Growing stronger through vulnerability

When I think about strength, I have several images embedded in my mind. The first one is of my grandfather on a horse. The horse is rearing up and if memory serves me well, the horse is on one leg. This image is iconic. It embodies the ruggedness and toughness that a cowboy has to possess to thrive. When you grow up in the Sandhills of Nebraska, there are many men you can look at who possess these character traits.

As a boy in Nebraska, if the cowboy persona is not what you learned it meant to be a man, then it was likely that you understood a man was epitomized by a football player. It was Tom Osbourne. It was Husker Power. Osbourne was characterized by his stoic demeanor. He had the same emotional expression after a tough loss to Oklahoma as he did after destroying Florida for a National Championship. Husker Power was about developing physically dominating players.

The underlying observation I made as a young man was that being a man required being strong. To be strong meant displaying the characteristics of those cowboys I saw or the players and coaches we admired.

There are many nuances within those two personas that could be titrated out. Things such as:

  • never let them see you hurting
  • boys do not cry
  • keep your problems to yourself
  • do not depend on others, be self sufficient
  • have an answer to solve your problems
  • do not allow your opponent to see your weaknesses

Those were the signs of strength.

Life did not lead me to become a cowboy or a professional athlete, it lead me into the arenas of health, fitness and business.

The versions of displayed strength change in these environments, but in some ways they are similar.

Strength is embodied by:

  • capital raised
  • charts moving up and to the right
  • number of employees the company has on-boarded in the past year
  • trend lines of total revenue
  • monthly recurring revenue

What I have found in the business world is that many signs of strength are faked signals. I am not talking about fraud, although there is definitely cases of that too. I am talking about people putting out press releases, purchasing office spaces, getting media coverage and hiring new team members to give an impression that they are doing better then they really are.

In some ways it is the way the game is played. To recruit good talent, to attract investment capital and to give new customers confidence that you can fulfill your promises, you need to be perceived as bigger, stronger and more stable than you currently are.

One of the great things about starting and working with multiple health, fitness and coaching businesses is that I often get to see behind the customer’s mask. People come to me for running, but they also want friendship. They use our products to improve their health, yet they need a safe place to discuss their fears.

The biggest lesson I have learned over my 18 year career thus far is that everyone has something they are trying to work through. This is true regardless of a client’s social, financial, health or career status.

It took me a long time to observe this reality. It took a lot longer for me to realize that I didn’t have to be a perfect example of health, fitness and well-being to beneficial for my clients. I actually did not learn this until after I had stopped personal training.

Gaining strength by being vulnerable.

Lewis Howes talks about the nine masks that men hide behind in his book, The Masks of Masculinity. These masks include: The stoic mask, the athlete mask, the material mask, the sexual mask, the aggressive mask, the joker mask, the invincible mask, the ‘know-it-all’ mask and the alpha mask.

I have used each of these masks at some point, however I have been most comfortable behind the stoic, athlete and ‘know-it-all’ masks.

These are personal discoveries I started having several years ago. Through these discoveries and within time of self-reflection, I realized that the pressure of living with those masks was overwhelming.

What do you do when you want people to believe something about yourself, but you know inside it is not the way you truly feel?

I made the decision to become more vulnerable. To be more open about how I truly felt. I decided to share my fears and disregard the advice that said ‘keep your feelings to yourself’.

I have learned to say “I have no idea” and “I do not know” to more questions than I have the answer to.

Taking the step to be more vulnerable was not exceptionally easy, however it also was not unique. Individuals like Brene Brown have given power to the concept of being vulnerable. The start-up world has more and more individuals stepping forward and being open about their struggles. I am optimistic that the athletic world will also see more changes.

There have been three outcomes of becoming more vulnerable:

1. I have become stronger and more resilent. When you do not have to keep living out a narrative that is not true, it frees you to be authentic and actually proceed in real strength.

2. Individuals respond to my vulnerability by observing some of the same issues within themselves and feel empowered to speak to me.

3. People are made uncomfortable by the vulnerability and we ignore the discussion.

A tangible outcome of those observations was combining the lessons with my knowledge in coaching, health and behavior change to create the Happier and Healthier You program.

A final thought.

I am a competitive person. The arena of competition continues to change, but when I am focused, I want to win. The cowboy persona, football icons and successful business leaders all instilled in me that you should never show weakness. However, I have learned that I am much stronger when I can share my vulnerabilities and still possess the courage to take my fears head-on.

This strength allows me to be a better person, friend, business partner, lover, athlete and community member.

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