I was recently discussing ‘managing vulnerabilities’ with a client, the range of things that phrase (taken from my ‘8 characteristics of adaptive resilience’) might mean, and whether they were all things that should be avoided if possible. Some vulnerabilities you insure against, some you mitigate, some you embrace as necessary and use as stimulus, we concluded. I’ve also talked with people before about how the inevitable individual or personal vulnerabilities we may feel also need to be addressed, through mutual support and a supportive, positive, no blame culture.
I was interested then to come across the work of Brené Brown on ‘the power of vulnerability’, in a talk she gave at the RSA earlier this year. Here, and in her book Daring Greatly, she makes a number of points that make me suspect it would more helpful for cultural organisations and those working in them to think about ‘engaging with vulnerability’, even ‘embracing’ them, rather than ‘managing’ them. (I originally wrote ‘simply managing’ but we know it’s is far from simple.)
Brown’s book reads, as Tim Lott commented, ‘a bit American self-helpy… but in a good sense, as it is wise and thoughtful’. Her distinction between Shame and Guilt needs more debate than I can give it, but the notion that the culturally engrained way to combat feeling somehow unworthy and unsure is by ‘armoring up and artificially manufacturing certainty (by making ourselves over-busy and ‘indispensible’, filling up the diary with back-to-back meetings, or avoiding certain ‘risks’, for instance) resonates for me. I think of how I have behaved at times, whether from a kind of timidness, especially when younger, or the managerialist aspect of leadership sometimes felt necessary later on. How both arts funded and funders have reacted to reductions in public funds also demonstrates aspects of this I think. Is this, perhaps, one reason boards have allegedly become increasingly risk-averse?
One of the things I liked about Brown’s ideas was the insight that our fear of vulnerability stems from a scarcity culture that encourages shame, which in turn undermines personal bravery, ultimately undermining both innovation and human connection. By scarcity she means an all-pervading sense that we are ‘not enough’ or ‘not [insert allegedly positive attribute] enough’, a sense late capitalism (my term, not hers) is arguably built upon. As she says ‘Scarcity doesn’t take hold in a culture overnight. But the feeling of scarcity does thrive in shame-prone cultures that are deeply steeped in comparison and fractured by disengagement.’ To say you’ve got enough, no matter how much others may have, can feel a very counter-hegemonic thing to say. (As Gareth Bale’s mates commented just the other day, I believe.)
Brown’s opposite to scarcity is ‘enough’ – which she calls Wholeheartedness, a term I can’t wholly pin down. This fear of not being extra-ordinary – of being ordinary - lives deep in contemporary culture, unless I’m the only one, but we need to move through and beyond it. We might say ‘of course most ordinary people are extraordinary when you look closely’, but how often do we act as if we really believe that? I realized reading Daring Greatly that I have done that in many ways – where and how I’ve lived, for instance, sloughing off all pressures to ‘trade up’ when I could have done – but not in other ways, and that has caused me times of unease, stress and embarrassment.
Brown’s conclusions include references to the work of Sir Ken Robinson which is much more familiar in the cultural sector:
‘The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must rehumanize education and work. This means understanding how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame. Make no mistake: honest conversations about vulnerability and shame are disruptive. The reason that we’re not having these conversations is that they shine light in dark corners. Once there is language, awareness, and understanding, turning back is almost impossible and carries with it severe consequences. We all want to dare greatly. If you give us a glimpse into that possibility, we’ll hold onto it as our vision.'
What might this mean practically, for artists and cultural organisations? Well, maybe embracing some vulnerabilities in our budgets and programmes as opportunities to really achieve our vision, rather than things to worry about financially, or even worse, things to avoid at all costs. Why don’t theatres tell us how much earned income in necessary from each show, for instance? Maybe that would encourage waverers to get off the sofa.
Being brave enough to share with colleagues when our work leaves us feeling nervous or exposed, but embracing that as bravery not daftness or weakness. Not freaking out when a leader talks honestly about their uncertainties.
Planning not for failure but for success, with the risks in mind. Not beating ourselves up if something doesn’t work out. Rewarding ourselves when it does. (No more grants as quasi-guarantees against loss, more keeping of surplus-grants when things go brilliantly?)
Engaging with the dangers that making art must generate if it’s genuine – that it might flop, fail artistically, be not-so-secretly mediocre, not sell as well as your friend’s thing did, succeed artistically but be hated by some people, that people will just ignore it, or not ignore it but remain enigmatically silent or think you’re a fool for writing it, or be irritated by your neediness for attention. (Just to mention a few of the fears I’ve had since my book came out.)
Writing something you’re a bit nervous of, like that last sentence, but not deleting it. Pressing ‘publish’ and then waiting for the Vulnerability Hangover.
(Image from the fantastic This CharmingCharlie coming together of Smiths’ lyrics and Charlie Brown)