The problem of enough.
Breaking down what it is to measure yourself and others
Two syllables. A short word that means everything from meeting demands, needs, expectations fully, sufficiently, or at least to a tolerable degree.
- have enough (and be fully satisfied)
- have had enough (and thereby want less of whatever it is)
- and can give just enough (as in the bare minimum).
The word carries such a wide spectrum of uses from the lowest possible amount to ample supply that something being called “not enough” is a vague notion if no additional facts to clarify. When referring to the volume of a physical thing, nothing is ever just enough, it is always enough for something or some purpose even if that part isn’t stated. There is a reference point built into the definition itself — as much as required.
What is it for a person to be enough?
Having heard enough of this idea of someone not being enough in songs, articles, personality tests, and friends complaints, I propose a deep dive into the real workings of enoughness through the lens of the world I seem to know best: the workplace.
Imagine a job interview, and let’s use the meaning fully instead of the bare minimum side of the Enoughness Spectrum. If you and the interviewer agree about what job entails and you are qualified to tackle the desired tasks, then game on. That’s a wrap.
But what happens once perception is introduced?
There is no objective fact of someone being enough for a job. Both you and the interviewer are attempting to understand what is expected and perceiving that your skills, background, experiences, and personality will mean the ability to do the job.
A hire is simply a prediction that one person can respond to the needs of the job once they have it. So even in the best case, being enough at this stage is still only having potential, not a determination of some objective reality.
What if they don’t perceive you are capable of the task at hand, but you believe that you are? Well then, the company misses out. And you move on until you are recognized and given the chance to prove what you know to be true.
But, what if you don’t believe yourself to be enough, to be able to provide what is required? How would that interview go? Not well.
If you don’t think you measure up, would you even apply in the first place? Or getting the interview, would you show up? Or showing up would you bear witness to your own facts in the way that someone else might be able to recognize them? Maybe not.
It depends to what degree your own beliefs about your skills and experiences control or direct you. If your resume makes you out to be qualified and capable, but your own presence suggests you believe the contrary, well then, only an employer looking to torture or rehabilitate people would take the bet.
This concept of a person being enough at work is not just looking forward, like an interview. It can look backwards, too, like a review.
We run into challenges with the Enoughness Spectrum again. Most teams will not want good enough work in the sense of bare minimum. Of course, from time to time, it’s all any of us can give. But again, let’s suppose we mean work that fully satisfies expectations.
So, we may look at work produced by you or someone on our team and evaluate whether it was enough, meaning that it fit what was asked for or needed to accomplish some goal. Of course, rarely is work judged only by the output. We are also evaluating the experience of working with that person… what was required to get the output? Overall, did you give more than you took from the company or your team?
We may also consider additional outputs — did the experience of working with you add motivation or reduce burden for others? Were others bettered by your work besides its direct application? There may be some beneficial byproduct that means that you are completely adequate and delivering, even if some kind of tangible output is reduced like… relationship building, institutional knowledge, and so on. These considerations necessarily change the calculation of enoughness.
Specifically, if you are a tyrant to work with, the bar for your output goes up. And there may still be some point where the work produced is not enough to justify the cost (either financially or emotionally) of keeping you on the team.
If you add value in a variety of ways, but the output is lower than needed, then often times it justifies making greater investment of training, mentoring, and the like.
In all of these situations, introducing perception magnifies the complexity. What is it to be a perceived tyrant who is delivering more than enough for the job? What is it to be an actual tyrant or emotional weight who is perceived as being indispensable? In both of these, parting may be inevitable but for different reasons.
Then we come to the perception of self, which adds another layer and starts to unravel the use of the word at all. What is it to doubt the value of your own contribution, to believe yourself not to be enough for the job?
On one hand, everyone loves reaching out and pulling someone up that never expected it. And hearts are warmed by the coach that mentors a teammate who doesn’t believe in himself and eventually grows self-confident.
But, in my experience as an employer, there is a direct relationship between beliefs and actions. Suppose after being deemed qualified for the job, hired, and appointed to the task, then encouraged and trusted, you continue for years to believe yourself unqualified, insufficient? What would this mean to the quality and reliability of the work you produce? And what of the experience for you and the ones around you?
Perhaps, your work is intermittently surprising and delightful, more than fully satisfying expectations as an effort to prove something or hide some feared truth about your own insufficiency. Enough is possible, for awhile, because it represents some sum total, an average contribution over some period of time.
Realistically, though, people who do not believe themselves sufficiently qualified will require more input of emotional labor by other team members over time. The perception of your own self and your own abilities can be like a dampening force on the pendulum of your work, slowly bringing it to a crawl and eventually to a stop.
A Note on Feeling Like an Imposter: Recently, I read that feeling like an imposter is most often a sign of your increased expertise and humility. Because you know more about your field and your subject and your work, you have greater awareness of where you may be lacking from day to day. I like this reframing and recommend it to anyone facing these thoughts. It’s ok to sometimes feel like an imposter because it keeps you humble and curious.
There may be a pivot at some point, perhaps there is a misfit between you and the specific job or requirements. And sometimes it is true that rearranging the expectations really might create a better opportunity for you to display your strengths, accept that you have them, and then go on to behave as someone that knows you are enough for the job at hand. This is a win for all when it works.
However, if you perceive that you lack the ability to respond to all that you might encounter, or if you resist anything that reveals new skills needed, then eventually the Enoughness Spectrum flips. And unless the team is a glutton for punishment or a rehabilitation center, it will eventually longer make sense to set expectations or request your contribution. The cost is too high both for the company and yourself.
Parting: When is “not enough” reason to move on?
What is it to be convinced of your own abilities but not deliver? To believe yourself enough in theory, but to seemingly fall short in practice?
If you are over-inflating your own work and slowly becoming the tyrant, then falling short must be disguised and hidden and made to appear as indispensable. And this will one day predict a parting in a healthy company.
Or, if after many attempts, a pivot, or some investment in growth, you continue to fall short of the requirements, or you find yourself no longer wanting to grow or find ways to add value, then for your sake and the sake of the team, it makes sense to part.
On rare occasion, you may be told you are not capable or meeting requirements despite all evidence to the contrary. Think of a manager who wasn’t involved in the hiring of someone they now work with regularly or who has a known or unknown bias against the other.
In this case, falling short is a function of the perception of the observer and once discovered, you should look for another team quickly as the situation is bound to produce only increasing frustration if the core belief of the team is not identified and changed (which rarely does).
What does a healthy relationship to enoughness look like in the workplace? When you believe yourself to be enough for the job, you will never be stalled long even if you discover ways your work is not quite meeting expectations or if reality brings a need for new or changed skills. When you stop being both the judge and defendant, you can become a contributor.
Believing yourselves capable — perhaps based on your own experience of prior growth, inspiration, or sheer will — you should simply set yourself to responding to the needs of the present moment. Start honing whatever new skills may be needed, pursue new experiences, and consult those who already them or who can help you. Then, you can get on with growing, producing better work, benefiting the people around you, experiencing life with a team, and ultimately succeeding or failing together.
Someone who believes in their own core sufficiency never believes the problem is with the expectations themselves.
From time to time, you may have legitimate concerns of unreasonable expectations, and this is normal. Others will have unreasonable expectations of you from time to time. You can identify that and have those conversations. But do not reject the job itself just because some adaptation was required (that takes you into tyrant territory; see above) and definitely don’t mistake a required adaptation or an unreasonable expectation that needs to be reset for a judgement of your own insufficiency.
Assuming that all parties are benevolent, aimed at creating something together through meaningful, reasonable goals, then the person who continues to hone skills, tackles what is necessary for the team’s good is actually one of the most valuable members on the team even if they occasionally fall short.
The ideal is a team where the expectations are understood and all members believe themselves and each other to be capable of responding to what the work will require. That’s the sweet spot. The place where amazing things happen. That is where energy flows the most efficiently and productively, where the metaphorical lights shine the brightest based on the collective work and energy of each team member.
From workplace to personal life
This is a long explanation of the problems and challenges of trying to be enough within the workplace. By being less personal, it is easier to look and see where you might be right now and and decide if you like how you are thinking, if it’s working for you and perhaps decide to try thinking a more helpful way.
But ultimately, this has the most value if it can help us to understand how we approach this concept of enough in all of our relationships. Each of these workplace scenarios may reflect a relationship dynamic you’ve experienced in your personal life. I can think of a few tyrants I should have parted ways with sooner, for sure.
Human relationships are not as clear cut as a team where someone signs the checks and some other people have specific roles and expectations. However, in the realm of family and friendship relationships, is it still true that the greatest determining factor for satisfaction is more like responsiveness, not enoughness.
So, it is still true that if you believe yourself to be inferior or less than or not enough, the other person’s opinion will not really matter. They can believe you to have hung the moon, revel in everything you say and do. Yet, if you believe that there is some outside standard that you are not meeting, you will behave as an imposter in your own life and miss out on all the experiences of being present in the contributions you can made and the experience of sharing ups and downs with your friends, partner, or family.
The sad truth is that this belief will mean that you cause more pain. If your sense of self is attached to another person’s lack of complaint or demonstrated approval of you, then you cannot actually allow them to fall short or to have a bad day or to express a need without feeling that it is a reflection of your identity. In work and in life, defensiveness is often the reaction to our own perceived inadequacies, our own grievances held rather than accepting and responding to what life asks of us.
I, for one, think that the *only* appropriate place where evaluating someone’s fitness and meeting of requirements is in the workplace or sports or other arenas of competition.
Relationships based on love and trust and mutual respect have inherently already declared that the other is enough by making a choice to be together, by commitment. Disappointments, needs, mistakes, are all going to happen — you should expect them. But, in these relationships we have an even greater meaning and purpose in responding to each other rather than letting a miss define ourselves.
What do you think? Has this been true for you and where it has been different?
Until then, be kind to yourself. You don’t have to be your own judge. And you might discover that once you get down from that seat of judgement, you find that others are there to meet you with joy.