In June I wrote about an article I had come across in the Dutch press about the limitations of intellect and rational thinking. The number of people on the job market with Masters, MBAs and PhDs is growing as young people strive to compete for the desirable jobs, and by the time they start working they have undergone years of training in thinking systematically and critically.

I come across a lot of them in my work. They are smart, well informed, willing to learn and work hard, and fantastically equipped to handle the technical side of work. But the rising numbers of young people with stress, burnouts and existential angst may suggest that they are ill equipped to handle the less clear-cut challenges of life, which is where they run into trouble.

We need to start fostering other qualities next to intelligence

Intellect is but one aspect in a colourful pallet of human qualities, and I would argue that we need to start fostering other qualities next to it if we hope to build environments humans enjoy living and working in.

Humour, the ability to improvise, patience, a sense of timing and the ability to put others at ease, are all qualities that are important in getting things done with other people. But there is another side that is rarely spoken about, which makes the difference between a well-informed leader and one who naturally creates an environment people want to live and work in. It comes down to the willingness to be imperfect. Leaders who are willing to be imperfect are often the ones who have a way of allowing others to be at their best.

It comes down to the willingness to be imperfect

When engineer Helen looks at a faulty system in order to solve a problem, she applies logical thinking to diagnose what’s going and work out a solution. The fast-moving environment she works in requires her to be razor sharp and to hold her own intellectually with her colleagues. But then she gets home and realises that this is the tenth day in a row that she has worked until nine. Her partner is trying his best to be understanding, but their last romantic evening was more than a year ago, and tempers are frayed. She tells herself that she should be delegating more and saying no, but life doesn’t always follow management theories, right? She has a book on leadership principles next to her bed, but every resolution she makes is swept away by some new crisis in the department that needs handling.

Cynical Trevor is keeping him awake at night

Helen’s colleague Martin in the management team is just as overworked, although it’s not an issue they ever talk about. The past few months a new challenge has been keeping him awake at night: cynical Trevor who throws in flippant comments during meetings, sucking the energy out of the team. It won’t be long before he and his side-kick Paul have knocked the idealism out of the young postgraduate Eli who started last September.

The problems started in the spring when Martin and Trevor applied for the same position and Martin got the job while Trevor didn’t. Since then he has been making his life hell. Every presentation Martin gives to the team Trevor asks smart-ass questions to expose him, and there are indeed times that Martin wonders whether his knowledge is sufficient for the position. He is working hard, trying to staying on top of things as much as he can. But nothing he has tried so far has been able to solve this. And he’s feeling tired.

That’s the problem with real life. It tends to get in the way of our plans and strategies, and when things really get tense no problem-solving method we have ever learned seems to fit. What to do then? And where does the willingness to be imperfect fit in?

Once we stop trying to be perfect something neat happens

Well, once we stop trying to be perfect something neat happens; we admit we don’t have the answer. And contrary to what you might think, that’s a very empowering thing. The armour plating of “I know how to solve this” finally drops and we become open to possibilities we weren’t able to hear or see before. Because however much we want to be right, the results simply show that the system we were using hasn’t worked.

Our whole system is programmed to prove we are doing the best we can

Now this sounds like it makes sense, and you may be thinking you know this already. But in practice it’s not at all easy to stop pretending to know. Our whole system is programmed so we can prove to ourselves and the people around us that we are doing the best we can. Let’s face it, it’s important for all of us to believe we are not ignorant, careless or unprofessional. We want to show that we are responsible, and in our own particular way we want to show that we are valuable human beings. And of course demonstrating our intelligence, expertise and knowledge is a very good way of doing this.

We hate it when our imperfection is exposed. But it’s actually a moment of beauty

So unfortunately for most people the moment they drop their urge to prove they know only comes when they hit a wall and things get too much for them. And this admission that we are fallible is often painful for us. While on the outside very little has changed, from the inside we feel as if the bottom has fallen out of our world. We hate it when our imperfection is exposed, but it’s actually a moment of beauty. We feel vulnerable, even naked. But with that comes a heightened awareness and a humble openness to possibilities we weren’t able to hear or see before. And an ability to truly listen. That’s the moment we finally stop trying to solve situations with our intellect, and start looking at the situation as a sensitive human being.

Although I’m not one for tips and tricks, here’s a practice that will get you out of the vicious circle of working harder to prove you are smart. If you practise it with a willingness to learn, it will get you to start thinking wiser and with more sensitivity.

  1. Start by asking yourself what you find important in life. Meaning, what are your values, what do stand for. Take some time for this. You want to condense it down into a handful of values that you can remember easily.
  2. Then ask yourself a simple question. “Judging by the results, am I honestly creating these values through what I am doing?” And be honest about this.
  3. Identify where you are doing so, and give yourself a compliment. Acknowledge yourself and learn from how you are doing it.
  4. Then identify where you are NOT creating what you stand for. Despite your good intentions and your hard work, the results don\’t express your values. Don’t condemn it, don’t hate it, and don’t get disappointed with yourself. Just note it. Just admit that, despite your good intentions, you were not able to create what you set out to.

And once you truly admit “Judging by the results, I don’t know how to do this”, you’ll be open to ask the question “How could I find out..?”

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