By far, the most stressful event of my professional life so far was defending my Master’s thesis. It had been a tough year, both personally and professionally: feeling like a complete fraud during office hours when I was meant to be advising undergrads, writing and rewriting my thesis, wrestling with the massive amount of research, reading, and writing that my course work required, all while grappling with a brutal breakup. It culminated in my thesis defense, when I was set to be interrogated by a panel of professors (ok, so they wouldn’t use the word “interrogated,” but that’s sure what it felt like at the time).
The Power of Vulnerability
The week before I was set to deliver my defense, I sat down with my thesis supervisor, and had a bit of a breakdown. Choking back tears, I asked him, “what if my thesis is actually incoherent? What if they think I’m an idiot for daring to bring them such garbage? What if they ask me a question that I can’t answer? Will this whole year have been for nothing?”
I’ll never forget his response—I carry it with me in just about everything I do. He didn’t try to reassure me, or to explain that my feelings were foolish. Instead, he shared something deeply personal. It went something like this:
“Sara, I’ve published a handful of books, and am considered an expert in the type of literature I study. I’ve got tenure, and the University trusts me to guide the next generation of thinkers, writers, and academics. I’ve been doing this a long time. But last week, I submitted the manuscript of my next book to my publisher, and I feel exactly the same way you do right now. What if this is the book that reveals me to be a total fraud? Is my editor currently mocking me, reading out incoherent sentences from the manuscript to get laughs in the office? The truth is that the fear of being a fraud never goes away. Each time I submit a paper, conference proposal, or manuscript, I’m terrified that I’ll be found out. The trick is to feel that way, but to do the thing anyway.”
It was like he flipped a switch in my brain, and my outlook completely changed. If he—a person who I respected tremendously, who I trusted to guide me, and who had taught me more about reading and writing and thinking than anyone else in my life—felt this vulnerable and uncertain, then I could cut myself some slack for feeling that way too. I wasn’t going to overcome the fear, so my only option was to work through it. It was a powerful and activating moment for me, and it gave me the fuel I needed to prepare for and ace my presentation. Sure, I was terrified, but I did the thing anyway.
Activating Moments Fueled by Vulnerability
In the years since that day, I’ve noticed that many pivotal, activating moments are those that are based on shared vulnerability and humanity.
Sharing deeply rooted doubts takes a tremendous amount of courage and character.Tweet
Since that day, I’ve been on the lookout for moments of vulnerability, both personally and professionally, because sharing those deeply rooted doubts takes a tremendous amount of courage and character.
The team leader who says frankly, “I don’t know for sure what we should do next, what do you think?” The colleague who admits that they’re having a rough time personally, and just needs a bit of extra time on a project. The founder or CEO who can admit that they messed up. The people who view their employees as complete human beings, and aren’t afraid of vulnerability from their teams. To me, these are the kinds of people who inspire loyalty, foster engagement, and truly activate those around them.
Conversely, I’ve found the flip side of this equation to be true as well. The leader who believes they know everything is someone to watch out for. The colleague who acts superior to everyone else on the team should not be easily trusted. A person who can never be even a little bit vulnerable, who only presents a carefully crafted facade, who acts as though it’s their responsibility to always be a perfect human—that’s a person likely hiding the best parts of themselves away, or masking a deep insecurity that may find it’s way out in destructive ways. Have you ever, intentionally or unintentionally, showed the “smartest person in the room” that you actually happen to know more than them about a certain topic? Backlash is all but guaranteed.
Vulnerability is Our Super Power
At the end of the day, trying to conceal what makes us human and vulnerable is both exhausting and a fools errand. We are messy, complicated, and diverse. That’s part of what makes life so rich and sweet, sometimes bitter, always interesting.
For leaders who want to inspire and activate their teams: show your human side. Admit you don’t have all the answers, and enlist your team in figuring it out. I’m confident that for the most part, they will repay you with loyalty, dedication, hard work, and excitement. And if they don’t, you can still enjoy the relief that comes from not having to act smaller, neater, or less complex than you really are.
When I think back on that day in my thesis supervisor’s office, I’m so grateful for his vulnerability. He didn’t try to logic away my insecurity or talk me out of my feelings. He simply acknowledged that I was human, and so was he: isn’t that funny, and weird, and illogical, and wonderful? His vulnerability was a gift that never ceases to give. And it’s a gift that you can easily give your team, colleagues, friends, and family today—by simply listening and responding with empathy, and then revealing a bit of your mushy, vulnerable centre. We all have one—the trick is to do the thing anyway.
This post is dedicated to the late, great, Herb Wylie: for teaching me that no one really knows how to use a semi-colon, for knowing that the large print giveth while the small print taketh away, for all the sarcastic jokes and enlightening tangents, and for teaching me so much about reading, writing, and being a human.