On “Incompleteness”: Mr. Dalio’s Key Insight, The Bhagavad Gita, Growth Mindset, and Our Most Unheeded Platitude

(~6 minute read)

 Imperfect?

Imperfect?

Imperfection is fine.
— Anna Wintour

I. Introduction

I would like to draw a thread between some disparate sources of wisdom. They come from different angles towards a point fundamental to a well-lived life. A synonym I sometimes use for well-lived life is high performance.

In a recent podcast recording, a guest complimented me on how I am open about being incomplete. It was a well-intentioned compliment, and I could receive it. But part of me felt it sting nonetheless. The emotional reaction came from the part of me that still clings to perfection.

Part of what I work to let go and evolve past through diligence and vigilance is exactly that. The idea of perfection.  That there is something I am supposed to be. In this case more complete. The space between who I am supposed to be and who I am = a space of suffering.

Think about it, if there was nothing else I was supposed to be, then it means I am in pure self-acceptance mode. Perfectionism is kryptonite to our super powers of self-acceptance.  It is not a virtue. This article is about that. It is also an encouragement to continue transforming our mindsets with practice.

It doesn’t preclude growth and motivation when I accept myself. I just come with more calm and tranquility. And a whole lot less to prove to others.

I use “we” below in a general way. Because I see what I describe as part of human nature, to work with and transform.

 

II. Armor

I received this compliment only because owning imperfection is not how we move in the mainstream. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be noteworthy as my guest pointed out. Even though we are aware of just how imperfect we are, we still hold ourselves up to trying standards.

We wear social masks because we are fearful to share our incompleteness. So we spend a lot of time in pretense and defense. With your suit of armor bumping into mine. Conflict is a lot more common that way. Broken systems can trace to these roots.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article in April 2014 declared the greatest single waste of resources in our workplaces is people doing a second job no one has hired them to do. That second job is preserving their reputation. That’s about armor.

The expectation we place on ourselves and others often is infallibility. We defend against our own sense of not good enough. We armor up when we head out the door. To protect ourselves. We don’t want to get hurt. We’re doing our best in the rough and tumble. But it limits our experience of life.

And we don’t like to admit it, but we often look for the chinks in others’ armor.

No wonder we suffer from impostor syndrome. Of course we fear being exposed as fraudulent when the shine of our armor is something very different than the soft touch of our skin.  Moving past impostor syndrome means finding the courage to be vulnerable. This doesn't happen overnight.

Armor shows up in the form of narratives in our mind—ideas and ideals of who we think we should be. We defend that concept through our words and actions. The behaviors originate in our self-concepts and limiting beliefs.

 

III. Mr. Dalio

I was surprised when I started reading Ray Dalio’s remarkable book, Principles. I am discovering his book 3.5 years after coming across that HBR article. He is the founder of 1 of 2 “Deliberately Developmental Organizations” discovered by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, the social scientists/authors behind the article. They cast a net far and wide. Only 2 companies fit the bill of focusing on people without compromising performance standards.

He founded Bridgewater, the most successful hedge fund of all time. It was a pleasant surprise, since that article has long resonated with me. I bring it up in work conversations not infrequently.

Even a few months ago, my ego would have thought itself superior to reading a business bestseller. What a loss that would have been. I am thankful I had enough open-mindedness to follow my curiosity. And his book has opened my mind further.

I have some precious takeaways a quarter of the way through his book. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

 

I realized that reality was, if not perfect, at least what we are given to deal with, so that any problems or frustrations I had with it were more productively directed to dealing with them effectively than complaining about them. I came to understand that my encounters were tests of my character and creativity. Over time, I came to appreciate what a tiny and short-lived part of that remarkable system I am, and how it’s both good for me and good for the system for me to know how to interact with it well.

In gaining this perspective, I began to experience painful moments in a radically different way. Instead of feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, I saw pain as nature’s reminder that there is something important for me to learn. Encountering pains and figuring out the lessons they were trying to give me became a sort of a game to me. The more I played it, the better I got at it, the less painful those situations became, and the more rewarding the process of reflecting, developing principles, and then getting rewards for using those principles became. I learned to love my struggles, which I suppose is a healthy perspective to have…

In my early years, I looked up to extraordinarily successful people, thinking that they were successful because they were extraordinary. After I got to know such people personally, I realized that all of them—like me, like everyone—make mistakes, struggle with their weaknesses, and don’t feel that they are particularly special or great. They are no happier than the rest of us, and they struggle just as much or more than average folks. Even after they surpass their wildest dreams, they still experience more struggle than glory. This has certainly been true for me. While I surpassed my wildest dreams decades ago, I am still struggling today. In time, I realized that the satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals, but from struggling well. To understand what I mean, imagine your greatest goal, whatever it is—making a ton of money, winning an Academy Award, running a great organization, being great at a sport. Now imagine instantaneously achieving it. You’d be happy at first but not for long.

 

I find that inspiring. I find it relieving. I can begin to reorient my will when I open myself to the brilliance of that passage. Thank you Mr. Dalio.

What I notice in society and in myself is that we put much energy into those types of goals. We think that “arrival” will be like our salvation or redemption or something. Like it will absolve us of the challenge and struggle and longing and hurt of being human. Like life will stop being life once we’ve arrived.

Another way of saying that is that we are living life on the surface. We think our circumstances matter more than our attitudes and our inner faith in ourselves. We base our sense of self on how our life looks rather than how it feels. Despite everything, we actually still believe success is more about the destination than the journey. We refuse to heed cliched but vital wisdom, to our own detriment.

In this passage, and in so many other ways, Ray Dalio embodies a growth mindset. In his life, you see how consciously he orients towards learning. The way he ran his business, the way he relates to mistakes and failures, his guiding philosophies are anchored in learning and growth. He never once uses the words growth mindset, but it’s seems to wink around the corner of every sentence.

 

IV. Growth Mindset and the Gita

For those of us who don’t know what growth mindset is, and for others who would like a refresher, here’s a little video.

I don’t love the music choice, but otherwise a fine video.

 

 

Part of cultivating a growth mindset, is seeing how much we hate our failures, mistakes, and imperfections. These are key clues and symptoms of a fixed mindset. Do you buckle down or give in when the going gets tough? No need to judge, wherever you are is the place you begin to cultivate a growth mindset.

Many of us have also heard a lot about improving our relationship to mistakes and failures.  Comes from the same place.  Roots in the same earth.  Siblings.

Neuroscientists believed until recently that the brain was fixed until we became adults. When we discovered neuroplasticity, we could see the brain continues to change and adapt over time.  Growth mindset has a physiological underpinning.  Body keeps the score. 

From the Bhagavad Gita, “Sattvic workers… are full of enthusiasm and fortitude in success and failure alike.” Sattvic means virtuous, whole, or pure. When I re-read that passage, I realized that Mr. Dalio was cultivating virtue in his relationship to pain. He started to respect it and receive it as a clue from nature rather than fight it or wish it away.

The growth mindset is indicated inside one of the oldest wisdom scriptures in the world. And it powered the rise of Bridgewater.

As my friend Fernando would say, The Warrior is the one who accepts challenge.

 

V. Conclusion

I am not a master of any of this by any means. Which is part of the point actually. I practice a growth mindset and look the fixed mindset in the eye when it shows itself. The idea of practice itself characterizes growth mindset.  I can see that the path to being enthusiastic in the face of failure can indeed emerge.  IF we free ourselves from dependence on circumstances and see how failure is precious to our growth.  Not an overnighter.  As my yoga teacher Tias would say, that's a 5 or 10 year project.

We agree with things like “Success is the journey not the destination.”, growth mindset, and our relationship to failures and mistakes. But how deep do they live inside us?

The opportunity is moving beyond intellectual concepts towards embodiment. With time, effort, and patience, we transform theory into practice.  Experience turns knowledge into wisdom.

Fixed mindset is so strong in prevailing culture. It is absolutely rare not to have elements of this to practice with and transform. Some people might not even have a reference for practice and transformation. That's another indication of how entrenched the fixed mindset is. It goes deeper than we think.

Practice matters.  Diligence and vigilance matter. 

As we orient towards learning rather than needing to be somewhere, we breathe easier. We smile easier too.

Good luck.  All the best.