On being a mess

Once I got really bad advice.

I was writing a talk on the story behind Sooth. The talk was going to be a call to arms, a challenge to the audience to ask friends and colleagues for honest advice. The idea was that people love to say things like “tell it to me straight,” “tell me the truth,” “be honest with me...” But the paradox I had found through testing a prototype that allowed people to get honest advice from friends, was that despite what people say, they make excuses and don’t want honest advice. I was so committed to the story, I even had an animated GIF of Taylor Swift saying “that’s what people saaaaay...”
It’s hard to be vulnerable, to admit we don’t have all the answers and ask for help. So often we hide our thoughts and feelings because we fear judgment or a loss of autonomy when someone tells us what to do. This is the ugly of soliciting honest advice that I would challenge the audience to overcome in order to reap the glorious benefits. And this was the first point of contention surrounding my bad advice from, we’ll call her Matilda:

“If you’re promoting getting advice, don’t say people don’t want to get advice. If you want someone to do something, talk about what a success it is and how easy it is.”

Bad advice part #1.   

The plan: my talk would begin with an anecdote of me feeling isolated, or "beached," as I like to say now, and would end with an anecdote in which a friend, we’ll call her Barbara, gave me advice filled with insight that let me transcend the isolation: to summarize, "Show your mess. Express uncertainty. Ask for help." My friend’s advice was analogous to my call to arms: "Admit to a lack of competence and ask for honest advice."

I loved admitting that I received this advice in the talk because it exposed my unknowing tendency to make it seem like I had my $h*+ together so I didn’t run up against some of the harsh psychology of honest advice. It demonstrated the same hypocrisy in me that I found in people who said they wanted honest advice, but ran from it when given the opportunity.

It also encapsulated my motivation to create a platform where people could evade the social media powers that be that make us want to give off the illusion of competence-- and for once, let the messy parts show. It was advice I benefited from, built a business on, and wanted to share with the audience.

As I reviewed my plan, I was stopped short. Again Matilda offered,

“Let me give you some professional advice. As a woman, never stand on stage and say you’re a mess. The audience hears that and starts to poke holes. They’ll start looking for signs of you being a mess and look to confirm them.”

Bad advice part #2.

But, I was telling a story about putting up an illusion of competence that had made me feel isolated. Was I living some strange biblical parable? The lesson I wanted to share was about vulnerability. In order to deliver that message effectively, I needed to let people know that I *am* a bit messy (yes that’s a little avocado stain on my dress and I’m pretty sure but not positive the other one is almond butter... I have four kids and run a startup. I want to do it all and I can’t quite pull it off)- and that it’s OK for them to do/be the same.

Matilda’s first piece of advice was basically “don’t admit to failure.” But to me, it wasn’t failure. It was me trying to tackle a difficult problem with a series of challenges, technological and psychological. I wanted to share that asking for honest advice is indeed difficult - not something I was going to sugarcoat. In fact, my first insight about honest advice that I only learned through building and testing a platform for it was exactly that-- how appealing it seems on the surface and how much vulnerability it surprisingly requires when you put fingers to keys and solicit advice. Admitting to failure(s) is important. Admitting that you’re enduring challenge is important too. It’s why we start breathing hard when we’re exercising- it signals information to the command center and lets the rest of our body regulate. Interpersonally, giving someone context for what you’re going through improves interaction quality.

Matilda’s second piece of advice was related, but slightly different. “Don’t admit to being a mess” is the insidious advice that makes adjusted, engaged, productive members of society feel like outsiders. It implies that by admitting you’re a mess, you aren’t confident. This is the message that makes us feel like imposters when we’re told to "Lean In." It’s what’s confusing about all the rhetoric about women in the workplace: is it OK to own our vulnerabilities and be confident in them or are vulnerabilities weaknesses - things to hide so we act more like men?  

From an evolutionary perspective, we (humans) are a cooperative species. Good advice should be valuable to others in a way that (David Buss would say) “lends to a more mutually beneficial cooperative alliance.” In other words, good advice is a form of altruism that should enhance cooperation. For women to succeed, we need to have an alliance. This alliance should be built on comfort in our vulnerabilities and advice that recognizes strength in vulnerabilities. As Brene Brown says, people who feel most fulfilled are those that are comfortably vulnerable.

This is what we celebrate in Sooth: good advice and comfort in vulnerability.