“Vulnerability is the birthplace of growth and change.” Brene Brown

How hard it is to move in worlds that expect perfection and performance of expertise and seemingly have little tolerance for anything less.  Medicine is one such world, so is academia – put the two together in academic medicine and you may as well not get out of bed today.

And yet, how are we all complicit in the creation and re-creation of these worlds?  How does this world of expert knowledge and stellar performance serve us? How might it be hindering a performance of what may be our very best shining selves?  What can we do to co-create cultures with different performance and behavioral norms are not just tolerated but embraced and expected?  

Here’s a hypothesis: when perfection is the norm, we hold back.  What a risk it is to put yourself out there, to try something, to suggest, if it may not work, may not be the right answer.  And when we hold ourselves back, what happens?  Not only does our own growth become stunted, but we also deprive those around us of our fullest selves.  We also miss the opportunity to model that risk taking may just be the act that propels us all (or our department, our team, our organization) to the next level, and we send the message to everyone around us that it is definitely not ok to put yourself out there unless you know you are right. 

What’s at stake?  Everything.  But not what you think.  We worry about evaluations, judgments, reputation, offending someone, hurting someone’s feelings.  What’s really at stake is being alive, living fully, pushing us all to the place we need to be in order to thrive, flourish, become our full potential (whatever that may be, and wherever that may take us).  Sometimes having the courage to ask the hard question, or name the difficult reality, is the voice needed to shake us into paying attention to the real work ahead of us.  Really, there is just too much work that is needed.  We spend hours/days/years of our lives performing what may not be the real work.  We cannot afford to muck around on the surface.  I know, surface work is safe, but it doesn’t move us forward.  Surface conversations are safe, but they leave us unmoved, unchanged, unfed, and we do not yet create the kinds of environments where our next generation of people can truly become (nor can we).  

Experts are safe.  They are solidly working within their known territory, the tried and true, the tested.  They have arrived.  They are also on a lonely plateau, and can be rather stuck.  In developmental language, it is the master – not the expert – who is the true guru.  He or she is the one who is always experimenting, always testing something new, always a little off balance because she is pushing herself to go just a little further or to be 10% braver.  In mastery, there is richness as you are never done.  You are on a lifelong learning trajectory, and really, what is more energizing that this kind of discovery and growth?  Think of the energy of a child who is discovering so much.  Adults get boring because we think we know everything.  I seek out the child-like adults who are in the constant world of play, experiment, are humble about what they do not yet know, and generally do not take themselves too seriously. 

What can we do?  In your own sphere, whatever that may be – try cultivating a culture of curiosity, of humility, of play, of wonder.   The best examples of this I can draw on come from yoga (yet again).  There is no judgment in where you might go in any given day.  All we ask of you is that you show up and try, and encourage the attempts of others.  Celebrate those attempts – not in shallow, empty ways – but as recognition of genuine “leaning in” and just trying.  Encouragement – because we are so starved by it in many of our environments – is rocket fuel.  Take a chance in your own work environment.  Normalize feedback, give and take, introduce recognition.  It will go a long way toward cultivating a culture of growth.

"Genuine learning, like love, is always mutual."-- bell hooks

Conversational Credit: Holly Yang, Anthony Back, Bob Arnold, James Tulsky, Gordon Wood, Lisa Ravenel, and Jillian, Stephen, David, and Sara, who asked the question. And Kemp Battle, who models this practice daily.

10/07/2014 12:22pm

So true: that a willingness to be a little off balance is what it takes to be 10% braver. You've got to build the plane while you're flying it.

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