Have you visited the self-help section of a bookstore lately? Not only is it teeming with books, but most of them seem to have a common theme: “Of course you’re not happy – your life is imperfect or incomplete… and I alone am holding the missing pieces of your own personal jigsaw puzzle!”. 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 fully or as intensely as you could.
No matter what the authors promise, the missing pieces of your life are not going to be found within the pages of their books. If this was the case, then there would be only one self-help book in the entire section, and it would be a perpetual best-seller. Clearly, we have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, I can’t offer you these missing pieces either, but I can offer you some insight into our common condition, share with you what I learned, offer a fresh and comforting perspective on our feelings of inadequacy, and explain why we seem to be continually searching for something in our lives.
The Classroom Experiment
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.
It 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 told to refer to this story while working in our group, look for clues, and answer a number of questions that were printed on a separate sheet of paper.
What our 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 excitedly pooled our knowledge and worked together toward our common goal.
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 blog post, 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 bit 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 about the world, and what we can accomplish with our unique combination of talents and abilities.
In my high school exercise, we needed to pool our knowledge to solve a problem, since each individual wasn’t given enough to do it alone. That’s why I now look at the world, and see each one of us as an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; you and I are each “missing a few pieces”, and we need to assist each other. This cooperative concept is illustrated 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 still 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 instead fixated on the missing pieces.
Some of our colloquial expressions seem to reinforce a negative perception of a lack of completeness. 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 or buffoonery.
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”.
Why Aren’t We Satisfied With Our Lives?
First of all, stop believing that everyone else in the world is “complete” except you – that we’re all leading rich, satisfying and fulfilling lives because we possess the answers to life that have so far eluded you. The first step to living a more enjoyable, full and harmonious existence is a willingness to accept our inherent individual incompleteness. The answers are not found in self-help books or motivational seminars. As my high school English class exercise demonstrated, your missing pieces can be found in other people.
“Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that I learn of him”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Claire: “I can’t do anything.“
Bender: “Now, everybody can do something…“
— The Breakfast Club
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 from them and increase my skill level; 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 our community cable channel (Cable 10) called Painting With Varga. It was a low-budget, single-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, so seeing these captivating and surprisingly realistic 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 inherent individual incompleteness is the best thing that could ever 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.
Together We’re Better
Some of the greatest songs of the past couple of generations were written not by a single person, but by a songwriting duo: Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice, Elton John & Bernie Taupin (pictured below). One person composed the music, and the other wrote the lyrics; together they created something spectacular, and better than a single person could have done.
Apple Computer could not have been formed by either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak alone. Wozniak had the technical skills, and Jobs had the marketing acumen. It was only by combining their technical and people skills that the Apple I and Apple II computer were created and the personal computer industry was launched.
Take a look at the end credits of a movie. There are hundreds of names and each person has a specific (and usually highly-skilled) job. Only by pooling their talents – acting, writing, directing, lighting, wardrobe, editing, background music, set construction etc. – can they create a motion picture.
Why Incompleteness Is Essential
I’d like you to perform a little thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that you are God (or your own version of the creator of the universe, assuming that you believe in one). You may be a deity, but like any parent, you want your offspring to accomplish tremendous things, do something truly spectacular with their lives, and make you proud. How can you make this happen? What is the best way to go about it? Some parents spoil their children, give them whatever they ask for, and subsidize their lifestyle right into adulthood. As we all know, this rarely works out well – the kids don’t know the value of a dollar, or of hard work, and they end up acquiring a skewed sense of entitlement.
If you (as the creator of the universe) imbued everyone with all of the skills, talents and abilities s/he needed in life, then everyone could not only survive, but thrive, and (in theory) should live a happy and fulfilling existence. While this does sound good on paper, this independence and total self-reliance also means that individuals will be much less likely to rely on others. We wouldn’t have as much incentive to form groups, since we would be able to function so well independently.
On the other hand, what if you separated each individual ability and distributed them randomly across thousands of different people? Everyone would be lacking in a few areas, but would also excel in others. Just like the classroom exercise, this random talent distribution will also lead to a collective awakening – everyone would soon realize that others have talents and abilities that they don’t, and that together, they can pool their talents and form symbiotic relationships. Together, they will become stronger, more resourceful, and accomplish far more than any individual.
I believe that we were all created incomplete on purpose. 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. This is the carrot dangling in front of us – just out of reach – and this is why we are all grasping for something. Therefore, in order to reach the summit of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or to experience life more fully and completely, we need to seek out other people and learn from them. Progress depends on pooling our resources and sharing our 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, to reach higher than any of us can by ourselves. Together, we fill in each other’s “missing pieces”, and as a result, become more complete ourselves. From this initial interaction and cooperation, we then begin to develop friendships, and build networks of friends. These networks will then, over time, coalesce into tribes, communities, societies and finally, cultures.
Look at the items around you right now and count the number that were created by a single person, and how many are the result of a group effort. How many people had a hand in designing and creating your clothes, your car, your CD/DVD collection or your smartphone?
Whenever you face a challenge – especially if it’s something that seems to come easily or even effortlessly to others – remember the words of Emerson. Everyone knows something that you don’t. That gap in your abilities is deliberate, and is there so that we will seek out others, help each other, and form mutually-beneficial relationships.
Above all, be compassionate. While you are lamenting your own perceived shortcomings, others are probably looking at you right now with wonder, admiration or even envy. Things that come effortlessly to you may be confounding them. Therefore, be kind. If you see someone struggling, then offer to help. Share your knowledge. Fill in the missing pieces of their jigsaw puzzle, and make them feel more complete.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my high school English teacher may have revealed one of the secrets of life itself. The creator of this universe may have made each of us incomplete deliberately, to force us to find each other, to work together, and to pool our resources, so that we can accomplish far more than we ever could on our own. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and what we myopically perceive as the missing pieces of our own jigsaw puzzle actually allow us experience and enjoy a richer and more wondrous world.