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On Being Vulnerable and Turning 50

by Deb Calvert, author of DISCOVER Questions™  Get You Connected

I’m almost 50 years old. That’s a big number. Since it’s such a profound milestone, it merits reflection and introspection. This is timely, as today opens the Month of Vulnerability here in the CONNECT! Community.

In business circles and leadership development programs, words like vulnerability are casually used to describe how those who need to connect with others must first show their human-ness. Brene Brown’s 2010 TEDTalk on The Power of Vulnerability amped up the discussion.

That’s why it’s not unusual these days to hear leaders talking about being vulnerable. We all understand, theoretically, that we are supposed to be vulnerable. But it’s rare to actually see leaders openly sharing in those moments when they feel vulnerable.

That’s understandable. After all, to be vulnerable means to be capable of or susceptible to being injured; open to attack. It implies a lack of power or control. In a society that measures leaders by results and success, in a marketplace that brutally responds to any sign of weakness in an unforgiving manner, in a culture where some opposing group is always crouched in position ready to attack…well, given those conditions, it’s absolutely counterintuitive to want to appear vulnerable.

As I’ve been pondering this pending birthday (50! How is that even possible?), I’ve felt more vulnerable than ever before in my life. That’s saying a lot. I feel more vulnerable now than I did when I was wheelchair-bound for 4 months following a freak accident that required surgery to remove a portion of my left calf. I feel more vulnerable now than I did when I underwent 8 serious surgeries in a single year to correct a congenital condition that had significantly compromised my quality of life. I feel more vulnerable now than I did when I lost myself in an abusive relationship, than when I was a single mother with a newborn baby, than when I was the oddball kid with a missing finger and an eye patch… I’ve been through some stuff, but I’ve never felt as susceptible to injury or as open to attack as I do at this stage in my life.

I’ve been trying to figure out why. Here’s what I’ve realized. I’m feeling vulnerable because there’s this vague buzz at 50 about being “over the hill.” (BTW, who buys those black balloons and “over the hill” themed party decorations? Stop it!) I’m reacting to something I don’t even believe, concerned about how I’ll be perceived by others as I leave my 40s and enter a new decade.

What I’d like to do is toss my sassy new ‘do and say with absolute confidence “This is going to be the most incredible decade yet for me. Look out world!” Doing so would make me seem invulnerable to these nagging doubts and societal messages that are bothering me. That’s a tempting approach, and I think I could even sell myself on that attitude.

Another alternative would be to act mysterious when people ask or speculate about my age. I could rock a “perpetually 39” vibe. Most days, I pass for less than 50. So I could deny, at least publicly, a few of these years and appear invulnerable to aging.

Instead, I’m sharing my feelings of vulnerability here and revealing my weakness at this time. Why? Because I can. Because the pretense of invulnerability takes too much effort. Because I increasingly find myself admiring those who are openly vulnerable and scoffing at those who work to conceal the obvious. We are all vulnerable, and it shows whether we intend it to or not.

So here’s me, taking a stab at being vulnerable. I’m about to turn 50, and I’d rather not. It bothers me to realize I have probably lived more than half my life already. I don’t like that some businesses will now extend senior citizen discounts to me. I’m not happy to be in a protected class of workers because the government is worried about employers discriminating against me at this age. I’m annoyed that some arbitrary number suggests to others that I’m past my prime.

I’ve encountered a lot of obstacles in my life, and I’ve viewed every one of them as correctable or, at least, something I could work around. I beat the odds and surprised my doctors more than once. But I don’t get to do that with aging, and it pisses me off.

I watched my dad, the strongest person I’ve ever known, become increasingly dependent on my sister and me despite his valiant fight against aging and dementia. Right up to the day he died, he never accepted his own limitations and vulnerability. He never saw himself as susceptible to injury or harm. That made it harder to help him than it should have been.

That’s not what I want to do. So I’m going to accept my human-ness and share it with anyone who asks. After all, I’m almost 50 so it’s about time.

CONNECT 2 Lead graphicThis blog post kicks off the February focus on vulnerability in the CONNECT! Community. As a leader, it’s absolutely essential for you to be open yourself up to others. Learn more about the importance and impact of vulnerability and how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.

Topics: 28 days of vulnerability, Be More Accountable, CONNECT2LEAD Blog, vulnerability

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