The two papers stare desperately back at me. Am I missing anything? I go through the checklist in my head: examples, explanations, something creative. A lady clears her throat and my heart rate shoots up. Grabbing the pencil, I scratch three straight lines on a new sheet and tear it out of its pad just as time runs out.
“Alright! Pencils down. Leave the case on the table and make your way to your assigned number.”
I stand up and walk over to an elderly man with rimless glasses and a straight face, put on a giant smile and introduce myself. Here we go.
Ten minutes later, the interview is wrapping up. Reaching for the extra cherry-on-top thrown together at the last minute, I steal a glance at the cross-armed judge across from me. Is he impressed, bored, or even listening? It’s impossible to tell and I suppose that’s part of the challenge. Holding up the paper, I point to my graph and say, “In conclusion, as you can see from this 2013 Harvard study, there is a significant positive correlation between employee performance and employee satisfaction. At this point, I would love to take any questions you may have.”
He shifts in his seat. Is that a hint of a smile crossing his face? “Good presentation, but where are the labels on your graph?”
His question throws me off guard, but I go with the first thing I can think of.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I was running out of the office and my printer malfunctioned. It didn’t print the full study, but I would be happy to email it to you after our conversation.”
Now he’s definitely smiling. The interview finishes, so I thank him, shake his hand, and trudge away. My heart sinks further with each step. Was that a risky move or was my gut instinct right? The next day, I find out.
Act natural, I tell myself. Swing your arms and smile. My name is still ringing in my ears, and my senses are on fire. I’m elated, but I’m confused. How had I been awarded a top ten medal for my presentation? Despite my made-up, scribbled “Harvard study”? Despite my unserious answer to the judge’s hardball question? Despite not having taken any business courses? Despite having had only a few training lessons with my DECA chapter? My heart threatens to explode in my chest, my mind is blank, and my movements are broadcasted on the giant screen I can’t see above my head. I lift my heeled shoe to step up to the stage and trip on the stairs. If my face wasn’t red from excitement before, it definitely is now.
Yet as I walk down the stage to receive my medal and shake a row of hands, I feel alive – and not just because I won. I feel free, as though I’ve been suddenly released of a big burden I’ve been carrying around all my life. No more do I need to worry that every singular move I make will be recorded in a secret black book by someone, somewhere. I’ve just experienced the proof that there’s more to success than a superficial checking of boxes. Successful people are the ones who arrive with their own unique set of boxes, lay them out on the table in the ultimate display of vulnerability, and proceed to demonstrate why they, in fact, are the boxes you should really have been paying attention to this whole time.
Dr. Brene Brown is a research professor who studies vulnerability and imperfection. Her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” (2010), left a mark on me when I first heard it eight years ago. In it, she describes her work collecting stories from people and piecing together what makes them feel connected and loved by others. She concludes by suggesting that openly communicating our imperfect selves is what brings us closer to one another. She says:
“[…] these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and – this was the hard part – as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do for connection.” (Brown, 2010)
Her talk applies not only to situations where we want to feel loved, but to ones where we may want to build any kind of relationship founded on respect and appreciation. In professional settings, it is the compulsion to match a preordained character description that obstructs interpersonal connection. We steer clear of imperfections, mistakes, and flaws to avoid showing weakness. “Don’t let anyone see that you’re human,” we seem to tell ourselves as soon as our sculpted blazers come on. But when I made up a humorous study to match the made-up interview situation, and even when I tripped going up the stage, I stepped over the boundary of unspoken rules and into the realm of authenticity. Unknowingly, I was bypassing the nervous, stiff atmosphere that limits conversation and puts a blockade on connection in so many daily interactions.
Looking at my stone-faced judge intimidated me, but I reminded myself that he was just a person, too. He was a son; perhaps he was even a husband, a dad, or a grandad. And the fact that I was willing to take a bold risk to distinguish myself rather than fit a mold that was expected of me in the business situation was not only relatable. In being vulnerable, it was a mark of strength. And most of all, it fostered a genuine connection that went beyond just the quality of my presentation and the business acumen I was demonstrating.
Honesty and humility are essential. Although I had prepared by reading books and watching lectures to give a good presentation, I had also demonstrated a willingness to be unflinchingly open about my identity, and appreciate – rather than try to hide – my imperfections along with my strengths. Not only did I feel most true to myself and most alive, but it is the principle that made me stand out and that I have continued to live by since.
Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.