Sometimes the lessons taught in high school are realized only years after one graduates.
I’d like to tell you about a particular high school English class. I was in grade eleven. I didn’t realize it at the time, and this may not have been the lesson that my teacher had in mind, but this class revealed to me, one of the mysteries of life.
This particular class involved a group exercise. We were supposed to solve some sort of mystery, and the exercise was done to encourage team-building. We arranged our desks into groups of five, and each person in the group received a sheet of paper with a story typed on it. We were supposed to refer to this story while working in our group, look for clues, and answer a number of questions that were on a separate sheet of paper.
What the teacher didn’t tell us was that each person in the group had a slightly different version of the story, and that we each had information that the others didn’t. Only by sharing all of our information could we answer all of the questions. Midway through the exercise, some members of my group started wondering how one team member knew a particular fact, when they couldn’t find it anywhere on their sheet. The epiphany came when we finally compared our sheets, read them out loud to each other and realized that we each had different information. Then the teamwork began in earnest, as we pooled our knowledge.
It was an interesting exercise in teamwork, but what does this have to do with our lives now? Quite a bit actually, although it took me years to make the connection.
In a previous speech, entitled Living Without Boundaries, I referred to our learning about another person as constructing a jigsaw puzzle – each new thing we learned about someone else was a new piece that we could add to our puzzle, and thus give us a better, more complete picture of that person.
We can also turn this metaphor around and use it on ourselves. Every aspect of our existence – a piece of knowledge, an experience, a talent or skill – is a piece of our own jigsaw puzzle. Together, they form a picture of who we are, what we know and how much we can accomplish.
In my high school exercise, we needed to pool our knowledge to solve a problem, since each individual wasn’t given enough. That’s why I now look at the world, and see each one of us as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; no offense, but you’re all missing a few pieces — as am I! There appears to be some support for our cooperative nature in the following expressions: “Nobody’s perfect”, “No man is an island” and “It takes a village to raise a child”.
While we all understand that nobody’s perfect, most of us nevertheless are our own worst critics. Over the years, after spending countless hours listening to friends, co-workers, acquaintances (and even perfect strangers while I take the train to work) I’ve discovered that the vast majority of us have a distorted view of our internal jigsaw puzzles. Instead of focusing on what we do possess, and on the unique gifts we can offer to others, we are fixated on the missing pieces.
Some of our colloquial expressions seem to reinforce this. Consider the following: “Not playing with a full deck”, “A few bricks short of a load”, “A few sandwiches short of a picnic”, “A few fries short of a Happy Meal”. In these examples, incompleteness is equated with cluelessness.
The self-help industry capitalizes on this skewed perception. Just look at the size of the self-help section in your local bookstore, and at the enduring popularity of motivational speakers. There are countless books offering to divulge life’s secrets – as if they were being kept hidden from you deliberately – while simultaneously suggesting that you are not living your life as intensely as you could. Go to Amazon.com, select “Books” from the drop-down menu, and then search for “self-help secret”; you’ll see what I mean.
I suspect that our collective “missing pieces fixation” may be related to what I perceive as a generalized lack of self-esteem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people tell their friends that they don’t want to apply for something because they don’t see themselves as “XYZ material”. Groucho Marx summed up this negative self-perception quite nicely when he said “I refuse to join any club that would have someone like me as a member”.
In my opinion, the real secret to living a more satisfying, full and harmonious existence is our willingness to accept our inherent individual incompleteness. The answers are not found in self-help books. As my high school English class exercise demonstrated, your missing pieces can be found in other people. Ralph Waldo Emerson explained this eloquently when he said “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that I learn of him”.
Everyone I meet knows things that I do not. Everyone has skills or talents that I do not possess. It doesn’t matter what their station in life is, they are better at something, and I can learn from them. Some skills come easily to certain people, and they will naturally excel in those areas. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I look at the things that other people are doing, and see two opportunities. If I am capable of doing it as well, then this is a chance to learn; if this is something that is completely beyond me, then this is an opportunity for me to marvel at what others are able to accomplish so effortlessly.
I am always amazed when I watch someone do something that I can’t – to me, whatever s/he is doing may as well be magic. When I was growing up, there was a television program on Cable 10 called Painting With Varga. It was a low budget, one camera locally-produced show, in which an older gentleman painted an entire canvas, from start to finish, in 30 minutes. Not only that, he explained the minutiae of his craft as he went along and gave the audience numerous (and occasionally confounding) pointers such as “without dark, there can be no light”. Personally, anything other than painting by numbers is totally beyond me. Seeing these pastoral scenes taking shape on his canvas was just mesmerizing. To me, Varga was performing magic right in front of my eyes.
Since, according to Emerson, everyone is my superior to me in some way, I am living on a planet filled with wondrous people. That’s how I look at my existence, rather than bemoan the things that are beyond my abilities. In my opinion, our individual incompleteness is the best thing that could happen to us. There is a well-known expression “The two biggest disappointments in life are not getting what you want, and getting it”. We have to strive continually for something in life, or else we’ll plateau and then stagnate.
Therefore, I believe that we are incomplete on purpose, and that each one of us was born with just the right amount of innate learning potential – enough to survive and propagate, but not enough to truly thrive or to attain a level of self-actualization. In order to reach the summit of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or to experience life more fully and completely, we have to seek out other people and learn from them. Progress depends on pooling resources and sharing knowledge. Together, we can do things and solve problems that we wouldn’t be able to individually; our individual incompleteness is the impetus that brings us together so that we can assist one another. Together, we fill in each other’s “missing pieces”, and become more complete ourselves. In the process, we also see a fascinating side of those we meet, when we discover that they can do almost effortlessly, what we are unable to do by ourselves.
From this interaction and cooperation, we will begin to develop friendships, and build networks of friends. These networks will then, over time, coalesce into tribes, communities, societies and finally, cultures. At this point we can look at the culture that has emerged and declare that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Because we are imperfect, we experience a richer and more wondrous world.