Why you should embrace vulnerability

Stay optimistic. Life can wear you down. Every disappointment followed by lowered expectations. A defense mechanism to curb the pain of future disappointment. It’s a horrible way to live, hoping for less each time. Have the courage to always shoot higher.

– A Letter to My Godson, Hsu Ken Ooi

I like to think I would have made it if it wasn’t for the flies. Attempting “Haystack” scramble at the summit of Mount Si was hard enough with both hands at my disposal, let alone just one because the other was too busy swatting flies.

Whatever my excuse, I didn’t make it to the top, turning around about a third of the way up. Consoling my pride on the retreat, I reasoned there were plenty of fears to conquer that didn’t involve a potentially fatal impact with rock from hundreds of feet up in the air.

One thing that’s never left me about that experience was how completely exposed I felt clinging to the rock face, so physically vulnerable.

This is a post about another kind of vulnerability. About extending your hand with no idea if the other person will take it. About throwing yourself into a creative challenge and offering up your effort to the world for critique. About telling someone the story of the time you messed it all up.

Quick quiz:

  1. How often are you the first to say “I’m sorry”?
  2. When was the last time you asked someone to explain something you didn’t understand?
  3. How likely are you to be the first to say “I love you”?
  4. When was the last time you acknowledged to someone you made a mistake?
  5. When was the last time you asked for feedback on something meaningful to you?

Why do the answers to any of these questions matter?

Most of us go through our daily lives inhabiting a narrow band of emotion, teeter-tottering between bored and anxious on the low end, and content and comfortable on the high end. It’s a safe but uninspired way to live.

Why do we settle for a monotone palette when we all want to experience more moments of bright color — emotions like joy, connection, and gratitude?

Instinctively, we realize that pursuing intense happiness also exposes us to intense fear, disappointment, and pain.

“Instinct” is a funny word to use in this context. Humans are wired to seek understanding, confirmation that others share our hopes and struggles. As kids, our instinct is to operate from this place of openness. We go into each interaction and lay it all on the line, with no sense of holding back. It’s not until our first taste of rejection that our instinct becomes one of caution and withdrawal.

The degree to which we’re able to laugh, celebrate, and love is directly related to our willingness to take the uncomfortable stuff hand-in-hand. And many of us simply don’t have a very high vulnerability tolerance. In an attempt to dull the impact of loss and rejection, we also end up closing doors to life’s happiest possibilities.

As an example, many of us have probably experienced a situation where we downplay how much we want something to minimize embarrassment in case things don’t work out. The reality is that this doesn’t ease the pain of failure, it only prevents others from sharing in our happiness when we succeed.

One of the most empowering realizations is that it’s possible to build up your tolerance over time, even learn to embrace vulnerability.

Ground rule #1 (and really the only rule), is that you need to come to terms with your own strengths and weaknesses. Nothing is gained from putting yourself out there if it’s not the real you, imperfections and all. You can’t hope to find acceptance and generosity from others if you don’t have it for yourself.

I’m often reminded of this quote by Barbara Sher: “The useful answers, the answers that help us solve problems, are always the more forgiving ones. They’re based on a line of inquiry that assumes there is always a good reason for everything.”

The next step is just to go out there and practice a little bit of vulnerability every day.

You can start with something as simple as meeting every stranger’s glance with a smile and a steady gaze. Many will look away. Some will look confused. A few might even smirk, or frown. No matter. The ones who smile in return make the exercise worth it many times over.

As with all things in life worth pursuing, you get back as much as you put in. Don’t let the possibility of rejection keep you from extending your hand.

Have the courage to always shoot higher.

Creating your own luck

It usually happens towards the end of a profile you’re reading about some extraordinarily successful individual — the almost obligatory nod to “luck” and the role it’s played in that person’s life.

For mere mortals, it’s a comforting thought. No responsibility for what I can’t control, right? The problem, of course, is that this is only partially true. Maybe successful people really are blessed with more than their fair share of serendipity. But they also tend to set themselves up for more lucky encounters by leading lives designed to attract them. It’s kind of like how the cupcakes that are the most evenly frosted end up with more sprinkles. (Ok, I admit that was a stretch. I’ve just always wanted to work in a cupcake analogy somehow).

What you realize after reflecting on a few of these stories, and maybe on your own experiences, is that there’s no monopoly on cultivating luck. Anyone can tilt the odds in their favor.

How? A few rules of thumb as a starting point:

1. Do one thing every day, no matter how small, where you feel not quite in your element, maybe even pretty darn vulnerable. It can be as dramatic as running down the street to ask out a stranger or as simple as trying a new weight machine at the gym.

2. When life gives you options, choose the one with the widest range of possible outcomes. You’ll be surprised at how often you rise to the occasion just by giving yourself the opportunity.

3. Move on before you feel you’re ready. This isn’t to say never finish what you start or rush off and leave a mess for others to clean up. But if you keep waiting for all the variables to fall into place you’ll always end up floating in someone else’s wake.

4. Cherish time spent in others’ company. How much do you actually believe that everyone you meet has something worthwhile to teach you?

None of the above is groundbreaking by any stretch. It’s all rather intuitive, in fact. So why aren’t more people doing these things? If acknowledging the truth of a simple idea was all it took, the world would be a much more level playing field.

It’s not easy to push beyond your comfort zone every day. It’s not easy to embrace uncertainty. It’s not easy to fight inertia and voluntarily disrupt a comfortable routine. It’s not easy to invest in relationships when there are ten more urgent things on your to-do list all with more immediate and tangible consequences.

Just remember that luck isn’t something that passively happens to people. It’s something that can be actively cultivated with a measure of courage. So go out there and earn your sprinkles.