In a world where perfection and strength are highly valued, we’ve lost our appreciation for vulnerability and the gifts it offers.

Last week I had the pleasure of judging a student competition. More than one hundred high schoolers taking part in a Youth and Government program presented mock legislative bills they’d prepared with the goal of selecting the best few to pursue and refine as they readied themselves for a statewide convention.

The students approached the podium, one after the other… funny, smart, insightful, compelling, and prepared. It was an impressive display.

Then one 15-year-old stepped up and for the first 30 seconds (of her 90 total to speak) she was comfortable, authentic, and powerful in her delivery. Then something happened. She lost her place or her train of thought and stopped. Impressively, she took a deep breath, gathered herself, and continued on…. for a few more seconds. And it happened again. It was clear that she was holding back considerable emotion and I fully expected her to leave the stage. Yet again, she gathered herself together, abandoned her notes, looked right at the audience and continued on until her time was up.

At which point, she promptly sat down and began to cry. Was she disappointed? Embarrassed? Humiliated? Who knows. But she was vulnerable. And she immediately experienced the benefits of that vulnerability. She enjoyed tremendous empathy and kindness on the part of her peers who provided pats, hugs, and verbal encouragement. She also earned the respect of everyone in the audience. Afterward (in private) she received a volume of very supportive feedback that far exceeded what other students received. She was the clear winner of the night, regardless of the nature of the bill and despite some delivery challenges.

This reminds me of some research I’d done years ago while developing customer service training. Apparently loyalty is greater when a customer experiences a well-recovered service failure than when service is simply delivered without a problem.

Imperfection is a part of life. The opportunity – and the gift – lies in responding to it authentically and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. These moments of vulnerability offer powerful opportunities for support, connection, and growth.

What about you? How has vulnerability served you?

Image: Liz Price