Why we should strive for vulnerability & imperfection in business & life.
This Friday is my birthday, which happens to be on Valentine’s Day. Ever since I can remember (since I moved to the U.S.), I have had a “secret” pride that my birthday falls in Black or African-American History Month. I’ve also learned recently that V-Day also honors the birthday of Frederick Douglass. This week is even “Negro History Week”. Rosa Parks’ birthday was February 4. Oh and Abraham Lincoln’s is February 12. I love these facts about my birthday month. I’m sure it’s likely that the reason for this pride is because of having been born and raised in Nigeria.
While I learned about the slave trade in grade school, I remember feeling profound sadness when I moved to the U.S. and actually met and had African-American friends–sad that ugly history ever happened. Sad that the majority of the African diaspora in this world was borne from such an abominable act, instead of driven by an immigrant’s ambitions and hope for better things. These thoughts occasionally cross my mind, especially during February, and I wanted to reflect on these thoughts in this post. But I also thought about how to make it “relevant/”current” to the preponderance of pink and red Valentines that seem to grow out of every aisle in every store… And I wanted to relate it to business (what’s that you say?). Well, here goes…
This is not yet another post above love. It’s about vulnerability.
Dr. Brene Brown, made famous by her TED talk and book, Daring Greatly, defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Essentially, the act of loving (or liking) someone and being loved (or liked) back can be the ultimate act of vulnerability. To be truly loved or liked, you should be seen for who you really are. And you have to be okay with be seen, at the risk of NOT being acceptable or okay.
One can mitigate this risk by not showing all of themselves or not giving whole-heartedly nor trusting so completely. Putting on armor. But then the game becomes “do they love/like me for who I am or who I show them to be me? If I change now, how will they trust me? Can I trust them if they like who I showed them instead of myself?”
The key to love is to be okay with being vulnerable. But who wants to be seen as vulnerable? Society has made it connote gentleness, introversion, passivity, weakness, typically related to femininity. What’s interesting is that vulnerability, that willingness to face uncertainty and risk, is one the defining characteristics of a successful entrepreneur.
If you think about it, entrepreneurs are creators–they put their ideas to life, sometimes even defying the norms. Their business can become the personification of their hard work, their strengths, their weaknesses, their values, their dreams. This is what I have for the world, … and I hope you’ll want it– Sound familiar? Heck, just setting up a website or preparing for a speech can bring up all sorts of insecurities of “what if I sound fake? what if they don’t like me?” I’m experiencing it now as I write this — I actually feel the butterflies!
To be an entrepreneur, to be enterprising, is to be vulnerable. Let’s look at this a little closer.
A Harvard Business Review article splits vulnerability into two types: 1) passive–being vulnerable without choosing to be and 2) active–engaging in a calculated risk with the hope that it pays off. Active vulnerability is proactive and informed risk-taking while passive vulnerability is reactive and submissive exposure. The article gave the example of an entrepreneur who implements an idea or invention and fails. To be passive would be to be demoralized by the failure while to be active would be to try again, armed with new knowledge. We’ve all heard somewhere Thomas Edison’s quote, ““I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Another way I see vulnerability is the willingness to be imperfect (mind you: not TRYING to be imperfect but simply accepting it and going forward). I admit that I am recovering perfectionist. Some time ago someone told me I had some mistakes on this new website and inside I had a minor panic attack. Luckily, with some reflection, I decided that it was okay. I did some checking but I did not pull out all the stops and inspect my website with a magnifying glass–the “past me” would have. (I’m working on being perfect at doing consistent, imperfect action.)
In researching for this article, I read something Dr. Brown had said that resonated with me–that we don’t trust “perfect” aka “looks too good to be true.” This is why the comic book industry gets $715 million selling stories about heroes WITH flaws. It’s probably also why gossip columns do so well. We relate to imperfection. Because it’s human.
… so why do many seek perfection? Whole industries are dependent on the fact that we feel lacking in some way!
Perfectionism is like armor we use to shield ourselves from vulnerability, from possibly failing. Did you know that some research has shown that perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities? It handicaps achievement.
Vulnerability is abound in this new economy of social media, open source and crowdsourcing/crowdfunding. Facebook is filled with people griping about their jobs, expounding on their political preferences, sharing private pictures of their everyday moments. It is easy to expose and be exposed. It is certainly easy to be passively vulnerable. But it also means that it is possible to be actively vulnerable. And organizations and businesses that are succeeding are doing so through active vulnerability: being more transparent, standing by their values, creating communities to get live feedback and interaction, beta testing publicly, even sharing their work with hopes of contributions from others.
How do you be “actively” vulnerable?
Vulnerability is about listening, instead of speaking.
Asking, instead of telling.
Showing, instead of hiding.
Advocating, instead of ignoring.
Learning, instead of knowing.
Sharing, instead of keeping.
Connecting, instead of isolating.
To be vulnerable is to face fear and risk and keep going. It is to be and show who you are and to be seen. It’s asking someone out on date. It’s allowing yourself to fall in love. It’s quitting your job and starting a business. It’s talking to a customer about what they really need. It’s writing a post like this–as if I’m an expert at this thing which I’m not–and hoping that something resonates with you, however imperfectly.
And it’s also speaking out against injustice and prejudice until others listen and pay attention. It’s Gandhi and his followers taking blows while peacefully standing their ground in solidarity. It’s sitting on your bus seat and refusing to get up and give in like many others before.
I wish us all the strength to be vulnerable.
I leave you with these profound quotes by Brené Brown:
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
“To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.”