Contrary to its literal meaning, vulnerability is not a weakness. As we shall learn, vulnerability is actually about confronting our deepest fears so that we can be honest with ourselves and, by extension, others.
Vulnerability makes us strong because there’s no courage without it. Even though it can be distressing to discover parts of ourselves that are fragile, it’s hard to find moments of courage that doesn’t require uncertainty and exposure (both emotional and physical). So, the more we become familiar and learn to accept these fragile parts of ourselves, the more courageous we become.
Vulnerability comes from caring. You see, it’s hard to care—really care! Be it about a person, a pursuit, or a movement. Things don’t always go the way we want them to. You lose the race. The project goes down the drain. Your startup doesn’t get funded. Your spouse leaves you. Your new initiative is shot down. Your friend is diagnosed with cancer. You get fired. It always hurts when we care.
A common defence we often use against getting hurt is preventing ourselves from caring at all. We refrain from giving something our everything. We put up a wall around us—a barrier between our deepest (and most fragile) parts and the world. Maybe the hurt isn’t as intense this way. Maybe! But neither are the joys.
Our life isn’t full without vulnerability. By saving ourselves from vulnerability, we miss out on a lot of life’s richness.
Truth is, vulnerability is not a choice. It is the underlying, ever-present, and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. Being vulnerable is being human. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our very nature. Yet, we fight it every day. We try to hide it all the time.
Trust me, nobody is immune to vulnerability. Having interacted with celebrity execs, top investors and VCs, I know one thing for sure. Nobody has everything figured out. Nobody has all the answers. Nobody is one hundred percent certain. Nobody is without struggle or self-doubt. Not even the billionaires, the powerfuls, the successfuls—the people who (we think) have ‘made it’ in life. All of them have parts in them that are more fragile than they are strong.
Therefore, pushing away our vulnerabilities and trying to convince ourselves (and others) that we are more certain than we are is the easiest way to develop impostor syndrome. Because deep down inside, we’ll know we are faking it.
But, by accepting that we don’t know everything, that we don’t always have everything together, we become more strong. This is the paradox of humility. Strength is gained by owning one’s limitations and not by being overly concerned about being the best of all.
As the wise Tyrion Lannister said, “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
Interestingly, vulnerability has an evolutionary purpose as well. About 12,000 years ago, during the agricultural revolution (when we were shifting away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled one), the evolutionary process shifted from selecting for traits like brute strength to selecting for traits like vulnerability, compassion, and connection.
Our ancestors who survived weren’t those who were the strongest by traditional measures, but those who were most effectively able to share their weaknesses with one another and work together to overcome them. We are the descendants of the vulnerables.
Vulnerability is how a child bonds with their mother. Within just one hour of being born, the child adjust their heads to make eye contact with their mother’s gaze. On day two, they start responding to their mother’s voice. As helpless infants this is how we show our vulnerability and bond with our caretakers.
Vulnerability is also how partners become close, long lasting friendships are forged, and strong bonds are made. Vulnerability is how we survive and thrive.
On the flip side, it’s so hard to pretend that we have everything together. Keeping up this act is exhausting. We fear that when we’ll let our guards down, others will view us as weak. This isn’t always true, especially if we choose to be vulnerable in front of the right people.
When we open up to others (be it our acquaintances, our fans, or our colleagues), they feel relieved. They think: finally, someone who isn’t faking it! Someone who is more like me! They gain the permission to stop their own tiring act of perfection and start revealing their cracks and stretch marks instead.
When Naomi Osaka took a break from professional tennis to focus on mental health, while a small set of people dissed her, the rest came in full support, mostly because they could relate to her.
“It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions,” she writes. “I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”
When you are vulnerable, it doesn’t just remove your shackles, it also removes the shackles from those around you. The result is more freedom and trust, which supports better, more nourishing, and more effective relationships—both one-to-one and one-to-many.
The irony is that all the time and energy we spend developing a personal brand is a hindrance to creating the kind of close bonds that we desire most. We’ve become so good at pretending that vulnerability doesn’t come easy any more.
In Greek mythology, the god Pan resided just beyond the village boundary. When humans mistakenly wandered into his space, they would be overcome with panic, fear, and dread. When they tried to escape, even the most trivial obstacles—small stones, little holes in the ground, gusts of wind—would elicit paralysing fear. The victims would spiral down to their deaths in their fear.
Yet, to those who deliberately ventured toward Pan and chose to pay him worship, he was harmless. He bestowed upon his willing visitors abundance, health, and the ultimate gift—wisdom.
We’ve all got our Pans. If we can stop avoiding and running from them—and learn to accept them instead—we’ll also have wisdom.