Evoking Sputnik brings to mind an era of unqualified achievements, beginning with primitive satellites and ending with lunar landings. Spaceflight is now so commonplace as to barely register with many people. Generally forgotten is the extraordinary amount of time and sacrifice expended in the pursuit of these historical objectives.
Fortunately, we don’t, as individuals or as a field, need to prepare and plan for the equivalent of the next conquest in space. But we can each begin by treating every encounter with a client and colleague as a “Sputnik moment”—waking up to the fact that we almost always fall short of our potential, and making a decision to do better. Thankfully, this doesn’t require that we be superhuman.
“I can’t be a perfect therapist,” says clinician Wendy Amey. “No matter one’s experience or training, it’s an imperfect practice.” Amey was one of the top-performing clinicians we met at the outset of our research into excellence. Given her impressive outcomes working with the victims of the most severe types of trauma, we’d expected more—more confidence, more certainty, a presence commensurate with her results. Instead, as the interview unfolds, we feel underwhelmed and strangely disquieted.
“I don’t see myself as a brilliant therapist,” Amey insists when we ask her to account for her effectiveness. “My brain doesn’t work that fast, and my memory is really quite limited. Other people always seem to have better ability than me. I have to struggle to keep up.” As if to prove the fact, she then tells of being sent as a student therapist for an evaluation to determine whether she had a learning disorder! (She did not and in fact tested well above average).
It isn’t until she begins to describe how she works that our feelings of unease give way to inspiration. “Being limited means that I have to try harder, to work harder than most do. You see, what comes easily to others, takes time for me. If I had their ability, I probably wouldn’t need to work as hard at it as I do.” Somehow, hearing this top-performing clinician speak is immensely humbling. She continues, her words identifying the scope of her ambition, as well as the concrete steps she takes every day to realize it, “Even if you always do your best, it won’t always be good enough for this client, at this time and place. So what I do, because I’m passionate about helping my clients the best way I can, is get the help I need, and be very open to all of the experiences out there—very, very open to it. And I constantly engage with people that I can learn from.”
There’s nothing frivolous about the community Amey chooses to surround her. “Always wanting to be more capable than I am, I recognize people with great ability, and I reach out.” She reports being “blessed with outstanding colleagues, six or seven of them” whom she regularly contacts, and always being on the lookout for others. At the conclusion of the interview, she mentions having met a psychologist the last week, who’ll undoubtedly be a resource in the future. What will she ask? “‘Hey,’ I say, ‘I’ve got a problem, what ideas do you have for me?’ If you aren’t invested in looking superior, then why not just admit that you don’t know, and ask?”
Exactly, we think. Let’s get started!
Scott Miller, Ph.D., founder of the International Center for Clinical Excellence, is the coauthor of The Heart and Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy and The Heroic Client: Principles of Client-Directed, Outcome-Informed Clinical Work.
Mark Hubble, Ph.D., is a national consultant and graduate of the Postdoctoral Fellowship in Clinical Psychology at the Menninger Clinic. He’s coauthored and coedited six books, including an award winning volume and bestseller for the American Psychological Association, and is a senior advisor and founding member of the International Center for Clinical Excellence. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Excerpts of Rachel Hsu playing the violin and piano can be seen online at: http://www.scottdmiller.com/?q=node/109.
Nyman, Scott, Mark Nafziger, and Timothy Smith. “Client Outcomes across Counselor Training Level within a Multitiered Supervision Model.”
Journal of Counseling & Development 88, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 204-09.