistemologically rigorous way, I offer this pragmatic counterargument by paraphrasing Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: if you insist on arguing that black is white and white is black you are liable to get yourself killed at the next pedestrian crosswalk. Taking off my mask after the party was like peeling off a Band-Aid: I felt the pain of removing a part of myself, too, and that is how I know there was something real beneath.

I have always strived to express my identity, but I seem to have always done so with masks and mirrors. An admirer of Michelangelo once asked him how he sculpted the masterpiece David. He responded by saying that the sculpture was already there; he simply needed to free it from the rock. In helping a good friend of mine apply to HBS, I recently reviewed the essays I wrote for my own application. They reminded me of the person who genuinely applied to HBS for a transformational experience, and I realized that instead of putting on masks to show a different side of ourselves, the secret is to take off all the ones that have piled up over time and reveal the person within.

October 30, 2006
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