Maybe I’m just stumbling toward mid-life at long last, but I feel like I’m settling into a new kind of peace with imperfection these days. Whereas I used to jump to outrage easily, revel in dissecting all the faults of a leader or organization, I’ve started to get curious about how dysfunctional we all are — and yet how resilient and capable of change. Here are a couple of things I wish I’d understood earlier:
Adults do not have their shit together. Even the really successful ones.
When I was in my teens and twenties, I remember studying adults — particularly women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — and being awed by all that they were juggling. Surely they had superpowers, highly coordinated systems for running their very complicated, important lives. Surely they woke up each morning knowing exactly what they were doing and executing with finely tuned precision. I imagined spreadsheets, unbroken morning meditation routines, color-coordinated closets.
But here’s the truth: Even the adults I’ve met who appeared to have their shit together don’t. In fact, I think the inverse may be true: The more people appear to have their shit together, the more reliably you can predict that they have a closet somewhere, shielded from public view, bursting with all the messiness of life.
Further, at just the moment that you fall under the delusion that you have your shit together, life will teach you otherwise. You have all the plates spinning, and then the baby gets the stomach flu or you forget your best friend’s birthday or you crash the car and you remember that you are, indeed, human and fallible and just like every other adult, even the ones really good at pretending like, as they say, their shit don’t stink.
Which is all to say, do not equate adulthood with getting your shit together. Equate adulthood with more realistic, if not still challenging, goals: like learning how to give a truly heartfelt apology or thinking in spectrums instead of binaries or mastering the art of picking basil without killing the plant. Maturity, as it turns out, is not really about filing systems or intricately maintained calendars. It’s about showing up in your imperfect form over and over and over again.
The organizations and institutions you admire from afar are riddled with problems — and still worth admiring.
What is true in micro is true in macro. All of the organizations and institutions that are run by these imperfect humans are also imperfect. Sometimes fatally flawed (in which case, don’t walk, run), but sometimes just broken in various, potentially fixable ways for various, complex reasons, and this, too, can become a testing ground for wisdom.
When I first started working in the “real world” and got to pull the curtain back on various organizations, I was shocked over and over again to discover that they were not well-oiled machines. Emails go unanswered. Purported values get dishonored in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day. Money is wasted. Good work goes unrewarded. Dehumanizing bureaucracies build up. No one ever sticks to timelines, no matter how well-intentioned. Everything takes ten times longer than you estimate it would or think it should.
But this, too, turns out to be a potential balm for your anxiety rather than only a disappointment (although it can often be disappointing). It means that you are needed. Young people with fresh energy and ways of collaborating who are not burdened with years of subpar systems and lowered expectations can come in and ask the perfect naïve question or offer the seemingly small but breakthrough solution. You have skills and networks that even the most admired organizations in the world need (and may not even realize they need because they are dysfunctional fish in murky waters).
There is a lot of opportunity in all this brokenness. If you can stay the course with organizations that fall short of their visions and values, you might just have a hand in shaping something long-lasting and far-reaching. That’s a reward that feels more adult than repeatedly walking away in a huff.
So I’m curious: What do you wish you had known earlier?