What's Vulnerability Got to Do With It?

Back in January, I wrote about vulnerability and work, and the post sparked some great conversations with my friends and colleagues. Vulnerability was a key theme in my Social Media Week presentation as well, with some key quotes and research from the preeminent vulnerability researcher and all-around badass Texas woman, Brené Brown.

The more I learn about writing and entrepreneurship, it’s clear to me that storytelling and communication are the keys to success in any pursuit. Employability is less about a fixed set of skills and more about a capacity for learning and growth: how well can you connect the dots in your mind — and then communicate those connections? How good a problem solver are you? As I’ve shared in every talk I’ve given as a self-employed person, you can’t be a halfway decent writer unless you’re willing to get vulnerable, think deeply, read frequently, and listen constantly.

As a writer who works to help others find and articulate their truth, I do my best to practice what I preach: getting vulnerable about my struggles and shortcomings in my own writing to encourage others to do the same. In my writing for Pass/Fail, I’ve unpacked some deeply rooted personal stuff, and in so doing, I learned a crucial lesson: that vulnerability is learning; it’s the gray area we all live in when we’re just trying to get from point A to point B. Vulnerability is just like curiosity: it’s more of a practice than a state of mind.

Curiosity also helps us become more vulnerable: asking “yeah, but why?” about our own beliefs and choices will ultimately lead us closer to our own truth. For me as it relates to work, the further I veered from my truth, the more miserable I became. When I was in the corporate sector, I was earning more money than I needed, but it was never enough to distract me from the fact that I was fundamentally unhappy and unfulfilled in the work I was doing, a truth that took me years to fully acknowledge. (Related: if you’re someone who’s able to compartmentalize your life and become a completely different person at work than you are at home, good on you, but I can’t do it. Chalk it up to personality type, but I need to be doing work I legitimately believe in for people I care about or I just can’t be happy.)

We can’t be afraid to find and say the words we want to say; to be vulnerable and speak our truths without shame or fear of retribution. Finding human-centered work that we can believe in is the best we can hope for in our professional lives: work that is based around the thing that makes us unique, helpful, and fully human (enter: workplace actualization). In any company I’ve worked for and in any role I’ve ever had, the people have always been the best part, and in acknowledging this truth through getting curious and vulnerable about my search for meaning in the work that I do, it led me to the work I do now. Communication forms the connective tissue that underpins my “why”: I believe in the power of language and in its ability to change the world, and in my work, I help to unlock this power for others.

So what’s vulnerability got to do with it? Well, everything. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the more open we are, the more the world opens itself to us. (We get what we give: it’s just like the New Radicals said!) This is why I write this blog for my business: to share openly and vulnerably so that others might benefit and share more of themselves. So thank you, kind readers, for your support and encouragement in my ongoing vulnerability practice. I hope this inspires you to share more of yourself and become more vulnerable in all facets of life.

(The image for this post is from Jeff Tweedy’s memoir and was an unexpected delight to read: he tells his story so openly and beautifully, and I learned so much about a musician whom I knew nothing about going in. Many thanks to my pal Bobby for lending it to me!)

Where Vulnerability and Work Intersect

Vulnerability as a concept is getting some good PR these days, and I for one am thrilled about it. Brené Brown’s research on authenticity, shame, and vulnerability has opened our eyes to the power of understanding one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and fears, and it’s fundamentally changing the way we do business.

Coming from an HR background, hearing the phrase “vulnerability at work” would have set off alarm bells when I was working in a corporate setting. It’s easy to conflate ‘vulnerability’ with ‘TMI’: what Brown advocates has nothing to do with revealing dark secrets or discussing confidential information that would make an HR manager run in the opposite direction. Vulnerability as Brown defines it is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”: the opposite of what we’re taught to bring to our work.

In American work culture, vulnerability has been associated with weakness: the archetype of the stoic, take-no-prisoners, there’s-no-crying-in-baseball type of boss is glorified, and leadership and humanity have been viewed as competing ideals. But as the implications of a toxic work environment continue to affect the bottom line, companies can no longer afford to ignore the facts: a culture of intimidation and ‘results-at-any-cost’ isn’t just wrong, it’s bad for business.

My previous post highlighted a core concept of Conscious Capitalism, which seeks to redefine the role that business has in society, reflected through its tagline “elevating humanity through business”. The book’s authors posit that, when we hire someone, we don’t just get a set of skills, experience, and education: we’re hiring a whole human, complete with fears, worries, hopes, and values just like everyone else. When we engage the whole human, people are encouraged and empowered to express themselves and be vulnerable, accessing their creativity and doing meaningful work that contributes to the organization — and creates a sense of self-worth that makes employees stick around.

All business is ultimately about relationships, and employing vulnerability in our messaging and in our day-to-day work is a big step towards elevating business (and work culture) to a manifestation of our own humanity. When we are vulnerable in the workplace and in our work itself, we invite worthiness to the table: Brown calls vulnerability a crucial strength, an invaluable tool to combat the “never enough” culture that pervades workplaces.

For conscious businesses, not only is vulnerability a competitive business advantage, it’s an imperative. As an imperfect human, I am constantly making mistakes and learning from them, both in work and in life. I am proud to say that vulnerability is at the core of my business: allowing myself to be vulnerable and encouraging my clients to do the same is when real magic can happen. Human connection is the “why” behind everything we do, and vulnerability is the key to that connection.

What are you doing to invite vulnerability into your work?