Look Beyond the Frame

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer. A life better lived is found beyond the frame. Phillip Kane's andwin blog.
Image: Gandalf’s Gallery | Flickr

July 28, 2021

This week, I saw the painting Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Johannes Vermeer for the first time in a long time.

The painting, which hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, was completed by Vermeer between 1663 and 1664. For those unfamiliar with the work, the approximately 18” x 15” oil on canvas depicts a young woman, alone, dressed in a sea-blue bed jacket, awash in the light of an out of view window. The woman is standing, head down, reading a letter of still crisp parchment, her forearms resting on her apparently ample midsection.  On the table in front of her is a small wooden box, ajar, a book and a ribbon of pearls. On the wall to her right is a large map of Holland. In the room, aside from the table, are two finely upholstered chairs, seemingly of blue velvet, finished with brass nail heads, their backs topped with a pair of lion’s head finials. What may be her cloak lies spread haphazardly across one chair and a portion of the table as if hurriedly thrown aside by one preoccupied by other thoughts. 

But as much as can be seen in Woman in Blue, I have forever been left wondering about that which can’t be seen. For as much as is told, so much is left untold.

From whom is the letter? From where? What of the pearls, a gift with the letter or yesterday’s accessory tossed upon the table? What of her shape – the style of her skirt or is she with child? And the news – cause for joy, or something worse? For all that we see, there are things we cannot. But life is like that. There is always more than meets the eye and a life better lived deems that we find it. 

And that’s the point for the week.

In every situation, we will be presented with the facts as they are known – of all that can be seen. For many, and all too often, such is sufficient. But it is our nature, it seems, to act in haste – to accept that which is assembled in front of us at face value and as a summation of all available fact – and then to act. But in so doing, we miss things. We sub-optimize decision making. We tell others, without meaning to that not everything or everyone matters. 

What normally separates us from what we can see, and a more complete view of the world is simply a natural curiosity for things and the patience to feed it. Those with both tend to win more often. 

They do so because they make better decisions. Because they learn more – about every situation and every person in their life. Because they look beyond the frame. As a result, they engender greater trust from those around them, both those they lead and those who employ them.  Because these people come to recognize that they can be counted on to make complete thoughts based on complete information. All because they ask themselves and others, “what am I missing?” or “what am I not seeing?”

And the organizations they lead move forward with greater force and speed. They more than compensate for any extra time spent indulging their curiosity by avoiding the waste and rework that inevitably come with hastily made and half-cocked decisions. 

Best of all, people stay in these organizations longer, creating dynastic winning machines. They stay because they prefer patient leaders to foot-tapping ogres, but mostly because they never stop learning, growing or liking the feeling that comes from being encouraged to feed the child-like wonder that lives forever in each one of us.

So, be patient and curious. Look beyond the frame in front of you. 

And win. 

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By Phillip Kane

Phillip Kane is a husband, father, and caring steward. He has had a successful business career of more than 30 years in some of the world’s best-known corporations. Working for brands like Goodyear, Pirelli, Rothschild, and NAPA, Kane has had the privilege to lead thousands of individuals and has managed billions of dollars in value for stakeholders. Consistently recognized by the leaders of these organizations for excellence, Kane though credits any personal success to those he has led and who have made each win possible. Born in Detroit, the grandson of an International Harvester (now Navistar) truck dealer, Kane has spent a lifetime in and around cars and trucks. An Eagle Scout, Kane has been serving others since he was a young boy. Crediting his father and a Nigerian priest with almost every good thing he has learned about life, leadership, business and the art of storytelling, Kane has been recognized twice by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner for the impact of his storytelling on teams. Kane lives in Ohio with his wife, Annie, of 28 years, 3 children, Caroline (24), Charlotte (21) and William (17), and the wonderdogs – Moses, Daisy, Eddie and Pete.

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