We had been sitting in the cafe catching up.

Robert had been telling me about the stresses and strains of managerial life, the extra admin, the meetings, the reports to write.

Robert is a highly skilled and experienced conservator, specialising in gilding.

His narrative was not the most positive of narratives.

“Show me an object” I said.

“Let me show you a dragon” replied Robert.

Walking and talking is an exercise in movement – physical movement encouraging thinking movement – and I wanted to shift Robert’s focus.

The dragon sits at one corner of a four poster bed frame in the British Galleries.  The bed is known as the Badminton Bed.  There is another dragon on the opposite side of the frame.

dragon detail from The Badminton Bed
Linnell, John, born 1729 – died 1796.(c) Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert began to tell me about the work he had done on the dragon to conserve them, restoring them to close their original condition and to a state where they could safely be displayed.

He described how he checked the condition of the object. Then how he had gently cleaned the object to remove dust and dirt.  Then to strip back layers of varnish, previous re-gilding or painting which had been applied as past repairs.  Once in this stripped back state, he could then decide what repairs or new gilding to make, choosing how best to preserve yet enhance, honour the original design and making whilst using new techniques to conserve longer and more sustainably.

Listening to Robert, I could hear and see how hisr professional focus was effortless and complete.  A compelling perspective of museum organisational culture is the expertise of the tight focus.  Robert had it in spades, and like many experts in their field, seeing beyond their practice can be uncomfortable.

“Robert,” I said once he had paused, “How much are you talking about the dragon and how much are you talking about yourself?”

“How do you mean?”

“Before we came here you were talking about the layers of management with which you are struggling – the bureaucracy, but also, I am assuming, the multi-layered relational aspects of working across departments, up and down the hierarchy, with reports and peers.

“You’ve spent the last 5 minutes talking about stripping back layers of varnish, paint and gilding on this dragon.

“It seems to me that you are talking about the same thing – just that you have substituted the dragon for yourself.

“What do want you for your career?  It’s not a simple binary – I do the work I am interested in or I do management – its more layered and can be more choiceful.

“When you have taken the dragon back to its most essential state, you then have to make choices about how much new gilding to add, or what type of varnish to apply to balance out the expression of its nature and design with its sustainability in the galleries, as an object for display and interpretation.

“What’s the current gallery life for an object – 20 years?  25 years?  What constraints are you working within that affect those choices?

“So… When you look at yourself, what is your most essential state?  Is it as a conservator, is as a conservator at the V&A, or as a conservator in the Furniture Studio, or as an expert in gilding?  How far do you need to strip back the layers to find the best expression of yourself, Robert?

“And then, what are you aiming for in your life?  More money, more security, more specialisation, more power, more ability to affect change, an earlier retirement, a quieter life, a louder one?

“What then are the layers you need to add to sustain your career and your life?  It might be more admin or management.  It might be less.”

We are all experts.  Experts at being ourselves.  In fact we are so good, we do not notice re our expertise.  That which we take as easy and straightforward is often hugely impressive to others. It’s what the creativity expert, Steve Chapman, would call an essential creative practice – “Being Obvious” – amplifying that which we take for granted.

When we pay less attention to what we do, our tendency is to reduce and devalue.

We also lose sight of the lens through which we are viewing events.

For Robert, his professional life so suffused in his amazing skill with gilding, it was hard for him to spot when this was influencing his thoughts about other aspects of his work.

It is hard to be something other than ourselves.

And yet it is easy to forget this.  Easier still is to forget how much we view the world via the lens of self.

As Jennifer Porter noted in her recent article for HBR Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)  research by Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats in call centers demonstrated that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not reflect.

Stepping back – perhaps with a coach, perhaps by taking a walk, or maybe both – can allow us to reflect, re-check and re-calibrate.

In the end, the question for Robert was how he might use his expertise and experience in conservation to conserve himself.

If you were to step back from your expertise, what question would you ask yourself?