On being the best you can be given the circumstances

By Martin Vogel

Here’s a passage from The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert:

“When I was younger and training to become a therapist, trying to help people who were very distressed, I used to say to my supervisor that my patients would be so much better off having somebody with far more experience than I had. To some extent, that was clearly true. However, my supervisor, who was a wise and gentle older lady, pointed out that this was the essence of life. We can live life in the ‘if only’ lane or make the best of it and appreciate where we are right now. So the question for me was not ‘How can I have 20 years’ experience on Day 1?’ because that wasn’t possible. Everyone has to walk exactly the same road as I was walking, from being inexperienced to experienced. There is no other way. Rather the question she wanted me to ask myself was ‘How can I be the best young, inexperienced therapist I can be, given my limitations?’ Because that was all there was for these individuals – there was no one else. It was a harsh lesson in some ways but it helped me confront the reality of my limitations: I could only be what I could be.”

One of the best things I’ve done this year is to help convene a group of coaches who share an interest in mindfulness. I needed to take to the group a reading that we could reflect on together and alighted on this passage. For some years, it has informed my thinking not just about who I am as a practitioner but who my clients might think they are as leaders.

There are many working environments which create pressure on people to aspire to be the best in absolute terms. An organisation that construes itself as world class or Number 1 inevitably elicits in its people a similar anxiety to be the absolute best. Of course, this isn’t remotely possible since the vast majority of us, by definition, are not the best. Paul Gilbert reminds us that it’s sufficient to be the best you can be, given the circumstances in which you find yourself right now. In fact, it’s impossible to be any better than that.

I find it liberating to remember this when I’m working in challenging situations. This isn’t to let myself off the hook and to settle for being in some respect second rate. Rather, it’s calming to understand that – whatever the situation demands – the best I can be is all I can be. It’s enough of a stretch for most people to bring their best game. And, if they succeed in bringing it, then they’re doing pretty well. I find that, by grounding myself in this understanding, the noise of striving to achieve something unrealistic subsides, and I’m more likely to bring the best I can.

That was broadly the extent of my interpretation of the passage when I took it to the group. But the great thing about sharing reading with others is how it opens up so many more interpretations.

One of the aspects we alighted on was the role in Paul Gilbert’s enlightenment of “a wise and gentle older lady”. She points out to him that it’s “the essence of life” that there are no short cuts to becoming experienced. Various of us in the group also had our own wise and gentle older ladies who would point out to us the essence of life. But there’s also a symbolic aspect to this character in that we all need to internalise a gentle and wise voice. It’s the counter-cultural part of us that can advocate an alternative way when we succumb to the cultural pressure to reside in the “if only” lane.

The “if only” lane is a place of blame – of ourselves, of others or the circumstances around us. It leads to self-defeating expenditure of energy on frustration. We can only make a difference by accepting the reality of where we are and what it is we’re dealing with, not by wishing that we were starting from elsewhere.

Why is this, as Paul Gilbert says, “a harsh lesson”? At one level, it’s harsh for his patients because an inexperienced therapist is all that’s on offer. But this isn’t to say that he can’t do them some good. At another level, it’s harsh for him as he has to let go of his fantasies about the practitioner he thinks himself to be. What strikes me is that the scenario he describes is not simply a function of being young and inexperienced. It’s more vivid when one is starting out. But, as long as we keep learning, the goal of mastery always eludes us. The more we know, the more we realise how much we still have to know. And making errors when one is experienced is possibly harder to wear than when one is starting out.

Paradoxically, though, to fail is to lead. In a complex world, we can’t get everything right. We move forward through trial and error. If we never make mistakes, we’re ossified, not taking the risk of learning. Much better to trip up, correct course elegantly and move on.

With thanks to Emma, Malcolm, Fiona and Anna.

The Compassionate Mind, by Paul Gilbert. Available from Amazon

Image courtesy Ramon Rosati.