It matters to me to be good at things. Appearing competent is a hallmark of how I present myself to the world. And I am competent, very much so, in a lot of ways. And I’m not, really not, in a lot more ways.
Competence matters so much to me that I have a frustrating track record of not trying or starting things I don’t know I can be good at.
And then I deepen the dilemma by not asking for help. Because then I’d be admitting that I don’t know how to do it and, well, no thank you.
That said, I’m a lot better than I used to be. I’m not saying that asking for help is strength but I’ve come a long way. Still, there are times when the going feels particularly slow.
A recent sailing experience makes the point very well. After I had released a sail from the mast, as instructed by the captain, I left the slack of rope lying loosely on the deck. (I didn’t know what to do with it so instead of asking I just left it there. Great example so far, yes?) When the captain saw this he explained the importance of keeping the deck clear and showed me how to gather the rope, wrap it, tie it and hook it back on the mast.
Later on, working with that same piece of rope, I found myself in the same situation. With the rope lying at my feet I could not remember how to tie and wrap it so, you guessed it, I just left it there! What the hell was wrong with me???
A few minutes later, our captain saw this and asked me a much kinder version of “What the hell is wrong with you?” And, because I value competence SO MUCH I was ashamed of myself.
The captain, an enlightened and thoughtful leader, took some time to talk over what had happened between us and how it could have been prevented. We agreed that what I needed after his first demonstration of how to manage the rope was a chance to practice. We also agreed that I needed to take responsibility for asking for that, as in: “let me give that a try to be sure I’ve got it.” But since both of us were caught up in the pressure of the moment – high winds and a choppy sea – we neglected to take the next step. He didn’t make sure I had it, and I gave him no indication that he needed to! We were the perfect partners in crime.
Let me say that another way: we colluded to allow the conditions of our experience dictate more urgent behavior than was actually necessary. He didn’t know me well enough to understand my reluctance to ask for help and I was too deferential to his authority to ask for what I needed. If the boat was heading for the rocks, a loose rope on the deck wasn’t going to make much difference. No, this was a different brand of urgency, the kind that traps us into thinking we have to go faster than we really need to. As a result, we make small mistakes that eventually lead to much bigger problems.
Everything is not an emergency. You have more time than you think.
If you’re the captain, check for understanding.
If you’re on the crew, ask for help.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.