Turning 40: Vulnerability and Vanilla Ice
Two weeks ago on Friday night at 8:15 PM, I pulled into the parking lot at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Urgent Care near our house. After a few days of struggling with a bad cold, I finally went in to get checked out. By the time I reached the front desk, I could barely breathe my sentences out to check in.
And as the nurse read my vitals at 103 degrees and a racing heartbeat of 140, I said to myself “What am I going to do about my other Pulse?” The nurse didn’t appreciate the brilliance of my literary double entendre even during a time of duress.
I was referring to the fact that we had our huge annual Customer Success community conference starting in three days. And as the doctor gave me the bad news that I likely had pneumonia, the diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks: I was going to miss the best part of my job this year.
I spent the next three days at home on antibiotics, catching up on The Walking Dead from our sofa and feeling like the characters in the show. During brief moments of consciousness, I brought out my laptop to respond to Pulse attendee emails to help them in their conference planning (sorry for the typos, people!).
Much to my wife’s amusement, I incessantly checked my temperature every 10 minutes Saturday, looking for a sign that the drugs were working. For hours, no change… no change… no change. Then finally, 36 hours later, I woke up Sunday morning for the first time with a sub-100 degree temperature.
I was going to make it! I Motrin-ed up and made the all-important trip to Nordstrom’s to buy my annual new wardrobe for Pulse.
And then Monday morning, I headed to the conference venue, the Oakland Marriott, to test my health fortunes.
I was really fired up for this Pulse in particular. It was our fifth annual conference and we had more than 4,000 people coming. Our nineties theme for the event was off the hook, including a Friends-themed Central Perk coffeehouse main stage. And while I still wasn’t more than 70% healthy by the Tuesday morning keynote, adrenaline floated me up to the stage.
I was eager to try a new experiment this year. At our company kickoff a few months earlier, I had closed my internal keynote with an homage toward vulnerability. The talk moved many of our teammates and caused a huge surge in openness within our company.
I was going to take the leap to try the same concept with 4,000 of my closest acquaintances and total strangers.
To give you some context, I’ve always had a complex relationship with the business world. I love the passion, the creativity, and the drive in companies. But I struggle with the idea that we need to be different people at work—“businesslike,” “professional,” “act with gravitas”— than we are at home. It also kills me how cynical people are about their jobs.
So my vulnerability talk was all about trying to challenge that. My argument was that the business world creates a lot of hurt for people – one-sided business partnerships, insincere bosses and broken company promises. And to shield ourselves, we create a wall around our hearts at work.
My experiment in the keynote close was to try to change that. I wanted to open up about myself and my own issues.
I talked about the fact that I carry the weight of having been very unpopular growing up—and still feel that way most of the time.
I spoke about how I can’t remember ever eating lunch with anyone in school, and how I would sneak away to the computer lab to dine alone and look less weird; I remarked how that still creates paranoia for me today if I have to be by myself.
I talked about how I get really lonely and depressed even when surrounded by so many.
I described how our young children at home bring me joy that could fill a thousand hearts. Yet every day, I visually imagine the day when they’ll be gone and grown up and I can’t comprehend how I will live another day of my life without them.
And I commented that despite the fact I was running a company that had grown a lot and attracted such a big audience, I wake up almost every single day feeling like a total failure.
I told the audience that while the weight of those feelings is tough, unloading the baggage feels good. And I mused that I hoped that in this Customer Success community at this Pulse conference that we could all drop some of our own armor a bit, get more vulnerable, and find greater connections and meaning with each other in the process.
I closed with some passages from the poem that my dad had on his mirror in my childhood home, Desiderata.
As I walked off stage, before I heard any feedback at all, I felt great. I made it. I didn’t think I would even be there after Friday night. I was on a high. Perhaps it was the DayQuil, but I felt like I was playing with house money.
And as the positive comments streamed in, I was increasingly on cloud nine:
- “Best keynote ever!”
- “Thank you for sharing your vulnerability—I’m sure this wasn’t easy, but this was very powerful and important to help people realize that it’s OK to not be OK.”
- “I especially enjoyed you reminding us to break down our walls and allowing us to be authentic and vulnerable.”
I lost track but there must have been at least 100 nice comments like that.
But that evening, as I walked back from a happy hour with one of our earliest employees, I heard the other side of the coin. “Nick, a few people felt uncomfortable with you talking about vulnerability.”
The comment hit me like a dagger. I was vulnerable and I failed—for some. I shared how unliked I was growing up and now I’m not liked again. Some people probably still don’t want to eat with me.
I abruptly left the happy hour, stumbled back to my hotel, ordered Door Dash Taco Bell (which is a thing, by the way) and cried/NyQuil-ed myself to sleep. The glamorous life of a CEO.
Over the next few days, two other employees would tell me the same thing about what they heard from a few others; in parallel, I received many more positive comments.
As in a lot of life, there was no tidy wrap-up or summary conclusion. It was and still is gray. I think a number of people liked the vulnerability concept—but not everyone. There was no narrator in my life to close out the movie to make it all make sense for me. Although, we did have Vanilla Ice do a surprise open of “Ice, Ice Baby” on Day Two…
I’m left still stuck on the first verse—stopping, collaborating, and listening—with no real answers.
Was it a good idea to get vulnerable? Or not?
Is it better to move some and disappoint some? Or more important to make everyone not unhappy?
Should I worry about this stuff at all?
It got me thinking about how many of us in customer-oriented professions deal with this all of the time. We ask for feedback. We measure NetPromoter Scores. And if we care, the negatives hurt. Every criticism—every unhappy customer, disappointed attendee, disconcerted person I meet—is me being a failure. Every time someone doesn’t like something about what I do, it feels like they don’t like me. Every NPS Detractor is a Nick Mehta Detractor.
Of course, I know that’s crazy.
But I also know the feeling of truly caring, while painful, is also powerful.
I feel like I sit on the precipice of two cliffs:
- On one end lies of the world of trying, experimenting, failing, feeling, and learning. This world is super painful when it doesn’t work—or even if it doesn’t work for some. But it also provides everything that’s special and meaningful for me.
- On the other end is the abyss of mediocrity. This is the world where I justify: “You can’t please them all.” “Forget them.” “Don’t worry about it.” This is the world where I try to do as little as possible that’s different.
And though the second world might be better for my sanity, I don’t ever want to dull the pain. I want to feel it all. I want to be destroyed and depressed by the criticism so I can fight through and realize even greater levels of understanding. I want to put myself out there even if it means I’ll sometimes be laughed at and made fun of.
Feeling lonely and sad and depressed and shameful is tiring sometimes. But not as tiring as carrying around someone else’s armor.
Or maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic and loopy because today’s my 40th birthday.
Desiderata said it better than I ever could.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.