Did you know that at the age of 16, Pablo Picasso had completed three art works considered to be of academic perfection by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. What do you do with your life when you have achieved ‘perfection’ at 16 years of age? And more importantly is perfection possible or in fact necessary?
Many years ago I read a biography about the French chanteuse Edith Piaf. One of her famous quotes is, “Use your faults, use your defects; then you’re going to be a star.” Hard as I tried, I didn’t get what she meant by this, but something inside of me felt there was a golden truth in what she was saying. Piaf had the most atrocious life of hardship and I couldn’t compute how she could be so renowned for that quote. Hadn’t she risen above her faults?
Last year, Deb and I ended up buying some Zimbabwean sculptures for our home. As we examined the sculptures in the gallery, we were drawn to particular figures. I noticed how the stone had been shaped around the muted colours of the rock and how fault lines and pigmentations enhanced the overall look and feel of the artworks.
We ended up buying three of these sculptures and each one has what I call a beautiful flaw. My favourite has a pigmentation that ‘spoils’ one of the sculpture’s perfect colouration. Yet this change of colour is the very thing that catches my eye and makes me notice this sculpture somewhat more than I would if it was perfectly uniform. It started to dawn on me that things can be made more beautiful when their ‘faults’ are incorporated into their design.
Last week I attended my accreditation program for The Leadership Circle. It was one of the more significant training experiences of my life. Not only is the assessment tool spookily accurate but the philosophy that underpins its design integrates so many of my favourite thinkers and frameworks. It was like I had discovered a whole chamber of gold and treasures – just waiting there for me to find it.
As the name suggests The Leadership Circle is all about identifying leadership potential and measuring leadership effectiveness. Like many of these tools it helps bring awareness to what are our habitual patterns of thinking that draw us into behaviours that are counter to our creative impulse and limit the positive impact we can have on others and our environment and indeed ourselves.
The accreditation training involved a lot of, “Now let’s bring our chairs into a circle and share”. Each morning and each close of everyday had us forming a circle of souls sharing their insights and experiences. What struck me was how on the whole, when people shared their insights it was very focused on the faults in their profiles – how they had misjudged themselves and how disappointed they were in themselves.
Now this was a group of highly educated, soundly qualified and richly experienced people – I suspect I was one of the least qualified people in the room. Yet time and again, as people opened up and shared it was a haunting grief that shadowed their insights. They were saddened about how they were showing up in the world, how so much of their childhood patterns and habits of thinking were governing their day to day interactions and how stuck they were in unresolved ‘stuff’.
Now the real magic of this assessment and its underpinning philosophy is that it presumes that every aspect that is assessed has gifts for us. What the facilitator moved people towards was a greater appreciation for the gifts that their coping mechanisms gave them. Being complying, protective or controlling weren’t bad states. In fact, at times in life they may well have been the very reasons we survived events. We were invited into the opportunity to ‘name it, tame it and reclaim it once we had reframed it’.
Now I have done my fair share of profiling and, over time, and long ago, I worked out that I have an ingrained tendency to please others. My life script is somewhat anchored to a belief that I need to be the ‘good boy’. I have received countless moments of feedback in my career pointing out that my tendency to be ‘pleasing’’ and at times let others take credit for my work is viewed as ‘wrong’ and it is implied that this makes me less suitable for success in corporate environments.
Try as I did I could not accept that how I showed up in the world was wrong. Obviously I could see how some of my colleagues who used more direct or even Machiavellian methods of managing up succeeded and were rewarded. And yet I have struggled to be another version of Cal. Something inside of me keeps guiding me towards this inner sense that who I am and how I show up is what makes me, me.
Over the last two years I have been going through on this amazing period of creative insights. About a year ago an epiphany occurred for me. The ‘aha’ I got was this:
Just because I had a story running inside my head for myself it didn’t mean I had to stay with that story forever.
Just because someone else has a story running about me, I doesn’t mean I have to believe it or live into it.
At the end of last week, life introduced me to a new poet. I had never encountered the East Coast American, Mary Oliver – and I am now slightly obsessed. Check out the absurd beauty of this poem called Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
What I am working out is this: the very things I may have rejected (or have been rejected by others) about myself are in fact the very aspects that have protected me and shaped me. They have served me admirably and there are gifts in these shadow parts of who I am and how I show up. Being choiceful about which parts of me I bring out at different times of my life is what empowers me.
We are meant to be whole and no matter if someone says ‘you are perfect’ or ‘you are imperfect’ you are the whole of you. As we expand our selves across life what good can come from allowing only the best and good part of us to rub up against life? Perfect as Picasso may have been at 16, he went on to be one of the world’s most prodigious artists and transformed our imaginations with how he saw life. As defected as Edith Piaf was, her unique story and unsurpassable voice continues to transcend listeners into states of awe. As fault-lined and pigmented as my sculptures are they remind me of how beautiful it is to have flaws. As light and dark as my character is, it is all of me and I cannot believe the world needs only the good parts of me.
My plea is this: Please welcome with self-compassion what and who you are in all its entirety. Don’t choose only the good bits because all of you belongs in the family of things.