Vulnerability is a scary — and often misunderstood — word. In my recent study (obsession) with emotional intelligence, “vulnerability” kept coming up over and over. But at first, I didn’t really understand what it was. Like so many people, I misconstrued vulnerability as weakness. But I would soon learn I could not have been further from the truth.
So, what is vulnerability? Put simply, vulnerability is the conscious choice to open yourself, your ideas, and your emotions to uncertainty. Vulnerability is a mark of courage — not weakness — that accepts the possible consequences of said risk. This (butchered) definition comes from the work of the world’s leading social scientist and researcher on vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown. (Prepare yourself, she’s going to be all over this blog post.)
In a recent Fast Company interview, Brown states, “Vulnerability is simply defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And if you are alive and in relationship, you do vulnerability. If you are alive and in relationship and in business, you do it hourly.”
Dr. Brown’s work has created and continued an uncomfortable international conversation around vulnerability and shame, beginning with her 2011 TEDx Houston Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” which is the fourth most viewed TED Talk of all time. In her follow-up TED talk in 2012, “Listening to Shame,” Dr. Brown highlights this very important aspect of introducing and accepting vulnerability as a crucial part of your creative and professional life, saying (point-blank), “Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.”
This is a fact she’s shared with corporate leadership teams at companies like Facebook, Pixar, and beyond, helping to jumpstart conversations about techniques to better cultivate creativity and innovation in the workplace. And all these conversations and techniques come from the same emotional root — vulnerability. Vulnerability is the driving force behind the willingness to try. And the willingness to fail. And the ability to learn from that failure, and try again.
We can see this very clearly in three universal aspects of the professional creative process — the brief, the prototype, and the critique.
First, in order to think creatively, we must accept, at least at first, that we do not know. No matter how iron-clad a brief may be, it always positions a problem — not a solution — to the creative team entrusted with it. And in that awkward silence, we, as creative professionals, must accept the vulnerability that comes with the fact that, even if momentarily, we do not know the answer — yet.
Secondly, we must overcome the fear to try. In a world of expensive mistakes and tight timelines, it’s hard for a creative professional to be truly innovative on every brief. However, we must do our best to push outside our own comfort zones every time and in such, entertain, if not prepare for, the notion that our greatest efforts may sometimes fall short. We must become intimately familiar with failure in order to overcome the fear — and inevitability — that we will fail. And that’s okay.
The creative process is full of vulnerable moments, most intense of which may be the critique. Ideation, sketching, and prototyping can all be ruthless processes, but nothing quite compares to the vulnerability (and exhilaration) of sharing your ideas and work with others. Whether this be a manager, co-worker, client or end-user, this part of the process is rampant with vulnerability, and can be immensely uncomfortable.
But, it is essential to the progress of the creative process. Critique (as well as collaboration) require from the creative professional a willingness to open up and listen to other ideas, and to have the confidence as well as the humility to compromise and refine. This, at its terrifying and incredibly productive core, is vulnerability.
When we embrace vulnerability (comfortably uncomfortable, anyone?), we open ourselves up to possibility. There is a possibility that we may fail, but there is also the possibility that our far-reaching discomfort will pay off in ways we never imagined while staying inside our emotional, mental, and creative comfort zone. It takes guts to step out into vulnerability, so I suggest you jump in feet first.
Not a creative professional? Doesn’t matter. Here’s great information about how fostering vulnerability in the workplace can make you a more effective manager and the interview portion of this Fast Company article talks in-depth about creating a workplace culture of deep engagement.