I was reminded, while teaching a presentations course to social science PhDs today, of the vulnerability of academics as they conduct scientific inquiry. The whole nature of science is not knowing, but wanting to find out more. Complexity generates new and interesting questions. So vulnerability is a key ingredient in academic presentation. We looked at a photo of a student presenting a poster to an older scientist, and the academics I was teaching commented on what they considered the older man’s critical gaze. They experience an audience looking to punch holes into their methods and results. I conjured up the image of the white night protecting his castle against the hostile red knight. We naturally went on to discuss the opportunities for networking and productive exchange such an encounter provides. In any case, the photo and the ensuing exchange got me thinking – again! – about vulnerability.
Photo: Angelica Omaiye, Beating the Competition II: Tips for Presenting at Research Conferences, The Substrate, The official blog of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate Network
I love rewatching Brené Brown’s TED Talk. Her field is psychology, and so any research is necessarily also self-reflective. She begins her TED talk saying that she initially reacted with great insecurity to being billed as a storyteller at an event she was invited to. I’d say most academics would. Storytelling and science inhabit different worlds. But a storyteller is what she is, and it doesn’t make her less of a scientist. Here she is in classic storytelling mode, as she describes her own need for control as a researcher, and her meltdown in the face of recognizing the key role of vulnerability. As a storyteller, she gets by with very little need for explicit explanation.
A key moment comes in minute 12:08:
So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, Diana, I brought in my list of how the wholehearted live, and I sat down, and she said, How are you, and I said, I’m great, you know, I’m h… I’m OK. And she said, what’s going on? And I said … and this is a therapist who sees therapists. Because we have to go to those, because their BS meters are good. (laughter) Uhm. And so I said, Here’s the thing: I’m struggling. And she said, what’s the struggle? And I said, Well, I have a vulnerability issue, and I know that vulnerability is kind of the core … of shame and fear … and our struggle for worthiness … but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love … and I think I, I have a problem, and I just … I need some help. And I said, but here’s the thing: No family stuff, no childhood shit, I just … I just … need … some strategies.” (lots of laughter)
She goes on to talk about how we numb vulnerability in minute 15:30:
We are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is, and I learned this from the research, that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment, I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin (laughter) … I don’t want to feel these … and I know that’s knowing laughter … I, I hack into your lives for a living I know that’s … uh uh god … you cannot numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so the we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin, and it becomes this dangerous cycle.
She has a clear agenda as a result of her extensive and intensive exploration: She says that as parents
Our job is to look and say, you know what, you’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. That’s our job.
Ok, and now extend that ad lib to siblings and friends and the people we teach and coach and … it’s simply a good guide to being human.
Thinking through my own vulnerability
So then, thinking through my own vulnerability with my husband in the evening over a glass of red wine, I remembered being nine years old. My parents were just going through a crisis and wanted to have me, the last child still living at home, out of the house while they debated divorce. So I went off to Camp Varsity in West Virginia for six long weeks. It must have cost my parents an arm and a leg. The experience was amazing. I had always been protected physically, being the youngest, the only girl, and the child of rather unphysical parents. We had no sports at school to speak of, and my dad’s idea of a good time was singing mass in Latin.
So here suddenly I was just one of a bunch of wild and fiercely physical kids. I remember this one game in the woods where we had to run for hours, utterly exhausting, and where it often felt like I was running for my life. Talk about vulnerable! Other challenges were learning to shoot a shotgun and a bow and arrow though I’m nearly blind in my right eye, which I needed to sight the goal. Then there were marvelous discoveries like horseback riding, Western-style, and hiking in the mountains. We had never done that before in my family. I even played softball. The only activities that I didn’t have to learn from scratch were canoeing and swimming.
After six weeks, on the last night before we went home, there was this little ceremony up in the Lodge where campers were given awards for being the fastest swimmer or having won some track event or other. The ceremony was just coming to an end when they called me up to the front of the room, and unbelievably, handed me a plaque.
It read: Most Improved Camper.
They must have made up that award for me, and I suspect there was leg-pulling involved. I remember being hugely embarrassed to be noticed at all, and truly proud to have been picked out as an achiever of … something.
You’ll laugh, but it was lovely to have my own vulnerability defined in such simple terms, and to be awarded in such a straightforward fashion.