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You can afford to be vulnerable when you have trust

… and 20+ sharp points of verify!

In preparation for a team culture building activity, we’ve been asked to watch a Ted talk on the “power of vulnerability” (because, of course, Bay Area — home of avocado toast stations and Ted talks), and think about the lessons of the talk in the context of our work. Here is a resume of the talk:

Some apparently self-deprecating but really humble-brag stories to set the audience at ease with laughter, then

“love — heartbreak, belonging — exclusion, connectedness — disconnected, shame, fear, vulnerability, worthiness, wholeheartedness, courage, compassion, connection, authenticity, vulnerability, necessary, practice gratitude and joy, be truly seen, I’m enough”.

None of the above terms was defined. The “I’m enough” was illustrated by a picture of the words tattooed on the upperish part of a woman’s chest. In case you are wondering, I don’t know how to practice joy either. There were no examples, no exercises, no action required of the audience and of course, no questions.

But I’d committed to be open-minded and to do my homework, so here goes:

I rarely feel shame. The second last time I felt shame at work was soon after I’d been asked to help solve a problem that the AI team had already taken a crack at. I proposed a hacky solution much better than the one they had in place, very reasonable seeming but still hacky, and it was accepted. I was scheduled to present it to the CTO and SVP etc.

An hour before the meeting, while finishing preparing my talk, I poked at the solution and found proof of wrongness. I went red at my desk, felt a hot flush, wished the earth would swallow me, that I could hide, felt fear of being found out, of being wrong, of losing the credibility I had won incrementally as an outsider. SHAME! At the same time there was a small sense of relief that my persistent self-doubt had saved me from the utter humiliation of being found wrong by somebody else, or even worse, post-implementation.

I started thinking about where to go for help. (It helps to have been grossly wrong before, and often; while counterbalanced by having found difficult and beautiful solutions at least as often.) There was a flash when I realised that the problem I was working on was abstractly similar to a math puzzle about immunization which I had solved approximately but also incorrectly. Jack had solved it correctly, but I hadn’t understood his solution. So I went to Jack, asked him about the puzzle, he pointed me to a wiki article he’d written explaining the solution to a football penalties puzzle different in specifics but abstractly the same as the immunization puzzle and the work problem.

I worked my way through the math, applied it to the real problem, calculated the example I’d chosen to present, and … it became the first production model.

Happy ending? I won’t leave you with a happy ending.

The last time I felt shame at work was when I asked a colleague a challenging question in public, framed as if I were presuming they hadn’t “ever” done something, a question which was arsehole-in-both-tone-and-content, before I’d established a relationship of trust with this person. I was then, and still am, ashamed of myself.

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