July 2011: Incompleteness and FailureJuly 1, 2011
When does striving to be the best lead to missed growth opportunities?
Like most of my clients, I grew up being told that I could do anything I put my mind to accomplish. I took this message to heart by working towards early financial goals. My first two jobs – cleaning floors in my mother’s beauty salon and scrounging for golf balls in the ponds and woods at a nearby course – increased my yen for achievement.
I shoveled snow, painted houses, sold Christmas trees, and, at 14, became a door-to-door sales rep. for the Fuller Brush Co. By 17, I was a news and sports reporter for the Democrat & Chronicle, Gannett’s flagship newspaper.
With sweat and dedication came emotional and financial rewards. I liked success and wanted more of it. In college, I excelled academically, wrote a column for the school newspaper and chaired the biggest charity event on campus.
A sudden, family death
Then, on a snowy night late in my senior year, my twin brother died in a car accident.
I didn’t know how to respond. Just as my life was taking off, I found myself awkwardly navigating my grief over Jimmy’s death. As I faced the opportunities and challenges of post-graduation, emptiness engulfed me. My brother’s passing had led me into a deep confusion about what my life was all about.
To some degree I filled the emptiness by continuing to learn and excel, and later, by focusing on marriage and children. But whenever I took the time to be alone, and to think about the direction of my life and work, the emptiness returned. I felt lonely, and clueless about where to go next.
Was this experience unique to me? I began an earnest search to discover more about my emptiness. I entered theological study, and family systems research, sought the views of spiritual directors, religious leaders and therapists. A recurrent theme was best captured by the words of a bold-thinking psychiatrist, Thomas Fogarty:
“No matter how much a person tries, he or she will never be complete.“
Emptiness and incompleteness
Dr. Fogarty explained emptiness as acceptance of the essential incompleteness of life, and the willingness to voluntarily endure failure in the pursuit of emotional maturity. He wrote that completeness cannot come through marrying, having children or holding a high position. Completion cannot occur through accomplishments, rewards and honors. Even to think you know another person, Fogarty wrote, signifies that the relationship is ready for burial.
This notion of incompleteness is not as depressing as it sounds.
After all, the incompleteness of systems and individuals is a big part of what makes life exciting. There’s always more to do, more to think about, more to figure out about oneself, one’s family and the larger world.
That is why perfection is impossible, and why perfectionists can never be content. What is desperately important to them cannot be achieved.
By constantly emphasizing achievement and reward, Fogarty said, we bypass the reality that we are all at least a little bit insecure; we all experience the sting of failure and inadequacy, and none of us will ever attain complete tranquility or satisfaction with ourselves or others.
Reasonableness, not perfection
Allowing this idea to seep in helped me regulate my image of self-perfection. Knowing I don’t have to do everything right, please everyone around me, or get the highest score continues to help me be more reasonable with myself. I have come to appreciate the limits of what I can do for others, and they for me.
Dr. Fogarty’s connection of emptiness to the incompleteness of life enabled me to see my brother’s death as one kind of incompleteness. It also helped me recognize that relationship challenges can be managed better, but not “fixed,” and that no matter how many life/work goals get met, many will not.
Some will hear this as giving up, or settling for mediocrity. For several years, that was how I thought about it. But that’s the wrong read.
As leaders, reflecting on failure and incompleteness doesn’t mean we stop striving; it means we strive differently, with greater perspective. We compete more for personal satisfaction and human progress than for public accolade. Ironically, with better acceptance that we are not God, we are able to relax and be more effective.
Dr. Fogarty’s work offers other implications:
- The pursuit of accomplishments and financial success are worthwhile but limited goals, which can easily camouflage more important values such as building relationships and cultivating wisdom.
- Hard work and intelligence cannot prevent all pain and suffering. Our capacity for resilience can only be tested following setbacks, mistakes and hardship.
- A desire for high achievement must be balanced with an appreciation for the essential incompleteness of life. The humanity of leaders – what they are able to learn from failure and pain – might be more crucial to their effectiveness than their achievements.
- One’s ability to accept and learn from failure promotes depth and maturity. Instead of making a federal case out of every mistake, or believing a personal tragedy is the end of the world, leaders can use these challenges to bounce back the wiser.
Many of the leaders I know tend to comfort themselves with delusional slogans like, “Failure is not an option,” and “My life is now complete.”
A more mature view is to accept the importance of failure and incompleteness, using these experiences to increase wisdom.
© 2011 Leadership Coaching, Inc. All rights reserved.