“There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it." ---Mark Twain
Barely 500 years ago, Girolamo Savonarola was an outspoken and strident critic of the current order, angrily vilifying the worldly possessions that tempted people to become sinners. He was ultimately excommunicated from the Catholic church, condemned for heresy, stripped of his priestly garments, hanged, and his body burned in the town square in Florence, Italy, a stark and ignominious ending to a life committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Tom Wolfe, the esteemed American writer, published his first novel in 1987. (It was originally produced in the serial style of Charles Dickens, with 27 articles appearing in Rolling Stone magazine beginning in 1984.) Wolfe was determined to expose the outlandish excesses of New York society in the 1980s, which were top of mind for many Americans in the same year that Oliver Stone's infamous movie, Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas, was released.
There is a compelling message in Wolfe's novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, a phase taken from the infamous public exhibitions that Savonarola instituted in Renaissance Florence 500 years ago. Savonarola railed against the vices that he thought were destroying society. As his tone became more violent, he dramatized his moral campaign through the "bonfire of the vanities" in which he and his followers collected articles that they believed tempted people to sin, e.g., objects like cosmetics, artworks, and books as well mirrors, fine dresses, paintings, playing cards, manuscripts of secular songs and even musical instruments … and burned them in the town square.
Do you think it's time for each of us to burn some of our personal vanities in the conference room to highlight what’s holding us back and clear the debris on our pathway to success? The dictionary defines vanity as "excessive pride in one's appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc., and while “bonfires” are extreme manifestations, there may be some metaphorical power that will help us purge the roadblocks.
In my series based on the seven deadly sins (soon to be published as an e-book), I previously discussed vanity’s conjoined twin, Pride, seen by most philosophers as the mother of all sins. Like the embarrassing incidents … and shame … that befall us when pride lights our way, vanity also clouds our business judgment and makes us unable to see objectively how we got where we are and who helped us along the way. (If humility is the antithesis of pride, Jim Collins in his books, Good to Great and his most recent, Great by Choice, presented compelling arguments that humility is one of the singular qualities of the successful leader.)
I like the vivid imagery of the bonfire of the vanities because it emphasizes the extraordinary steps we should hasten to take to overcome our vainglory to achieve the breakthroughs that will make our business more successful. The mirrors and cosmetics burned in Florence Italy are particularly relevant metaphors to make this point.
Michael Jackson's famous song, Man in the Mirror, also reminds us of the downfalls of our vanity:
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change.