Having a human experience

My wife and I got together with our friends a couple of weeks ago. As the night went on we chatted and laughed and commiserated with them about life as young parents trying to get it all done without letting anyone see us break a sweat. In the middle of the laughter and the tears, my wife wondered why we try to snooker everyone else: they all know we’re faking it, she said, because we’re all of us in the middle of “having a human experience.”

It might be because I’m reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly or it might just be because she was right on, but either way, I’ve I’ve thought a lot about what my wife said.

It’s probably as much a reflection on me as it is on anything, but it seems that work is the place where people are least willing to be seen having a human experience. I think there are many reasons for this, not least because of the pervasive attitude that work is—or ought to be—a pure meritocracy. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve heard people say “we only work with the best,” as if there’s some objective way to measure who is the best and who isn’t.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this sort of thinking—the sort of thinking that leads us to say we only work with the best—is one of the more pernicious riffs on the shame/guilt dichotomy that Brené discusses in Daring Greatly. Put briefly, the difference between shame and guilt is the difference between “I’m a bad person” and “I did a bad thing.” The little ditty about working only with the best is particularly noxious because it sounds so true.

But it’s not true. As a matter of simple statistics, it can’t be true; there’s simply no way for every organization that claims to work only with the best to actually have engaged the best person in that particular field.

More problematic than that is what this idea does to those who try but don’t succeed on their first try. The message to those folks is “you’re not good enough.” That message gets repeated a thousand times a day in a thousand different situations. We’ve all heard it.

But even more problematic than that is the fact that in this framework, even success is not necessarily a relief. For many of us, each success is only a temporary reprieve from the need to prove our worthiness.

Those who don’t get caught up in the rat race are those who have learned, like my wife, that really we’re all just in the middle of having a human experience. Life isn’t really about surrounding ourselves with “the best.” It’s about surrounding ourselves with people and trying to help them do their best.