October 23, 2011

The Emptiness of Being Invulnerable

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Frequently we’re warned not to put ourselves out there because people might “get the wrong impression.” In fact, I think it has now become mandatory that the first piece of employment advice we get comes over a kitchen counter at a friend’s house, from his mom assuredly wagging her finger as she says, with the particular conviction that possesses middle-aged people doling out life-advice, “… you gotta be careful with that. The employers check your Facebook now! They might get the wrong impression.”It’s true and it’s not necessarily bad advice. But, it’s funny that this advice is never followed with a discussion about the values that underpin it. And by funny, I mean terrifying.Terrifying because the real advice doesn’t tell us to stop doing the activities we are tempted to share or stop having the attitudes we are tempted to reveal, but simply, to hide them. Hide them because of what someone else might think. To achieve some end result — be it professional, academic or whatever — it is now perfectly acceptable, in fact, recommended, that we stifle genuine communication of who we are. Lest we put ourselves at a disadvantage to those who reveal nothing. So really, it’s not just “Don’t put yourself out there, people might get the wrong impression,” it’s also “Don’t put yourself out there, people might get the right impression” — in fact, it’s actually “Don’t put yourself out there, people might just get any impression at all.” And so we are paralyzed by the fear that letting others know who we are is too risky. Better to just keep it inside.It’s wrong though. You have to put yourself out there. Not just your opinions. Yourself. At the very core, it means embracing vulnerability. And not just because it’s some abstractly important principle, but because it’s the only way for you, as a human person, to be happy, satisfied and fulfilled.Take it from a skeptic. Brené Brown, a prominent researcher at the University of Houston, used to be absolutely sickened by the thought of embracing vulnerability. She now says that, although we equate vulnerability with weakness, it is more importantly “the birthplace of joy, of love, of belonging, of creativity, of faith.” And so, she continues, “… It becomes very problematic when, as culture, we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.”Yet this is exactly what has happened, over our friends’ kitchen counters, in our refinement of non-offensive networking banter and especially in a great deal of our activities right here. A place like Cornell offers so many glittering opportunities for advancement, but often only if we cast aside our authentic, genuine, vulnerable selves. So, we get in line, don suits and immaculately align the indentation of bullet points on our resumes as professional fraternities, exclusive organizations and career services mold us into the polished, decorated, outwardly certain, intimidating figures of Roman excellence that we ought to be. Vulnerability and authenticity have no place in this world. In fact, they’re anathema to it.It goes beyond just careerism too. Look at how we deal with intimacy. We blast music, dim lights and get drunk, avoiding the need to hear, see or even think about the people we kiss. Imagine the vulnerability of staring into someone’s eyes and simply admitting you like them. Oh gosh. Rather, we make the whole thing a game to be won with clever tactics and puffery, not connection through vulnerability.Don’t buy it. Don’t invest in the illusion that you can be happy and satisfied by trying to be an invulnerable impregnable paradigm of perfection, inconsistent with your inner authentic self.Vulnerability isn’t even antithetical to our aspirations for extraordinary career success. It might just be essential. Take a cohort of people collectively chosen and acknowledged as the very embodiments of that extraordinary success — college commencement speakers — and listen to what they say made them into the successes we have so labeled them.Let’s look at the addresses of Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling and Conan O’Brien at Stanford, Harvard and Dartmouth, respectively (these speeches are, with great frequency, singled out as amongst the best). There is a common theme that runs through their stories: in one way or another, they attribute their achievements, in part, to the embracement of vulnerability.Steve Jobs spoke of accomplishing the most when he reminded himself he was going to die. Conan talked about having the best year of his professional life following the rejection he suffered in the Tonight Show fiasco. And J.K. Rowling explained the benefits she found in allowing herself to experience failure. These things — death, rejection and failure — all induce great feelings of vulnerability in us, and yet our great succeeders see them as instrumental to their success.So, vulnerability isn’t weakness. It’s requisite for fulfillment and quite possibly for success. It necessitates coming to terms with the fact that not only can’t we be perfect but that, at our best, we are not perfect — we are ourselves.Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at sderi@cornellsun.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Sebastian Deri