Imperfect and useful

An unexpectedly long coffee with a friend in New York City reminds me: We don't have to be perfect to be useful.

On Friday morning, I had coffee with an old college friend during my visit to New York City. Our one-hour calendar block grew into a two-and-a-half hour dive as it became clear this person was not in their best mental shape. They emanated a loss of spirit—in speech, energy, body language, eye contact—strikingly different from what I'd seen from them when we last met a few years ago, and my esteem for them seemed at this moment a lot higher than their own.

This friend was a few years ahead of me in college. The most telling story I can recall is that when someone shoved me in front of Drew Houston at a campus career fair during the height of Dropbox's hotness, the first thing that popped into my head was to suggest to Drew that he hire this friend. They were also a social hub for a community group I was part of, despite being somewhat quiet and introverted. I found a lot to admire and emulate.

On top of this, I have largely viewed my experience—starting from college and continuing through nine years of work life—as struggling to find my way and stay above water. That's what those years felt like, though friends and family perceived relative success. Only in the past two years, but really mostly in the past two months, has it started to feel like I've found my sea legs.

A lot of that sea-leg-finding has been a process of choosing one kind of pain over a deeper pain; of polishing past pain until the jagged edges are ninety percent smoothed out; of recognizing my problems and then instituting guardrails for them in a dispassionate way. Lesser or controlled, the warts persist.

And so I was surprised to find, on this Friday morning in New York City, a city that itself up till now has held mostly painful memories for me, that I could help my friend.

One small bit of our conversation stuck out and helped me in return. I mentioned that I had been participating in an online community where I set and stay accountable to weekly personal goals. Among other things, this accountability mechanism, even amongst a community of internet acquaintances, has helped me go from doing zero regular workouts at the start of January to feeling bad if I'm not working out every day. And somehow, this time around, it really struck me that I could reprogram myself. Sure, I could change my muscles, but why not other things?

This friend in response asked what community this was. I named it; and they laughed, because they had a story—not a flattering one—about the person who founded and runs it.

Yeah, I said, I could see some personal flaws based on the founder's own accountability posts. But actually those specific things didn't matter to me, nor seemingly to the other people showing up every week to check in. This founder got us like-minded folks doing this thing together, and keeps the crank turning, and that's ultimately what makes a difference for us.

That struck me even as I said that. We don't have to be perfect to be useful. We can make a big difference to others even as we're on a journey ourselves. And it's probably our imperfections, and our struggles to overcome them, that most helps us understand and be useful to others.

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jamie@example.com
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