Vulnerability is not a weakness

March 12, 2014 by
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

In her brilliant TED talk ‘Listening to shame’ Brené Brown claims that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.  While we might think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously, Brené argues against this myth stating that vulnerability is all about pure courage, emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.

I heard Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winning artist and ‘transvestite potter’ talking at the Women of the World festival where he also talked a lot about vulnerability.  His lecture Men!  Sit down for your rights proposed a Bill of Rights for Men, which included the Right to be Vulnerable, and the Right to be Uncertain.  Grayson thinks that the ‘Right to be Vulnerable’ would be a part of giving men a new model for masculinity at a time when the current constructs of manliness feel dated.

Following her own ‘vulnerability hangover’ (but let’s face it we all have them) Brené observed that in fact vulnerability is actually essential to whole hearted living and so I was uplifted to read a blog from an English teacher, ’5 things that scared me’.  An honest portrayal of a challenging week at work where the lesson learnt was ‘always do what scares you, only when out of your comfort zone will we truly learn and become our best selves’.

I think this is a really important idea.  Embracing our vulnerabilities comes down to asking ourselves to think differently and in turn this requires empathy to allow others to be open.  Being out of your comfort zone is difficult and many of us might identify with Brené’s epiphany:  that whilst being frustrated at not being able to get her work out to the world, she realised a part of her was engineering to stay small, to stay under the radar.

However if the implications of showing our vulnerability are innovation, creativity and change then we need to make it a more socially acceptable behaviour, in our working relationships, personal relationships and our friendships.

And how might you embrace vulnerability in adolescence? It strikes me that this is a time when most of us feel particularly awkward, out of place and unsure of ourselves.  Do schools have a role in addressing vulnerability head on?  Can you allow space for vulnerability?  How can you do this safely and appropriately?  Is it just about taking chances, leaps of faith?

Joe Hallgarten and Selina Nwulu with RSA Fellow Barbara Hearn are working on a project called Rethinking Adolescence.  They are starting from the idea that adolescence is an under-utilised asset, that this time is valuable and not just a phase in life to get through.  There is a perception that young people are ‘citizens in waiting’ and that adolescence is a time of ‘vulnerability of personality’ (Verhellen, 2000) because changes are so rapid.  It is a chapter when we experiment, push boundaries and start forming the kind of person that we want to be (or perhaps don’t want to be) so if we had the scope to express our vulnerability more, what might this lead to?  And not just for adolescents.  Vulnerability is often the grist for artists’ creativity so there is every reason to think that this would generate everyday innovation and change if vulnerability was allowed to flow.

As a last point I thought I’d share a personal story to illustrate the title of this blog in a small way.  I’ve started to play the ukulele.  I’ve got carried away with the idea of me playing the ukulele.  I’ve talked about it a lot.  I’m also not very good it but my basic ability to strum out a tune found me announcing to my parents one evening that I was going to give them a rendition of Maggie May.

Having verbally committed to the performance I found myself on the sofa, ukulele in hand with an expectant but somewhat uncomfortable looking audience.   I realise my enthusiasm has set the expectation bar high and I can’t remember the last time we all sat round for a jolly sing song.  The Von Trapps we are not.  In that moment a gulf of awkwardness sprang up.  There was nothing for it but to plunge in vulnerable and exposed.  Strumming then singing, tentative sound filled the room.

I still wasn’t very good but I was out there, a chorus in and committed when out of nowhere my dad started singing.  Finding something of Rod the Mod we belted out ‘Oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried anymore’ and a rather beautiful thing happened.   We looked at each other, smiled and in that brief moment something changed.   There wasn’t a vulnerability hangover in sight.


  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Georgina,

    I think you’re so right to home in on the importance of showing vulnerability.

    I tend to think that the ability to sit with one’s vulnerability – rather than having all the answers, hiding failures or suchlike – is key to being able to build successful organisations that learn and transform.

    I’ve tended to think that this vulnerability (along with the ability to work with ambiguity) is something that emerges slowly as we get older (and develop richer and more dialectical ways of thinking) – so I’m very intrigued by the idea you mention that we might jump start vulnerability in adolesence. Would be interested to see the evidence that this is possible… (I guess I’m concerned we might be trying to run before we can walk).

    When I talked with Brené about her vulnerability work after she spoke here, she recommended that the RSA run a ‘Failure Fest’ (as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation planned, as a result of their own engagement with Brene’s work on vulnerability).

    What do you think the RSA could do to make it easy to express vulnerability – and by that to make the organisation more innovative, creative etc?

    I even once made a map of many of the activities and characteristics of the RSA and the extent to which they foster the showing of vulnerability…!

  • Georgina Chatfield

    Hi Matthew, thanks for this and apologies for the delay in replying, I’ve only just seen your comment (oh, for a notification system).

    A Failure Fest sounds like fun. I worked on a project once which wasn’t wholly successful though lots of things did go very well. We were honest about the things that didn’t go so well and this allowed the organisation to point at it and say, ‘Look! We are being honest about out failures over here, aren’t we grown up; this is what others can learn from us’. This had the effect of endorsing other colleagues to puff up and point the ‘failure’, separating themselves from it and turning their backs to openly sharing similar learning about projects they were working on.

    So if the RSA did a Vulnerability Fest, the first rule of Vulnerability Fest is that ‘everyone is vulnerable’.

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