Vulnerability: Birthplace of Innovation, Creativity, and Change

More interesting than one might anticipate, two separate incidents this week left me thinking about research in a very different way.

The first happened as the result of watching a TED talk video by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She’s also the author of the bestselling book called Daring Greatly. If you haven’t watched her videos or read her books, know they are well worth the time.

However, it was one of her comments about how she approaches her research that resonated.

Brown explained that when people referred to her as a researcher, they also assumed she was boring and irrelevant. However, she realized that more than anything she was a storyteller, a qualitative researcher or, as she puts it, a researcher-storyteller because, after all, “Stories are just data with a soul.”

She also explained that as a young researcher she was taught that if you cannot measure it, it does not exist. It was that which drew her to the field of research because while many in her field of social work believed life is messy and it was important to lean into the discomfort of the work, she was more the kind of person who believed,  “Life’s messy, clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.”

Turns out that’s not always possible.

Brown shared her own vulnerability when she courageously revealed she’d had a breakdown or as she later framed it—a spiritual awakening—on her way to learning she had to stop the controlling and predicting which research had taught her, and instead, be vulnerable.

She also suggests that while people generally aren’t comfortable talking about vulnerability, it is in fact the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.

I witnessed some of that same vulnerability in another discussion this week when I joined academics and community partners from across the country who met to develop a proposal for an innovative major research initiative that would, if approved, lead to significant learnings about sustainability, planning, and citizen and community action.

It was especially impressive to hear participants demonstrate their own vulnerability. One professor openly admitted that he had been accused of not listening well. A community partner went on record as saying her municipality simply wasn’t doing a good job of planning and needed more knowledge, tools, and resources.

It could be that we’re on the cusp of a potential shift in terms of how we approach research.

More universities and colleges are exploring how engaging with their communities will help them navigate the complexities of change and respond to increasingly intense public interest. In doing so, post secondary institutions will be better positioned to demonstrate the impact of research, ensure relevant curriculum that prepares students for life beyond university, and be better able to mobilize knowledge to address community challenges.

Ultimately the collaboration between academics, community partners, and others will be messy, require vulnerability, and new approaches to research—including storytelling. Yet, it is this vulnerability and courage to admit we can’t figure it out on own that will result in our respective work being more impactful, inspirational, and innovative.

Posted on 10-07-12

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