High performance individuals often assume that to grow they must make huge leaps in ability. This sometimes happens. More often though, it’s the simple, measurable changes in perception and behaviour which have the greatest effect. In this story, JP confronts his assumption that growth for him means turning back the clock some 50 years, to when he could absorb and integrate new information as easily as a child. In the words of an old girlfriend of mine: assumption is the mother of all f***-ups.
JP leant forward with his elbows the table, lowered his head and clenched his fists into his silver hair. He had spent the day managing a international team of engineers at a hydroelectric plant – ‘testing breakers’ he’d said. He’d gone some way towards explaining the process, but he’d ground to a halt. His fists, the silver hair spiking between his fingers, looked frazzled. He glanced up at me.
‘You remember, Theo, I adopted my son from Ethiopia. I brought him back to France when he was 6. After a month in Paris he started school. 6 months later he could speak French as well as me.’ He yanked his fists out of his hair. ‘I am 60! I should speak better English!’
‘Look,’ I began. ‘We both know you have enough English to manage your team, and I understand you expect more of yourself. Let me ask you this: what would happen if you let go of the opinion that you were not learning fast enough?’
He looked up over my head. I could see the whites of his eyes.
‘If I had no opinion, my objectives would change.’
‘Ok.’ I let the reflection hang.
‘My objective would not be to explain a complex subject, or tell a long story.’ He paused. ‘But I have so much to say,’ he blurted.
‘That’s your ego’ I countered. ‘Let it go. Another objective.’
‘My objective would be to feel comfortable making simple sentences with the language I have.’
‘Let go of “simple”. That’s your opinion again.’ JP tilted back on his chair and puffed out his cheeks.
‘My objective would be to be comfortable making sentences with the language I have.’
‘But then I’ll simply stay where I am. Why would I improve if I’m happy now?’
I see this again and again with leaders in businesses who are tying to grow. Jean Pierre was gripped by the assumption that he should be different to how he is now. He thought this because he was comparing himself to his son. The opinion he’d formed of his ability had carried him only so far. Now he was difficult to be around.
‘JP, if I may: your body is all frustration. You pull your hair. You clench your fists. You’re a stressful person to talk to!’ I looked at him. ‘I understand. If we are content with how we are, then it feels as if there is no reason to grow. Let me ask you this though: which attitude do you think is going t help you learn faster: judgment, or acceptance?’ It was a deliberately leading question.
‘Ok, acceptance Theo. But I’m only here speaking to you because I wasn’t happy with how things were going.’
‘I accept that. But what we are investigating now is how you can move forward sustainably. The way it will become sustainable is if you can accept where you are now, and be honest with yourself as to what communicating better actually means. At the moment it means “learning as fast as my 6-year-old”. To think that to improve you must learn like a 6-year-old suggests you already think you learn incredibly fast. That’s quite arrogant.’
Jean Pierre smiled. He took his glasses off and pinched his eyebrows together. Briefly inspecting the lenses, he slid his glasses back on with both hands.
‘So I must accept my limitations.’
‘How can you not accept them? They are a beautiful fact!’ Jean Pierre smiled thinly and rested his chin on his folded hands.
Often our opinion of who we think we are stops us accepting the fact of our limitations. That’s not to say our limitations are fixed – quite the opposite. But when we make unfair comparisons between ourselves and others, we lose sight of what it means to grow. Only with humility can we recognise the moments we do better.