Hamilton and glass walls

Last week I wrote about lessons learned from kids movies. This week I’m drawing from more pop-culture inspiration…the musical phenomenon that is Hamilton. Yeah, it’s not historically accurate, but I unashamedly love it in all it’s musical glory. I’m not going to ask you to watch the entire 160 minutes. Instead, I’m going to give you a summary of the Aaron Burr storyline. I mean, who doesn’t love a story about an anti-hero?

Burr is introduced as the potential mentor for a young Hamilton who is newly arrived to New York. He fails to strike a chord with the upcoming revolutionary when he offers Hamilton this advice “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for”. Well measured and reasoned, but not exactly inspiring words for someone looking to change the world. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton and Burr’s relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into that of Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi.


Burr knows that he’s conservative and he’s cool with it. It’s a life strategy that evolved out of pragmatism. When you live in a world where many people die young, waiting for the opportunities rather than forcing them at all costs is a survival strategy. He watches as Hamilton thrives despite his lack of restraint, being taken on as Washington’s right hand man. But that is not enough for Burr to abandon his principles. The righteous will prevail eventually…surely.

At this point Burr and Hamilton could be considered rivals, but it appears to be a rivalry relating to clash of personality more than political beliefs. The alignment of their vision for the new Republic becomes obvious as they speak of their aspirations for their children.

But the shared mission isn’t enough to get beyond the personality clash which evolves to become a formal clash of politics. Unfortunately for Burr, Hamilton is aligned with those in power and he is not. And so their rivalry deepens. Burr continues to take the high road of doing the right thing and treating others respectfully but it doesn’t pay off. He continues to find himself on the outer politically while Hamilton’s power and influence grows. Burr decides he is done waiting and needs to get himself in the room where it happens.

Burr works with others to eliminate Hamilton as a viable political opponent and runs for President against a polarising Thomas Jefferson. For once it looks like Burr’s congenial centrist approach might actually pay off if he can secure the undecided swing vote. Only the votes don’t swing by themselves. Even when he looks like he’s down and out, Hamilton still has influence. Influence that he uses against Burr, endorsing Jefferson as his preferred Presidential candidate. Jefferson goes on to become President and the rivalry between Burr and Hamilton enters into arch nemesis territory.

Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel to bring the conflict to a head.Hamilton could have apologised and ended the dispute. He does not, meaning Burr must persist or look week. Peace is not negotiated. Rather they set a time and place, march ten paces and fire. Hamilton is dead and Burr politically ruined. Burr’s story closes reflecting on how he has become the villain of Hamilton’s story. “I was too young and blind to see. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

Ultimately (as far as the story is concerned) Aaron Burr was a guy who cared about building a Republic and wanted to make a contribution. He was an earnest worker. He did the right thing. But he wasn’t part of the ‘in crowd’. He didn’t have the pedigree to grant him the entitlement, nor the personality to be considered special enough to be welcomed into the room where it happened. His contribution was going unnoticed, he was being underutilised and it drove him to a destructive place that ruined both his and Hamilton’s lives.

This story might have been set within the American political system, but it could just as well happen in healthcare. Not the gun slinging bit, the exclusivity driving earnest, hardworking people toward cynicism. We all know about the glass ceiling but we don’t seem to talk much about the glass walls. All those barriers you don’t realise exist until your face smacks hard against them. The cliques. The pecking orders. The unspoken rules of engagement. These barriers are resulting in us wasting talent, and losing valuable people from the healthcare industry altogether. The culture needs to shift.

Who knows where things might have ended up for Aaron Burr and Hamilton if the culture was different? If he had supportive peers around him? People who saw him not as a rival to be silenced or scoffed at but someone who could help progress the shared mission? Who were willing to have honest conversations about the effect his non-committal attitude was having on his career? People who weren’t driven by desire to be in the room where it happens, but who wanted to knock down the walls and build something new instead? Something built on a foundation of compassion and generosity rather than power and influence.

I’ve been thinking about this further and how it relates to Healthcare as an infinite game - the idea of considering people as worthy rivals who can help extrinsically motivate your personal progress rather than enemies.

I’ve also been thinking about this in terms of career progression and how frustrating it is when you have your head down, doing good work, but seem to be passed by for job opportunities that others seem to get gifted. It sucks. I don’t know how we can make that go away. Truthfully, I’m not sure if it’ll ever go away, which means we have to figure out how to deal with it better. That’s where I think there’s a role for peer support and coaching to help people get through it though. I think we can easily make that more accessible by utilising online forums in addition to the usual pathways.