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Reframe How You Think About Failure, Vulnerability and Leadership

Is it always a good idea to keep our vulnerabilities hidden?
by Traci Kim | Nov 2 2018

We’re afraid of risking it all and faltering, and even more afraid to be seen as vulnerable.

It might keep us safe, but this rigid mindset—the one that demands we nail it the first time, every time—is paralyzing. Fear of failure alone is enough to stop us from even trying anything new in the first place, but here’s a thought for you to mull over: our most vulnerable selves are often the ones that help us succeed in the world.

We’re used to a narrative of negativity around failure and vulnerability, but it’s time to tell a new story. Both of these emotional guests are much greater assets than first we think. Knowing yourself—even the vulnerable parts of yourself you meet only when you don’t get it right—allows you start to open yourself to the world more authentically, do better work, and even be a better partner or friend.

So this is a call to reconsider what you think of your tender underbelly—a bid to regard with welcome the things we humans fear the most. It’s never a bad time to get acquainted with your softer side, because while edgeless, it might just be your strongest secret weapon. Here are your new stories about failure and vulnerability.

Vulnerability is a key component of courage

Vulnerability is usually perceived as a weakness, and showing it comes with a barrel of negative feelings: grief, fear, sadness, and rejection to name just a few.

However, in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she makes the point that vulnerability is also the source of love, joy, and empathy. Significantly, it’s also a sign of courage—and that leads to progress.

In her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” from June 2010, Brown references the etymology of the word courage, coming from the Latin “cor,” meaning heart. Showing courage is literally as simple as showing your heart, your most inner, imperfect self. Make no mistake, this can be scary, but it gets easier with practice. Brown counsels to get good at it by “leaning into the discomfort,” embracing the not-so-great feelings associated with vulnerability instead of shying away from them.

In addition to building courage, a wonderful bonus of getting more comfortable with revealing yourself is that you permit others to feel more comfortable, too. There could be some tension around who will show their cards first, but, consider playing it more like a game of Uno than a game of poker. Why? The more we share, the more we increase the empathy and compassion we can receive, building stronger relationships and stronger foundations on which to build great things with our peers.

So, yes, getting vulnerable is a risk, but it’s by taking just such risks that we gain creativity, innovation, and change—the essence of pioneering. Very few success stories come with little or no risk-taking involved along the way. So be brave and take heart: risking vulnerability is what it takes to build courage and gain open, empathetic, excellent allies with whom to explore new frontiers.

If you’re in a leadership position and you’re not sure how vulnerability gels with being the boss, then Brown’s latest release, Dare to Lead, illustrates how with a balance of vulnerability, bravery, and crucially, clarity, you can get the most out of your team — and yourself!

Failure is your training ground for success

Because you fail once (or, hey, even a couple of times) doesn’t mean you’re fated to fail forever. In fact, falling flat on your face can serve as a very enlightening experience.

Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, discusses the importance of failed attempts and how we should encourage failure more often. The authors bring up a classic example of a ceramics teacher who conducted a study in which he divided his students into two groups. He asked one group to make the best pots they could in a set timeframe, and the second group was to construct as many pots as possible in the same amount of time. In the end, the best pots actually came from the group focused on quantity, not quality.

The reason why the quantity group made the better pots might be counterintuitive, but it does make sense. In the quantity-focused group, the students picked up on the mistakes they were making between each round of pots and corrected their technique. However, the quality group had less of a chance to learn from their mistakes. Although their focus was on producing the best product possible, they didn’t have enough trials for improvement.

Essentially, failing is your training ground for success—it’s the necessary preparation for a big win. And while it might not be as safe as the “not-yet” approach (reading up on topics and researching what people with similar goals have done) trying and failing gets you in productive motion. Focus on the quantity of your attempts, not their quality. You’ll end up learning and preparing in the best way possible and gathering actionable, lived-through insights. Try, make mistakes, learn, repeat.

Practice makes permanent

All too often we hear the phrase “practice makes perfect.” We learn through repetition, so in order to get comfortable with failing and getting vulnerable, too, you’ll need to start risking it. Soon, instead of making you uneasy, the discomfort will be a welcome, wanted guest at that internal tactics meeting on how to kick butt in life.

Reframed, failure and vulnerability are nothing but educative tools to help you get even better. The softer side—not so scary anymore, huh?

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