Five years ago, almost to the day, I re-defined what feeling vulnerable means. But I will get to that later. Brene Brown has revealed how powerful vulnerability can be in bonding our lives to others. Her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” is a must-watch for anyone who values meaningful relationships at both the personal and professional levels. Vulnerability can be threatening; it can also be empowering.
But how does vulnerability feel? Across the years, I have witnessed others in vulnerable moments: hearing a cancer diagnosis, learning of a loved one’s death, descending into the realities of a lost job, a divorce, and more. In every case, I saw it by observing the erupting emotions, witnessing trembling hands, and noticing a quivering lower jaw. But I had limited and sporadic memories of how vulnerability felt within me.
Yes, I would hear uncertainty expressed by a man facing early retirement. I saw the face and hands of an otherwise strong woman paint anxious gestures on the room’s canvas as words like “mother’s Alzheimer’s,” “fear,” “confusion,” and “helplessness” tumbled out. Questions tainted by vulnerability sound like, “Are we going to be OK in retirement?” and “How can my husband and I cope with our drug-dependent adult son?” No matter how often we hear the words and questions, they are external, out there, until one day, without warning, they move into our lives as permanent residents.
That’s what happened to me five years ago. After the blood work, the MRI, and the biopsy, I learned I had low to intermediate prostate cancer. Treatable? Yes! Common? Certainly. Will it kill me? Probably not. In fact, prostate cancer is one of if not the most treatable of all cancers if caught early. And in my case, “early” was the important word.
Hearing that rush of threatening words I had witnessed in others now felt like a form of helplessness, as an almost overwhelming vulnerability poured over my soul. No longer heard as a detached observer, I knew existentially what “feeling vulnerable” is all about—at least in its early manifestations.
When Kathie and I learned of my diagnosis on our 42nd wedding anniversary, we held each other as close as never before. We have so much for which to be grateful; so many wonderful memories and gifts to celebrate. That journey was bearable in no small measure because of the love and uncompromising support of our amazing family. A few months later, a brilliant surgeon at John’s Hopkins in Baltimore removed that cancerous prostate. Today, I am cancer-free and grateful!
The question lingers: What can vulnerability teach us about our work as financial professionals? When a person’s life is in a rough place, they need, even require someone with whom they can express fear and, at times, fall apart. In my experience, getting in touch with my own vulnerability changed how I see this good work. My work took on new meaning and purpose.
I know this. When we get in touch with our own vulnerabilities—name them and own them—we begin a journey that empowers us to be even more present, more supportive, and more connected to the people we serve. When those rare, almost sacred moments show up, when we feel most vulnerable and see that vulnerability in another, know that you are probably doing some of your very best work.