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Creatives, Don’t Lose Your Vulnerability

Creative work takes guts. Putting our ideas out there means risking rejection. As creative types — art directors, designers, copywriters, content strategists — we pour our hearts and souls into our craft. When feedback from clients or coworkers alters our work or vision, it’s easy to get jaded and start ignoring or stifling our instincts. But we can’t stop being vulnerable. We must continue to expose and fight for our ideas. It’s worth the risk.

Vulnerability unleashes our creativity.

It empowers us to dare, share, ask, listen, explore, and innovate.

In the context of creativity, vulnerability is the openness to uncertainty and risk. Brené Brown, renowned vulnerability researcher, asserts in her TED Talk The Power of Vulnerability, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Her research shows that vulnerable people are the most happy, creative, and productive. Similarly, a Harvard University study — among many others — found that experiencing vulnerability has a positive impact on artistic creativity.

So why is it so hard? We’re conditioned to shield ourselves against criticism and view vulnerability as weakness. No one invites or enjoys failure. In fact, we avoid it at all costs. The word vulnerability itself implies personal harm, stemming from the Latin noun “vulnus,” meaning “wound.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” Hiding our true selves helps us deflect any offenses to our creative spirit.

Yet the risk of vulnerability enables originality. As Brown shares, “If failure is not an option, then innovation is not an option.” If (or more realistically, when) we fail, she emphasizes positive thinking: “Clean up your mess, gather up your learnings, and move forward.” It’s likely that we’ll always live with some fear of failure, but we can’t let it overcome us. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, suggests confronting fear directly, “Thank you, but your services are not needed.”

The fear of failure dampens our creative ambition.

This desire for connection can cause us to sacrifice our creative intuition. Brown’s research shows connection gives meaning to our lives, so the fear of losing it can prevent us from being fully vulnerable. As Brown explains, we think, “There’s something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection.” In our creative work, this shame could come from a crushed concept or critical feedback. Maybe you stop sharing or developing the ideas you truly believe in since they were shut down in the past, hurting your self-esteem.

Yet the risk of vulnerability enables originality.

I’ve certainly shunned vulnerability throughout my own marketing career in agency, in-house, and freelance environments. Starting out in digital media planning and transitioning to content strategy and freelance writing, ideation and creation — and therefore vulnerability — are core to my work. I sometimes find myself prioritizing the preferences and perceptions of others over my own instincts. While external considerations are necessary, we can’t let them dictate our creative thinking.

Vulnerability requires strength and sensitivity.

Strength helps us be okay with our own failure and sensitivity lets us accept it in others. To support creativity, our workplace cultures must accept imperfection in pursuit of excellence. Research shows that removing the pressures of perfection and pleasing liberates the mind to be unhindered and creative. Just as we acknowledge our own longing for connection and acceptance, we should be sensitive to that same need in others. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be forward with our feedback or sugarcoat reality, but realize the role of vulnerability in sustaining creativity.

So, here are a few ways you can help yourself and others be vulnerable at work:

Put aside pride.

The fear of failure not only comes from our desire for connection, but also our personal pride. If we keep our creativity close, we won’t feel the pang of criticism as much. We might think, Well, that wasn’t my best idea anyway. But this creative restriction can also lead to regret. Curb your pride, even when faced with repeated rejection, and fight for what you feel is right to avoid the spiral of what-ifs.

Isolate insecure thoughts.

Forget any internal doubts or self-perceived barriers that cloud your creative vision. Whatever insecurities are keeping you from persisting in the strength dimension of vulnerability, push yourself to suppress them. Finally, don’t wait for praise to feel affirmed in exposing your creativity. You’re in a creative role for a reason. After all, if you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

Share with passion.

Focus on presenting your ideas wholeheartedly. You’ve committed to sharing your perspective, so give it the best platform. Whether it’s advocating for a strategy angle in a new business pitch or internal brainstorm, don’t shy away from showing your passion. We may be tempted to hide our enthusiasm to avoid disappointment, but vulnerability demands commitment inside and out.

Ask and listen.

Shifting to the sensitivity side of vulnerability, seek out and be open to the insights of others. Don’t be bashful in asking for help. How many times has the perspective of someone else shed light on something you’ve been churning over for days? Being vulnerable also means exposing your infant ideas and listening to feedback with an open mind.

Probe with sincerity.

If you see the lack of vulnerability affecting the creativity or motivation of those around you, challenge them to rise above and persevere. Likewise, when others challenge you on something you believe in, have the strength to probe for specifics with sensitivity and sincerity. Explore alternatives to arrive at the ideal solution, whether or not it was your original idea.

Vulnerability can seem scary, but persistent strength and sensitivity will not only keep your creativity alive and well, but thriving.