Derrick, a high level Creative Director, knew it was time to move on—he should finally be done working for somebody else. Well known in his field, and with many awards to his name, it would be the next logical step, the one his friends assumed he should take, a move that would make his proud mom prouder. In addition to being a brilliant Creative, my client was a genuine nice guy and supportive mentor; he was certain he could do a decent job at managing people.
Until this moment, until this very conversation, he believed that his decades long struggle with anxiety and the havoc its physical symptoms had wreaked, was a curse—a weakness that had stopped him from achieving more status and acclaim.
But was it?
Arnold Mindell (1995) has written about the psychological power and radiance that can come from surviving difficulties. "Used with awareness, this power becomes compassion—that incredible tenderness that makes life worthwhile" (p.60). Angela Duckworth (2007) researched the psychological traits that allow an individual to stay the course for long-term goals despite failure, adversity, disappointment, boredom and plateaus in progress. "The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina" (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews & Kelly, p. 1088).
Malcolm Gladwell positions difficulties and disadvantages, as pre-requisites, if not stepping-stones, to success. In David and Goliath, he corroborates Mindell’s way of thinking about such psycho-social challenges as losing a parent at a young age, coping with a learning disability, or facing social discrimination. He reframes setbacks as opportunities and shows how David, the classic underdog had to rely on subtle powers like speed, maneuverability, courage and the willingness to break rules. Paradoxically, the very thing that made Goliath gigantic may have also made him sluggish. Acromegaly, a medical condition in which a benign tumor in the pituitary gland causes an overproduction of the human growth hormone, leads to vision problems, lethargy and a host of other issues.
There are many kinds of power. Some power comes as a birthright. One is born wealthy or male or white, with that proverbial silver spoon. And yes, this opens doors and worlds. But after working with thousands of people over the last three decades in my therapy and coaching practice, I know that the silver spoon can make you gag or choke. I’ve seen too many socially privileged men (and some women) crippled when it comes to the inner life and emotional world—their own and others. Of course it’s an unspeakable privilege to have a cushion to fall back on, but if you only know the soft landing, if you never get your butt bruised, if you miss the chance to work impossibly hard and fail and not keep up with the Joneses, there are powers and experiences you miss out on. To name just a few:
- The chance to dig deep and find out why you failed, and what went wrong and how to make it better.
- The experience of falling back on yourself; meeting your demons; battling hard for your sense of self-worth.
- The ability to use negative feedback for personal and professional growth. When you land hard, or when there’s little echo for your work, it forces deep discernment. Are you off track? Do you need to adjust, pivot completely or believe in yourself and stay the course despite what the world thinks?
- That great feeling of triumph and self-esteem that comes after you have done your (emotional, physical, financial) healing.
- And the best prize of all—you gain humility and compassion. You earn the title: decent human being.
Because of my client’s anxiety, he didn’t rise quickly to the Very Top. He sometimes played it safe, made career choices that kept him in his comfort zone. He learned to manage and cover up his “condition” and still do great creative work. In an industry that reveres cool and slick, he couldn’t be. Instead he became self-aware. And sensitive to others—to their feelings and issues, and to how to help them grow and develop their talents. He was already a brilliant Creative. He became a fabulous Mentor.
One who is ready to run his own shop. We need leaders like this.