The fact that the CEO of Tupperware was my college graduation speaker will forever be a joke amongst my classmates from Guilford College, but as terrible as his military-infused speech at a Quaker institution was, the most memorable graduation speech I’ve ever heard was also the first.
I was still in high school and more concerned with what my friends were doing at the back of the graduation tent, but something the art teacher was saying hit me. Remarking that such speeches were intended to muse on vast topics like the meaning of life, he posited that the answer was connection.
I find it impossible to disagree. Maybe extroverts like me are more inclined to thrive on interpersonal relationships, but connection can be found elsewhere: in music or identities we choose to align with, in traditions we cling to or ideas and concepts that speak to us.
As researcher BrenÃ© Brown says in a now famous TED Talk, “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.” But that connection doesn’t come easily.
It’s built through authenticity, she says, by embracing vulnerability (and therefore failure and honesty too) and a willingness to accept the uncertain.
Admitting failure is no easy task in a competitive society where we are measured by our successes — including how well we assimilate to cultural norms. A redefinition of success seems necessary, not just to reject twisted societal standards (take our understanding of beauty, for example) but also to understand that failing ourselves is to give up rather than not succeeding.
In the last six months my sister began two massive undertakings — moving to New York City, and yoga teacher training. The takeaway from yoga, which she’s applied to the move: You can’t be attached to the material outcome. While it’s essential that she try to figure out a way to make the city work for her (because she set that goal for herself), if she ultimately decides that something else is a bigger priority for her, that outcome shouldn’t be defined as a failure.
I have a lot of admiration for people like her who are willing to be vulnerable and try something new, and even more respect when they are open to learning from the experience and altering their courses rather than bullishly shoving their way forward against their own best interests.
My family drove me down to college, spending the night in a hotel somewhere along the way the night before first-year orientation would begin. That evening while they were out I sat in the hotel bathroom crying my eyes out. I’ve never been good with change (ironic, I know, for someone who demands so much change from society).
I was scared of the distance that would grow between my best friends and me, immobilized by the unknowns of college life and intimidated about growing up. If my closest friends weren’t also moving away to go to school, I don’t know if I would have made it onto campus the next morning, but the lack of a clear alternative propelled me forward.
I am fortunate I don’t frequently experience social anxiety — I’ve been socialized that it’s acceptable for straight white men like me to take up space — but I still experience the internalized shame of feeling like I’m not good enough for certain things and still cringe a little at rejection. For the most part, however, I think I learned some of Brown’s lessons even before hearing them.
Vulnerability isn’t weakness. There’s a deep problem with the social confines of binary gender, including the notion that men shouldn’t express emotion. Believing you are worthy and having strong self worth are essential. Numbing vulnerability is counterproductive and inhibits other emotions. It’s impossible to control the outcome, have all the answers or attain perfection.
Brown’s points, at least when repeated through my lens, may sound simplistic or like some aggravating motivational poster. But who amongst us doesn’t still struggle with these concepts? Brown admitted she’s in the same place.
I was one of several alums who spoke to a class at Guilford College last week and as the conversation turned towards professional advice and success, one student asked us how we deal with rejection. Acutely aware that we had been presented as “success stories” from recent graduating classes, I listed several recent personal failures like having freelance articles rejected and being denied for a fellowship before trying to convey that accepting rejection and “failure” as facts of life help inoculate us to the pain when we experience it, making it easier to pick ourselves up and move forward.
Part of the reason I’ve embraced vulnerability to an extent is that after dealing with rejections, I’ve realized my own ability to survive and press on. People are imperfect and we can relate to that in each other. We aren’t happy with how we look in the mirror and none of us know exactly where we’ll be in a year. That not knowing and shame can be paralyzing — I used to lay in bed and completely freak out about how the universe could go on forever, but now I’ve accepted the not knowing.
I don’t know if God is real, or if print journalism will perish before I’m 30 or how to deal with death or whether I’ll live in Greensboro forever. I’m okay with that.
We are worthy of love and belonging regardless of our imperfections, as Brown says we must come to understand. We are works in progress but we’re still incredible. We are stronger than the sum of our failures but we must accept vulnerability, push through shame and strive for honesty and empathy. We are enough.