How Can Shared Vulnerability Lead to Innovation?

Many people see vulnerability as a liability. But when shared, it can be an asset—and a key part of getting from -1 to 0.

How Can Shared Vulnerability Lead to Innovation?

When you meet someone for the first time, there’s no way to predict how the relationship will evolve. It might impact your life profoundly, or it might exit your memory without a trace. The same is true of new ideas.

One of the ideas that has stayed with me -- that has shaped my view of the world -- is that of shared vulnerability. It is the experience of sharing your vulnerabilities with others, and gratefully receiving theirs in return. And it is an essential practice of the people at South Park Commons.

This practice is not celebrated in all cultures. It is relatively rare in academia (in my experience), and it seems downright toxic to most politicians. Yet it is the currency of innovation communities.

For anyone who is innovating—who is seeking new ways to produce an outcome—there is the risk of failure. There is uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. There are days when you feel blocked, anxious, or headed in the wrong direction. These are the common afflictions of what we call the -1 to 0 space.

Sharing this vulnerability can be freeing. I remember my own relief when, after joining South Park Commons and investigating a few (ill-fated) startup opportunities, I started sharing my dead ends with other members. Vishal, a member of my peer mentoring group, offered a few lessons from his own false starts. He described how it honed his understanding of himself and what was most meaningful to him. Suddenly, losing my way was acceptable and human. It was perhaps even a badge of honor—a skill learned and developed with time.

But shared vulnerability goes beyond the disclosure of self-doubt. A group of qualitative researchers recently described their experience with this practice. They met at an academic conference—and rather than coming together for drinks and gossip, this group of faculty members and students exchanged stories about their struggles in academia. They discussed power imbalances, loneliness, and emotional distress. The outcome was a level of authenticity that allowed for transfer of complex knowledge—insights that intertwine the technical and the emotional, that are otherwise difficult to access.

Offering our vulnerability to others requires us to reach out and seek acceptance, and in turn to embrace and accept the authentic person with whom we share that new understanding. It encourages us to expand our own life perspectives, by exposing us to others’ thought patterns and learning strategies.

The challenge is that for us to expose our vulnerability, we often need to feel worthy of others. We need a certain level of security and a belief in our inherent worth. This sense of self is a mental construct, and it is shaped by our families, communities, and experiences in society. That makes it difficult to be authentic and vulnerable if you have been marginalized, excluded, or abused.

Yet we are all malleable.  

If we are routinely met with support in response to vulnerability, over time it can reinforce that sharing is safe, and that uncertainty and failure are acceptable. Perhaps this allows us to continue seeking, to explore further, and to take deeper risks.

Recently, tech sector pundits have been talking about “hot streaks”: those periods in a person’s working life that are inspired, productive, and highly prolific. Researchers attribute this to the process of exploration that occurs prior to exploitation. I like this idea—but I also wonder if under the hood, this phenomenon is enabled by the experience of shared vulnerability. Perhaps a period of sharing your own struggles, and learning from others’, can expose new ways of understanding the world, and in turn new ways of improving it.

At South Park Commons, we are committed to searching alongside our peers. We like to expose our blind spots, and develop new insights in the face of uncertainty. We suspect that this embrace of the unknown is what unlocks new perspectives, enables innovation, and helps the members of SPC get from -1 to 0.

Temina Madon is a co-head of the SPC community, c0-founder of The Agency Fund, and on the professional faculty at UC Berkeley.