Originally written August 29, 2014
In my background as a Pediatric Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician, I see parents coping with unexpected disabilities affecting their children. The challenges these kids face can be from congenital disabilities like cerebral palsy, or from those acquired through trauma like in brain injury. Thus, the parents have to mourn the loss of some of their expectations for these children with special health care needs. That process allows them to then focus on what the child is capable of and new ways to find joy, accomplishment, and fulfillment under the changed circumstances. Watching that process helped me understand how each of us has to adapt when the proverbial perfect is lost in some way in our professional lives.
The loss of perfect can be small such as not getting the days off that were preferable. Or, they can be large like losing your place of employment. But to move forward, there has to be an acknowledgment that there was a loss that affects how one imagined things would or should be. Without that process, the wound may heal over on the surface but fester on the inside; never to be truly overcome. Over time, that abscess slowly poisons its host – causing morbidity and sometimes mortality. A panel discussion featuring leaders of Medical Schools underscored this concept. David Carlisle, MD, Ph.D., President and CEO of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, had to make very tough decisions affecting the core mission of the Institution he was tapped to lead. The choices he made led to economic viability and ultimate appreciation of the reputation of his institution with private donors and the academic community. However, the process caused the Faculty Senate to register a vote of “no confidence” against him. As an academician with publications on health disparities, it was an arresting experience for him to be admonished by people he saw as peers. He spoke to acknowledge that feeling and disappointment in order to be able to move on in a way that was positive for him as a leader and the institution at which he served. Even those doing their best to make good decisions and play within the rules are not immune from losing their ideal of perfect.
In addition to the internal struggle of managing loss, there is an external struggle with perception. Following the excess of the 1980’s, the individualism of the 1990’s and the suddenly imposed austerity of the 2000’s, many have taken to only sharing the “wins” of their life. Be it in conversation or on social media, the conversations focus almost exclusively on what is right and perfect in the world of the sharer. This sentiment is captured in the chorus and subtext of the Beyoncé hit song “Flawless”. Hiding the presence of anything that is less than perfect projects strength. To be strong is to be flawless. Thus, when someone suffers their loss of perfect, the hurt is compounded by isolation and shame. The isolation comes from the appearance that the affected individual is alone in having suffered a fall. In truth, a significant loss is what makes us all human. Even the most successful of us have been denied things that seemed important at the time only to get something that was what we genuinely sought in the first place. Wayne Frederick, MD, MBA, the 17th President of Howard University, speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the National Medical Association, told the story of his 40th birthday. This was when he found out by phone that he did not get the Deanship of Howard’s School of Medicine. It was personally painful and obviously disappointing. But, from that experience, he had an unexpected lightening of his schedule such that he was able to participate in a summer full of activities centered around his children. Ultimately, his path would lead him to his current position, to which the position he did not secure reports. That story is an important reminder that sometimes it is better not to get what you want. But more importantly, it was inspiring to have such a talented leader speak candidly of a time when he felt less than “flawless”.
The first steps toward children with disabilities having a full and meaningful life are for their parents to mourn the loss of perfect. This allows them to get to the business of living. That is a valuable lesson for all of us in the business world. Very few things that are successful and impressive came simply from waking up and being “flawless”. The biggest roses only captivate nestled amongst the sharpest thorns. Acknowledging that does not make us weak, it actually underscores our strength and ability to adapt.