Embracing Vulnerability And The Power of Failure
In case you didn’t realise in my recent post on must see TED talks I’ve really gotten into watching them a lot over the last month or so. I was recommended to watch Brené Brown’s talks on vulnerability and shame and after watching them I knew I had to write a post based on them.
So what is vulnerability?
Take a second to think about that question for yourself. What do you see as being vulnerable? How does it make you feel when you are vulnerable? Is it a positive or negative emotion? And do you think it’s good to be vulnerable? Whatever you think of these questions, take a mental note of your answers before you read on.
Before watching this talk, if I were to be asked these questions, I would say vulnerability is a weakness. It’s being too attached to your emotions or being closed in and anxious. Vulnerability, to me, would not seem like a positive emotion. Is this similar to what you thought of when you answered the questions above? I don’t think I’m alone or too far off there.
See being vulnerable, I’ve learnt, is actually a good thing. It’s where creativity and innovation (to quote Brown herself) are born. Without vulnerability you are not in a position to feel raw and in connection with your body and your mind. You’re not open to the so-called “spiritual awakening” Brown describes. In Brown’s research she discovered that people who were the most compassionate and the most whole-hearted were those that were able to feel vulnerable. Brené Brown makes a humorous point in that the TED conferences should actually be called “failure conferences”. Not because everyone there will or is failing. But because everyone there is not afraid to fail; they’re not afraid to feel vulnerable and to face change.
“I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustrations were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.” – Tony Robbins
One thing I have been aware of when looking at myself is that I am often afraid to fail. When I went back to my old upper school on work experience earlier this year I was presented with a ‘Need to Achieve’ model by my old tutor. Now for those of you that have NO CLUE what a ‘Need to Achieve’ model is, don’t worry I didn’t have a clue either! But it basically is a graph that you can plot yourself on to see if you have the need and desire to achieve. On one axis is the fear of failure and the other is the desire to achieve. In order to have the ‘Need to Achieve’ you need to embrace failure. You can’t be afraid of it. This is something I struggle with. All my life I have been a perfectionist. Told I had to hit unbelievably high targets to achieve a level of self worth. This need to reach targets meant I was so scared of criticism, so scared of people telling me I hadn’t done well enough. Now this isn’t healthy. It drove my mental health south and my academia suffered as a result. It took a long time to realise that actually it’s okay to fail and this is where being vulnerable comes in.
I’m learning to be vulnerable. I’m learning that it’s okay to fail. Re-assessing my goals for myself and allowing room for growth is a massive part of vulnerability. Sometimes its okay to put your hands up and go “okay this didn’t work today” but know that you can try again tomorrow. By failing you allow room for success. You allow room for progress and growth. Someone once told me that every no is closer to a yes, and that is what vulnerability is all about.
As humans we need to understand that it’s okay to feel vulnerable. It’s the gateway to compassion and happiness because we are more connected with ourselves.
Since becoming more aware of the need to accept failure, I have seen a tremendous shift in, not only my happiness, but my general motivation. Whereas before, I felt so stressed about my academic performance to the point that it was actually detrimental to my performance, I now feel more open and relaxed. Knowing that all that matters is whether I have done my best or not takes away all the pressure and fear of failure I once felt. Now I’m not saying now I don’t put in effort because I don’t mind if I fail. What I’m saying is, as long as I have worked my best I will feel content with the outcome because that was the best I could have done. There’s no point stressing over the fact I didn’t achieve more as all that would do is make me feel shame and disappointed with myself even when I tried my hardest.
If you are a student (of anyone) reading this, try to remember that. Regardless of what those around you are saying, if you have worked your hardest you should be proud of whatever grade you get! Don’t let anyone tell you you haven’t done enough because you didn’t hit their “expectation”, if you tried your best that IS enough!
And if you’re a parent or a teacher, try to remember this too. I had far too high expectations placed on me during my school years. It has taken me to the age of 20, having spent 80% of my life in education, to come to terms with the fact that my best is good enough. Having been told by my teachers at age 16 that getting an A grade “wasn’t good enough” and being forced to retake an exam because it wasn’t an A*, I know first hand what it feels like to be told to fear failure and to not be vulnerable. This fear of failure was so detrimental on me as a person that it actually made me start to resent my education – something I should feel grateful for being given such a privilege.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” – J.K. Rowling
So my point in all this is, don’t be afraid to fail. Embrace being vulnerable and see where it takes you. Allow it to take you to a place of compassion and happiness, not to a place of shame and weakness. Know that in every failure there is a lesson for success and that by seeing the positives in the situation you never truly failed.