I celebrate my 61st birthday on July 26th. It's a wonderful time to reflect on my life story and think about which single habit, thought, idea, belief, or value is the secret to having a rich life. There are so many to discuss. But one thing about being a human being is that we can only fully invest our attention in one thing at a time. Each day, we are confronted with a simple fact: we are frantic and unhappy when we try to multitask—which means we’re bad at it. As powerful as the tools available to us are, there are limits to our attention that we cannot surpass.
Our limits are real. Our response to them is the key to our success or failure. That truth is a powerful one, and it’s what I’d like to talk about this month. The long and short of it is that our nature as limited individuals is a blessing in disguise, and a profound one, at that.
Not Enough People
As a sociology student, the Midwestern writer Kurt Vonnegut studied the history of humanity enough to know that we were traditionally happiest, for thousands of years, living in large, extended family groups, with plenty of people nearby to visit with, complain to, and seek assistance from. Writing about Americans in small, suburban households in the 1960s, he once said that every argument between a modern husband and wife has, at its heart, a simple, elemental complaint: “You’re not enough people.”
By this he meant that two adults tasked with everything involved with providing for and raising a family, without a supportive group of grandparents, aunts and uncles around them, were bound to run into their limitations. Add to this that blame is just an aggressive way of asking for help, and you begin to see the everyday truth in this statement.
Usually I talk about goals above and beyond daily necessities. But here, on the level of daily obligations, we see something about how we often cope with running into our limitations. In Vonnegut’s analysis, we hear something of the solution, too.
Diversified Portfolios of Individual Limitations
We are social creatures. We’re born into families and raised in communities. As adults, we each specialize in a limited area of expertise. When we want to do big things, we organize into groups to help cover each others’ limitations. This is the wisdom of humanity. In this wisdom, we each inherit an insight that tells us that our limitations are best understood as prompts to reach out to others, share our vision, and work together. Frustration with our limitations is how we signal to ourselves thatwe’re not enough people.
Permission to Be What You Are, Opportunities to Share in Accomplishment
So much of what a person needs to solve a difficult situation boils down to granting themselves permission to feel okay about only knowing what they know, doing what they can do, and handling what they can handle. Last month I shared a saying I find powerful for this purpose: “Beyond your limitations is a place you are not meant to go alone.” This insight has helped me and countless others accept that, although many of us start out only considering what we can do by ourselves, ultimately, our greatest successes, whether they are families, businesses, or revolutionary changes in how the world works, are all collaborations. We all live in a state of ongoing, complex collaboration.
When we no longer feel our individual limitations to be signs of imminent failure, we are free to do whatever success requires of us. When we pause to take a breath, let it out, and recognize where we are and remember how we got here, we sense how incredibly interrelated our lives are with others. We feel powerful gratitude towards everything that has led us to this moment, where our biggest problem is learning to let go of the false belief that there is something shameful or wrong about being one person instead of many. Gratitude reminds us we have never strayed far from a deep and nourishing well of capability and support. We have always been beneficiaries of help beyond even what we could have thought to ask for.
So, as I look at turning 61, and I allow myself to be present in the moment, it doesn’t take long to be overwhelmed by gratitude. I see how miraculous my life has been at every turn. Knowing that my life has been anything but a solo show, a tale of one man’s triumph over challenges, or any of the stories I’ve told myself for cold comfort in moments of isolation, crisis, doubt or difficulty, I see the future in a much warmer light. The possibilities are inviting. Because my limitations will draw me again and again to the capability of others, the challenges I will encounter will bring me yet more gratitude. I can respond to my limitations in a useful way. I’m ready to face them with openness.
And that is what I wish for you. So take a moment. Take a breath. Let it out. See your individual limitations as opportunities to collaborate. Hear blame—in yourself and others—as a call for help. Allow your life to be the group effort it always was. Find strength in your gratitude for the support that has always been there and always will be. When it’s your turn, support someone else, knowing full well how much it can mean.
Thank you for being a part of the group effort of my life. I’m proud to be a part of yours.