“I believe that in vulnerability, we really find what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
I've been thinking a lot lately about vulnerability. I remember once being told that excitement is 50% fear. Things are exciting because there is a chance that whatever sparks our fire may also burn us, and so our anticipation of what could be marvellous in our lives is shut out by the fear of what could go wrong.
Brene Brown is a vulnerability researcher. In her wonderful Ted Talk she says we are losing our tolerance for vulnerability, that “we sidestep getting excited about something because we are not sure it’s going to happen”. After many years of research she tells us that the reason for the intolerance for vulnerability is that “We live in a culture that tells us that there is never enough.... that we are not extraordinary enough.”
I get this. I’ve spent my life flitting from one experience to another, seeking to make my life extraordinary. For me to stick with something, to be stable in an ordinary life was not an option. It’s taken me this long to realise that perhaps it is a good thing to just enjoy the feeling that what I have is enough already. Sure there may be other wonderful things out there, and I have no doubt that I will experience them, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if, as Alan Cohen says, we have Enough Already, if we woke up every morning thinking “if this is all there is then that’s brilliant... it’s already enough”.
To attain enoughness is hard in a world of intensely active media that may convince us that we are not enough, that we don’t have enough, that we don’t look good enough. Marketers spend inordinate amounts of money persuading us that their goods carry meanings that will transfer to us if only we buy them. Extending well beyond goods, this extends to our experiences. If we travel to exotic places, then we are inherently interesting... or are we?
Frighteningly the response to all this pleasure seeking and not feeling good enough is a society that in Brown’s words is “numbing out”. We are becoming the “most addicted, medicated, obese and in debt adult cohort in human history” and one in which “we stay so busy that the truth of our lives just can’t catch up.” Jonathan Crary in his brilliant 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep attributes this numbing out to increased television and internet consumption which many studies show exhibits all the characteristics of addiction – a negative impact on our emotional state whilst being compelling its allure, enabling a “slow shift into a vacancy from which one finds it difficult to disengage”
The answer Brown says is to be thankful for what we have, to celebrate the ordinary in our lives – our kids, nature, health.
But where does this leave consumerism? How do we achieve economic growth if we are all thankful for what we have right now and we celebrate the ordinary. Where does this leave marketers if we all become happy within ourselves, no-one buys anything and the staycation becomes the norm?
Marketing, as the great Kotler says, is about meeting consumers’ needs profitably. But if we are the addicted, medicated and indebted people that Brown characterises, then exactly what needs is industry meeting? It seems we are all striving not to be vulnerable, and that goods and experiences are used to meet those needs. But actually if they did not fall short we would not continue to buy. And in fact, is this not the point? Without leaving us just that little bit dissatisfied, economic growth and company profits would be threatened.
There is some radical thinking to be done here. For me it throws up more questions than answers.
How do we define growth?
How do we meet consumers’ needs in a way that is not damaging to their own mental health?
How does economic growth happen without threatening finite planetary resources?
How are people employed and how are they given value if our need for novelty in goods and services declines?
These questions are not for the faint-hearted. They are difficult, gnarly, ones which in our apathy we may find too difficult to approach. To Jonathan Crary, apathy, or his word “docility” is one of the primary aims of the global economy, where the services and interconnections offered by new technology quickly become the “templates of one’s social reality”.
For Crary our always on, 24/7, world steals away our attention and incapacitates us from “daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in intervals of slow or vacant time.” Daydreaming is too slow a mode of operation in our 24/7 world, and yet meditation, contemplation and daydreaming are exactly what are needed to bring answers to difficult questions.
These issues of vulnerability, the fear of failure, of not being good enough, and of little time or space for seeking solutions is echoed in the business world. But organisations and companies that play it safe, the way they have always done it, are even more vulnerable in the long term, than those who seek opportunities to be different. We need more space, time and the culture to be able to experience failures. The flip side of vulnerability to failure is of course genuine success.
To think that our current business or personal options for success are constrained by the way things are now, is to lack imagination and courage. I don’t have answers yet to this issue, or any of the many others that occupy my mind. But I do have questions, and all answers arrive in time when we dare to ask ourselves the right question.