The most challenging experiences in our lives are also the experiences that thrust us forward on the path of growth and success. Vulnerability is essential to this process. When we are experiencing emotional or physical pain, fear, and shame, our natural inclination is to close off to protect ourselves from further rejection. Contrary to this defense mechanism, this is when it is most important to exercise vulnerability and reach out. That is where the magic happens. For me, this week’s magic is named AJ Harper.
Another #$%^& Growth Experience
I’m in the midst of a business divorce. One of my partners, who I have considered a very close friend, has chosen to leave our company. While I know that it is the right thing for both of us, it doesn’t change the storm of conflicting desires and emotions. I haven’t done anything like this before. I don’t know the “appropriate” ways to act or feel. My world is upside down, and I’m struggling to get my bearings. Maintaining vulnerability through this has been very difficult, and I’m taking it all one day at a time.
One of the confusing pieces of all of this for me is the book that I am writing.
I know, I know… for those of you who read my column regularly, this is the first time that I’ve mentioned I’m writing a book. There’s another vulnerability. What if I don’t finish it? What if it sucks? Nonetheless, my book plays a pivotal part in this story, so it might be time for the two of you to begin getting acquainted.
Our team at Polymath is cast center stage in this book project. With that in mind, these recent changes on our team have me going back to the drawing board, rethinking the entire project starting with the core outline… despite the fact that I had already written six full chapters. Well, crap. Take that, vulnerability.
Success is Messy
At QuickBooks Connect, the magnificent Sekou Andrews wove a heartfelt and powerful story for us all about redefining the idea of failure into pre-success. I loved that idea, and I have been trying to keep it in mind any time something I’ve worked hard for goes up in flames. Sekou showed extreme vulnerability on stage that day, inspiring an audience of thousands with his raw heartbreak and ongoing positive outlook. That level of vulnerability is something I aspire to.
Experienced authors tell us that the scrap-and-start-over routine is just how it goes with some book projects. You try something, sometimes for months or years. It doesn’t work. You go back to the drawing board and start over, salvaging what you can.
I understand that I’ll get used to it someday, in the same way that I have gotten used to the inevitable occasion of stomach flu or food poisoning: It will never be pleasant, but with experience we can conduct ourselves with a modicum of dignity while wallowing in the mess we’ve made. This is our body’s way of getting rid of the stuff that isn’t good for us. As terrible as it may be in the moment, it is necessary, and it doesn’t usually kill us.
Do you remember your very first stomach flu? The first time your body betrays you and forces you to learn to worship at the foot of the porcelain goddess is terrifying. There really isn’t an elegant way to go about it. Everything just feels wrong, and any effort made to hold back the pressure building inside just makes it worse in ways that I won’t make you relive through description.
Fortunately most of us were blessed with an empathetic adult who could be present to guide us through this new horror we have discovered. It’s wonderful to have someone to hold back our hair, clean us up, and put us to bed.
This is my first business divorce and my first time back to the drawing board, and they are happening at the same time.
I Need an Adult!
As I write this I am sitting on an airplane on my way home from an amazing and very challenging week. I have been working to navigate these new waters and regain my bearings, and I have been getting a lot of advice from friends and colleagues that I trust. One of these wonderful people is Mike Michalowicz, leader of the Profit First Professionals and author of some of my favorite business books.
I was talking with Mike a couple of weeks ago, and I shared with him another struggle I was having with my book: lack of critical feedback. I had hired a writing coach to help me improve my style and hold me accountable. The only feedback I received in the months of working with her was, “You’re doing great!” When I finally expressed my frustration to her, she basically said that I didn’t really need her. Of course the next question I asked was, “Then why am I paying you?”
I asked Mike for a referral to someone who would actually show up to the game, and he took it a step farther. He invited me to join him and fellow author Michael Port for an educational writer’s retreat in Florida. He particularly wanted to introduce me to his developmental editor, AJ Harper, as it was sounding like AJ might be exactly what I needed. Mike could not have been more right.
As much as the trip was not remotely in the current budget, I got one of those feelings that told me that I needed to pay attention and be receptive to the goodness coming my way. I knew that I needed all of the information they were offering, and I also really needed a change in scenery. (If you’re going to be sick, be sick somewhere nice and comfy.) I took the leap and bought a plane ticket.
Trouble in Paradise
Mike and Michael (I’ve been calling them M&M in my class notes all week) had amazing material for us. We were all scheduled to meet one on one with AJ for a deeper look at each of our projects. The group of authors assembled were some of the kindest, smartest, and most interesting people. The resort where the retreat was held was beautiful, and the food prepared for us by the brilliant Chef Bai was delicious, nutritious, and abundant.
All of that amazingness didn’t change the fact that I am totally sick of heart right now with the unexpected departure of my partner, and I had to figure out how to navigate that amidst a group of very kind strangers who are all going through their own writing process. It turned out to be totally overwhelming for me.
For those of you who have met me at conferences or events, you know that I teach classes on business networking. People see me in front of a group or navigating a crowd, and they assume that I’m an extrovert. Think again. While I may excel at group facilitation and working a room, these are learned skills for me. People often tell me that I’m a “natural.” Thank you for the compliment of letting me know that I make it look easy. It’s not. I experience a great deal of social anxiety, and I’ve gotten proficient at working through it most of the time. This last week was one of the most challenging in recent memory.
My favorite interactions are deeper one-on-one conversations with other individuals. I really enjoy finding true common ground and exploring ways to collaborate and improve each other’s lives. This is what I teach in my networking classes: how to cut through the awkward small talk and find real connection with other people as quickly as possible. I don’t enjoy competing for attention or fighting to get a word in or make a point. If someone else wants the spotlight, they can have it.
Most of the interactions during the retreat were in our full group of fifteen people. We would raise hands to put forth questions and ideas, so that it wouldn’t turn into a cacophony of thoughts being spoken at once. I made attempts at participation, but those efforts felt awkward and ineffective. At first I blamed my nerves and lack of connection on fatigue and jet lag, but it didn’t improve after the first couple of days.
I became aware of the feeling that I needed to cry, and I didn’t even know why. I felt broken, and it was worse to feel broken in a group. There was all of this amazing information, and I wanted to get to know these wonderful people. I did not want to miss anything, but I also did not want to hijack the event with my personal drama. I did the best I could with what I had at the moment. It wasn’t good enough for me, and that made it worse.
I was really looking forward to turning off my brain on the flight home, following the challenge of the last several days. I just wanted to watch the in-flight movies and check out for a bit. Alas, that wasn’t in the cards, as there didn’t happen to be movies on the flight. Instead, I got to finally dive into an audio book that’s been on my reading list for awhile. Once again the universe did me a favor, lining up exactly what I really needed. This book had me crying quietly in my seat the entire first leg of the flight, in all the right ways.
In her book “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown describes trust and friendships in terms of a jar of marbles. When trust is effectively given and received, we add marbles to our jar. When trust is abused, we take marbles away. Extreme failures in trust can make us feel like our jar got smashed, and we’re left not knowing what to do with all these bloody marbles on the floor and no container.
On the third day of the retreat I got my private time with AJ. The moment I closed the door, sat down, and tried to even think about starting to talk about my book project, the floodgates broke. This was the first chance I had gotten to be alone with another human in days. I’d been holding it all in, and it got messy. Getting back to our stomach flu analogy, I emotionally puked all over AJ. I used the time to vent, rather than talking logistics of the book at all, and she offered another time to talk about the book the next day.
AJ was kind, patient, understanding, and she didn’t judge. I was grateful for the pressure release. Nonetheless, I was concerned that I was leaning too hard on someone I barely knew. We were there in a business capacity, and all I was doing was showing that I wasn’t capable of keeping a clear head. I was afraid that this first impression was going to make her think I was totally nuts. My inner critic was out of control. After all, I wasn’t nuts. I had only lost my marbles.
The real miracle happened later that day. AJ and I got the chance to talk a bit more amidst the hubbub of the full crowd around dinner. That was when she opened up to me. I got to learn about her family and some of her deeper values. We found out that we both grew up near each other, and could relate about things that only Minnesotans can truly understand.
In having AJ offer trust to me with her inner self, I felt some marbles coalescing. Suddenly the gift of empathy and compassion that she had given me earlier that day didn’t feel like such a burden.
Real connection with another human is a two-way street. In order to really trust, we must be trusted in turn. We need to know that our vulnerability will be reciprocated in order to feel safe exposing ourselves to another person.
The next day I was able to hit our appointment with a slightly clearer mind, showing her where I am and explaining what I feel like I’m missing so that we can start coming up with the right questions together. It’s going to take a while, and I’m glad that I have now found a fantastic professional development editor who can help me with the process. By trusting me, AJ earned my trust and my loyalty. In the end, I got exactly what I needed from my several days there, and I am looking forward to continuing the project with AJ on my team… once I’ve had a little real rest. The challenge of the retreat was well worth the effort. My dedication to transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability won the day.
How are you practicing heroic vulnerability in your life? Make an effort to do one thing today to express gratitude for the #$%^& growth experiences in your life, and connect with someone, truly and deeply. Don’t know how? Hop on Amazon and grab “Daring Greatly.” I highly recommend it.