I’ve been thinking a lot about strength over the last several months. Most recently, because I haven’t had any following my bout with the stupid flu. But even before that, I’ve had flitting thoughts of what it means to be strong, why we value it so much and whether and how I and others are strong.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the movie “Wild,” with Reese Witherspoon. She plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose life was plagued with difficulty, heartache and addiction. She hiked, alone, over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I walked out of the film wondering again at strength. How did this woman, by all accounts broken, find whatever it was she needed to dig deep, survive and face her demons? Physical, mental and emotional strength came from someplace in her. Where? Why do some people have it and some not? What is it?
I’ve been collecting a few thoughts, which I’ll share here, even though I’m still pondering.
1. Our society places enormous value on certain types of strength and I think we’re a bit out of whack. Fortitude, stick-to-it-tiveness, having convictions, being bigger-than-life. We love strong athletes and pay some of them ridiculous amounts of money. (No matter that they may shatter their brains or those of an opponent, because at the end of the day they are human, even if they can accomplish unhuman feats.) We speak with admiration about someone who is “so strong” in the face of adversity. Or we tell them that they must “be strong,” meaning that they must shore up, fend off, stand tall and generally never fall apart. At least not openly.
Where does this awe for strength come from? Are we overall better for it? Or would we be better off viewing ourselves as part of a collective, where ones’ strength is recognized as a complement to another’s weakness? Where we view the individual more holistically and value them for them, not just how fast they can run? Where sometimes it’s ok not to be strong?
2. We should have a little more respect for someone who acknowledges a weakness. Ms. Strayed knew she was at a cross-road. She recognized that her life was crumbling and she found a way to face it. People were confused by her decision and told her to give up along the way. If she hadn’t acknowledged that she needed help, she would have continued to spiral. There is value for her and for those around her (and society, as we got the benefit of her writing) when she says, “Yep, I’m a weak mess and I need to figure this out.”
One of the first things I learned as a young professional was to admit when I didn’t know something or that I had messed up. It was so much better to say, “I don’t know the answer but I will do my best to find out,” than to give the wrong answer and have to explain that later. Or to look like an idiot by fumbling through what was obviously something I knew nothing about. When I was further along in my career, I appreciated that same trait in a colleague or outside advisor. Don’t give me a half-assed or guessed answer. Go figure it out and get back to me. Please. It shows that you know what you don’t know and I can trust you.
Similarly, the best leaders know their strengths and their weaknesses. They aren’t afraid to surround themselves with those whose strengths can fill in the gaps. The most effective people I have encountered have a willingness to be exposed at times, to point to the number 3 or number 10 person and say out loud for all to hear, “This is her thing. She will carry this part of our load.” Doing this demonstrates an understanding of the landscape, the team and the individuals. It shows confidence in that person and allows her to shine and grow.
3. An area of weakness doesn’t have to stay that way. We can get better. Maybe not as much as we would like, or maybe not to the degree of the next guy, but better. We all have soft, unexposed baby skin, areas that will flare red from life’s friction, joints that may buckle from the weight of too much, muscles atrophied from lack of use. We may not be able to change our complexion or strengthen a joint, but there is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. Find the sunscreen, wear a rash guard, put on a brace, move those muscles. Rely on a friend, talk with a colleague, study up, take a break. Hike the Pacific Crest Trail and face the demons. You can find strength from other places.
I guess it comes down to this: we need to give ourselves a break. No one can be strong in all ways always. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can appreciate the beauty of life’s mosaic, comprised of all of our strengths and our weaknesses.