Vulnerability, not ‘vulnerable’

October 5, 2019 — Leave a comment

This is, sort of, “How might I be wrong about this?” Part II.

I have to confess that I don’t care for the word ‘vulnerable’ as it often appears in the media these days – “in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect”. It strikes me as an overly general label to apply to a section or sections of the population, and distinctly disempowering – If I am vulnerable, according to this definition, is there much scope for me to excel, to be my best self?

All of that said, I’m increasingly aware of the value of vulnerability – as in this definition: “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally” – for my growth as a husband, father, friend and teacher/coach. Happily the pursuit of the kind of vulnerability that I’m referring to is unlikely to involve physical harm but absolutely carries the risk of failing; of looking and feeling foolish; and seeing a reflection in the mirror that I may not care for. I’ve referred to being ‘outside your comfort zone’ often and almost glibly as ‘the place where the magic happens’ without really acknowledging that this is entirely about risking failure. I’ll be less quick to talk about my comfort zone in future because I want to be more comfortable with failing – comfortable with being uncomfortable, you might say.

Because that’s where I learn, and where I can grow.

I don’t want this to read as though I’ve mastered the art of vulnerability – that it’s somehow easy for me now. That’s absolutely not the case and I have to override my own instincts and, perhaps, to re-shape an identity that I have assumed as ‘boss’, or ‘expert’. I’m also fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with someone who is similarly driven and will hold me to account.

Why is this so important to me now? Historically I’ve been really good at making excuses. When I was going up I can remember frustrating my parents because “Nothing’s ever your fault, is it?” I didn’t know it then but I suspect I always felt safer finding external forces or circumstances to explain why I’d failed. I know now that this is symptomatic of a fixed mindset and not in keeping with a mission of growth toward self-actualisation.

I believe the fact that there are many interpretations of the Pilates method is a blessing and a curse. It means that being a Pilates teacher almost inevitably means subscribing to a dogma (or several). I believe this lends itself to adopting fixed opinions that may cloud our view of the truth. At the very least, being governed by dogma does not invite questioning of our own methods. If you are a Pilates teacher reading this I invite you to consider your core beliefs about Pilates (Do you believe it’s a complete system? Do you believe it’s a holistic practice? Does it do what yoga does but without all the chanting? Is it the perfect marriage of stretch and strength? ……), and then to search for any reason why you might be wrong.

Logan Gelbrich (referred to in the earlier article), at his recent ‘Hold the Standard Summit‘, told us about an exercise conducted at his gym in which coaches were divided into two teams for a debate – one team had to argue in favour of CrossFit and the other against it. Could you formulate an argument against a regular Pilates practice? What might you learn if you try? If we actively search for information about how we’re wrong, we may discover that we are indeed wrong, or we may learn more, or have greater clarity about why we are right to be doing or believing what we do currently.

Another compelling idea that Logan introduced us to is the two types of challenge, as identified by Ronald Heifetz: technical and adaptive.

Technical challenges can be looked up, or answered by an expert – as a Pilates teacher, if you’re uncertain about the proper choreography of an exercise, or how many springs to use, you can find the answer on YouTube, or consult another teacher.

Adaptive challenges are those that will likely require us to be vulnerable, because they require growth – evolution. Let’s say that one of my challenges as a teacher is expressing my true self in a way that doesn’t alienate the people I want to reach (no, really!) This is not a technical challenge – I can’t look up the answer, and no expert can tell me how to do this. If I want to successfully address this I’m going to have to fearlessly examine my behaviour and motivation, and scrutinise past reactions through the lens of ‘how might I be wrong about this?’

It means taking responsibility for everything that happens in scenarios both of teaching and social media interactions, for example.  If the person that I’m teaching doesn’t appear to be following instructions, or isn’t doing as well as I believe they can I have to take responsibility and ask myself how I might express myself differently (this could be a highly complex question and might be worth a thousand words on its own), or change my coaching to help them be more successful. If it’s wrong, it’s my fault. If a post or comment of mine on social media elicits a reaction that I don’t appreciate I have to take responsibility and ask myself what it was about my contribution that triggered such a response. You might recognise this as being inspired by Carol Dweck‘s work. If I look for failings in other people that explain unsatisfactory outcomes I limit my own chances to evolve. If I can allow myself to risk being wrong (and, again, it’s not necessarily my first instinct yet – it’s a work in progress) I may discover that I can change – behave differently and make for a more satisfactory outcome next time.

As before, how might I be wrong about this?

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