Curiosity and Vulnerability

Curiosity is a dynamic of ongoing inquiry requiring that you reveal that you don’t know something.  Your seeking to know something reveals the limits of what you know: that’s what real questioning is.

openheartopenmindCuriosity may also require that you reveal that others don’t know something, and we all know folks who are pretty attached to having all the answers.  They may not like the feeling they get when they don’t have the answers; they may feel challenged, and they may react in an unpleasant way.

Curiosity does more than just expose someone’s ignorance about something; it can threaten to expose something that is being hidden.  If this is the case one can expect to encounter resistance, obfuscation, evasion and even aggression.  This ‘something that’s being hidden’ may be something dangerous, something corrupt, around which there’s a wall of shame[1]. Or it may be an injury, a deep wound, an old painful trauma that’s never healed (shame is, itself, a wound). But, it can also be something beautiful: an extraordinary talent, a passion, a deep love, which is too frightening to expose.  There are many reasons that things become hidden.

So curiosity is a state of unknowing, and requires the admission of unknowing: to be curious we need to be humble and vulnerable.  Because it can expose ignorance, corruption and injury curiosity can be perceived of as dangerous, and this makes curiosity vulnerable to reaction and repercussion[2].  But curiosity also creates vulnerability: its nature is to expose, and it creates vulnerability in those whom it disrupts with its questions.  This may not be their choice; they are put in an uncomfortable situation which may feel ungrounded and out of control.

Because curiosity requires and creates vulnerability, it requires bravery and courage[3].  Bravery and courage are the attributes of warriors.  So, to remain steadfastly curious, you need to be a warrior.[4]

[1] “I ran into this thing that absolutely unravelled connection in a way that I didn’t understand and had never seen…it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brene Brown ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ TED Talk

[2] Maybe the most archetypal of stories of the perils of inquiry is the Paradise story which opens the Old Testament. It’s not hard to interpret the terrible price Adam & Eve pay for succumbing to the temptation to eat of the Tree of Knowledge as the price paid for ‘wanting to know’.  In this light ‘curiosity’ is depicted as the Original Sin precipitating The Fall, leading to the banishment of the first humans from the Garden of Eden. – Genesis 3

[3] “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” – Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

[4] For Chogyam Trungpa ‘warriorship’ was nothing more than demonstrating the persistent courage to leave the safety one’s own perceptual ‘cocoon’. The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in a cocoon…perpetuate habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground.” – Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa

Curiosity & Vulnerability Pt 2: When is it safe to be vulnerable?

We held our first Curiosity Lab on ‘Curiosity & Vulnerability’, viewing Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and then launching into a fascinating discussion, with some marvelous attendees.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is truly worth a watch is, at heart, about the life affirming and revivifying benefits of living vulnerably.  She clarifies that this takes courage, and reminds us that the roots of the word ‘courage’ come from the French ‘couer’, meaning ‘heart’.  For her the definition of courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Which is also what it is to live vulnerably.

What keeps us from living this way is, according to Brown, uncertainty with regard to our own self-worth.  People who have intrinsic self-worth believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.  People who lack this sense of self-worth find vulnerability excruciating.  For them vulnerability risks exposure to criticism, bullying, ridicule, loss of status, ostracisation … simply stated, fear and pain. They don’t experience vulnerability as liberation, but as a potential avenue to disconnection and isolation which, as Brown drives home, are the foundations of shame.  Shame is the gatekeeper of our personal prison cells and bunkers. It chokes out our vulnerabilty.  Brene Brown is a bold advocate of vulnerability.

Miriam, one of our bold participants in the Lab, persisted in posing the question,
“When is it safe to be vulnerable?”.
I’ve been following this question for a few months, and don’t anticipate this particular expedition to end anytime soon.  You could say easily enough that ‘it’s never safe to be vulnerable’ because the very nature of vulnerability is uncertainty and risk.  But the results of someone telling the story of who they are will be very different depending on what their story is, and who they’re telling it to.


What does the bullying lion in The Wizard of Oz lack?
“Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward”,  says Dorothy
on seeing how terrified he is after she gives him a slap for bullying Toto.
“I haven’t any courage at all”, says the Lion, “I even scare myself.”  
But why is, after all, Lion so afraid. [1]

Cowardly Lion

There are good reasons for getting anxious about vulnerability.  There a cost for telling “the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  Your story may challenge cultural norms, shatter parental expectations, fray peer relationships, or alienate your employer. It may isolate you or, depending on the story, leave you in danger.  Loss of status, loss of work, criticism, ridicule, bullying, ostracisation, alienation, intimidation, violence … these aren’t fictions. These are real, and most of us have seen them or experienced them, and it can teach us to keep our mouths shut, our true natures ‘in the cupboard’, and our souls enclosed.

 Unlike Scarecrow,
Lion does have a brain,
and maybe he’s using it the way that life’s taught him.  


I don’t want to be naiive about vulnerability.
We live in a broken world where people are hurt, and hurt people hurt others, and traumatised cultures are traumatising.  The expression ‘pecking order’ – a reference to group hierarchy – comes from how chickens determine who rules: by pecking the weaker ones to bits.  The corporate and political worlds are said to be ‘full of sharks’.  From schoolyards to monasteries, from house league teams to corporate boardrooms, from cop shops to prison cells, from anonymous strangers on public transit to the person with whom you share your bed: we all have hurts, and we all have the capacity to be hurtful and to take advantage of another’s vulnerability for our own gain.  There are some people who are so emotionally and socially damaged that this is almost the only way they are able to be in relationship: by finding and exploiting vulnerability.

So when is it safe to be vulnerable?


 More importantly,
Lion is willing to challenge his fears to pursue what he most needs.


I heard an amazing episode on Radio Lab the other day.  The story of Stu Rasmussen, a transgender person from a tiny town in conservative evangelical USA who became…. the mayor.

How did that happen?

Stu, who had lived in the town all his life and ran movies and took tickets at the only theatre in town, started by painting his nails blue. Not pink, or red, but blue.  Then, some weeks later, he painted them pink.  Then, piece by piece, he donned articles of women’s clothing.  Each carefully staged gesture of transformation produced a new burst of gossip and the potential for ostracisation.  But Stu was tactical, and new the town extremely well, and furthermore, everyone knew Stu as a trustworthy, helpful, kind person.


So the Cowardly Lion, in search of what he most needs
– courage –
and through many trials and tribulations,
makes it to the ruler of his Kingdom, the Wizard of OZ,
where he fully expects to receive what he wishes for.  

We normally think of curiosity as risk-taking, and this is why we’ve associated it with vulnerability.  But it’s worth considering here that Stu Rasmussen must have had a generous measure of curiosity to so successfully strategise his ‘coming out’[2] in a town so culturally antagonistic to his gender choice.


 There Lion discovers that the wizard-tyrant ruling over his Kingdom
is a frightened little man with a lot of smoke and mirrors
who has absolutely nothing to give him.



Stu understood the culture he lived in. He had it well gauged. That level of understanding takes focussed curiosity: an absorbent watchfulness, an openness to information and new understanding, a concerned interest in and care for the people of the community. That curiosity led him to the careful and deliberately patient strategy that would allow him to – eventually, and not without very great trials and real danger – “to tell the story of who he is with his whole heart.”


Almost nothing.
The wizard-tyrant has a medallion for bravery,
for setting out with a cast of misfits to find his courage.

And he has the insight and humility
– aka wisdom –
to bring Lion to see that he always had what he sought for.
His search for courage took courage.  



Curiosity is the opposite of blind faith:
it’s reconnaissant, observant, watchful, interested.
It’s gathering information through careful observation.
It’s questioning the situation you’re in with an open and non-judgemental mind.
Why is curiosity like this? Because, believe it or not, curiosity is rooted in care.
The word curious come from ‘cure’, and from ‘care’.
Curiosity is about caring.

Gabor Mate, in lecturing on addiction, regularly reiterates that the word ‘vulnerability’ comes from the Latin, ‘vulnerare’, meaning ‘to wound’.  For Mate, “To be a human being is to be profoundly vulnerable. And there’s nothing that you can do to make yourself invulnerable.” I agree, you can’t ever be invulnerable. But, by engaging your curiosity, you can be less or more vulnerable in situations that may be perilous, in keeping with your own limitations.
That is, while caring for yourself.



[2] Stu has persisted in identifying as a heterosexual male.

When Vulnerability Is Aggressive

Another theme in Nik’s post on Curiosity and Vulnerability, is being curious about what lays hidden beneath, causing “resistance, obfuscation, evasion and even aggression.”

vulnerability-aggressionIn an idle moment, my daughter Googled ‘Millennials are…’ The top adjectives linked to her search were: idiots, lazy, spoiled, entitled, useless.

It is belittlement on an industrial scale reflecting unchecked vulnerability. The narrative runs counter to a more hopeful truth. A White House report: 15 Economic Facts About Millennials, found Millennials “are a technologically connected, diverse, and tolerant generation. The[ir] priority on creativity and innovation augurs well for future economic growth, while their unprecedented enthusiasm for technology has the potential to bring change to traditional economic institutions as well as the labor market.”

Without curiosity, it is hard to stop the pungency of negative judgements seeping into our worldview and behaviour. The duty of the curious is to peek behind the sentiments to discover the sources of vulnerability that lay beneath.

Armed with understanding, it becomes possible to ask the producers and the normalizers of derision: “What is it that you really want and, when you get it, then what?” It takes us to the nub of conversations that must be had if new possibilities are to be made likely.

In the case of Millennials, it begs the question: what is the cost of subjugating their  “creativity and innovation [which] augurs well for future economic growth”? Will today’s squelchers regret their sentiments when, in their dotage, they come to rely on this maligned generation? Millennials are but one example. Anti- sentiments lock out people and possibility; also it bolts the rest into a delusion of security amidst a sea of disruption.

Left unchecked, industrial scale aggressive vulnerability is pernicious, detrimental and shortsighted. The value of curiosity is that it has the power to peel off the blinkers of certainty; that necessarily produces a new kind of vulnerability until we adjust enough to make use of the opportunity. Finding ourselves “in a dark maze” (Bayo Akomolafe), we mustn’t miss seeing the importance of these intersections of vulnerabilities.

Add your thoughts and questions in the comments and click  to find out about the next Curiosity Lab potluck!

Vulnerability: making the best out of imperfection

Nik ended his vulnerability blog with “vulnerability … requires bravery and courage.  Bravery and courage are the attributes of warriors.  So, to remain steadfastly curious, you need to be a warrior.” It reminds me that there is also a cost to not showing vulnerability.

HeartI remember one banking CEO recounting a stay in an exclusive hotel of minimalist design. Even the light switch was hidden. Finding himself frustrated, he decided to remove himself when he spied light seeping beneath his colleague’s bedroom door. Naively, I asked if he knocked on the door to find out where the switch was. To which he replied “no” and his body replied “course not.”

In time, the encounter came to be an illuminating moment, spotlighting a dimension of vulnerability I’d never considered. Behind projection of power and supreme confidence, and carapace of invincibility, lay the same sense of vulnerability that singe the edges of my existence. To me it would have represented a small small social risk but to the CEO, it was an unthinkable.

On another occasion I was teaching a class in not-for-profit management. The group included a large number from one organization. Comparatively, the organisation was on the ascendance as the provider of choice. As we discussed the value of a S.W.O.T analysis1)A SWOT analysis is a structured planning method used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats involved in a project or in a business venture. in the face of disruptive change, these students told of an organisation wide strategic planning day on that very theme. When I asked what became of the work from that day, they replied the notes were still up on the walls. As I pondered the reasons for the waste of time and engagement by the leadership, I came to see another dimension: the tyranny credibility imposes on our capacity to risk success.

I try to be curious about my own hubris. One day, having lived in Toronto for over a year, I became aware of my glancing connection with the same few characters who populated my preferred routes in my neighbourhood. Of course, I smiled and said hello; it was always in a closed way. I set about remedying my pattern. I made a point of stopping to speak with one elderly street homeless man, who always greeted me kindly. In examining my visceral response, I discovered a knot of judgment I had imposed on Daniel. I came face to face with  my hypocrisy. Within my story of vulnerability, I kept to my victimhood and veiled over my role in perpetuating it.  

Like an unguent, unworthiness coats our very existence. It spurs us into creating and recreating situations we perceive as safe while at the same time spurs us into acts micro-aggressions against others as temporary analgesic for our unworthiness.

Therein lies some of the a buried elements to the story of why over 85% of innovations and 70% of change projects fail.

I find the discipline of kindness and curiosity to be powerful countervailing force and a demanding taskmaster. In the face of belittlement, it helps shape warrior attributes to go in search of the sources of vulnerability in each encounter.  I try to keep the John Osborne’s rebuke in his play Look Back In Anger close: “If you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint, because you’ll never make it as a human being.” Kindly curiosity is the salve to the lacerating dynamics of my unworthiness. It is the thing that keeps me going.

A curious inquiry into our encounters does lessen the hold vulnerability has to suppress a warrior heart.


References   [ + ]

1. A SWOT analysis is a structured planning method used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats involved in a project or in a business venture.