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I was 23, straight out of college, when I came to Mumbai in 2001. I had come from a small town in Rajasthan with a population of under 2 lac, or 0.02 crore. Mumbai was 80 times more crowded, and I was scared.
I had just accepted a seat at an MBA college in this city, and my father had paid the fee. So, there was no looking back. Now when I think back about those times, it was quite possibly the most intimidating situation I had ever gotten myself into thus far.
But I did not want to be a quitter, so I stayed, struggled to get along with the city and its people, and still stayed.
In the first few weeks at college, I flunked more than half of my classes as I was too shy and scared to be out of my accommodation and onto the crowded roads and public transport and then into my class of ‘city’ students.
I never felt as vulnerable in my life as then.
By the way, the word vulnerable comes from early 17th century Latin ‘vulnerare’ that means ‘to wound.’ The word literally means being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
And so, 2001 was when I felt immensely vulnerable in my transition from a tiny city of known people to a megapolis of unknown people.
The second time I felt so, though not to such a large extent, was when I was in the final stages of my decision to quit my job in late 2010, despite not knowing where I would earn my bread from, and despite knowing that I had my second child on the way.
I may have become slightly more mature by 2011, and thus the images of vulnerability from 2001 are more vivid in my mind than of 2011.
However, over these years of meeting people and reading stories of those who have been through difficult times to come out safe and sound, and through my own experiences, I have changed my view on the idea of being vulnerable, of being willingly or unwillingly exposing oneself to an external threat, especially the emotional kinds.
And the key lesson I have learned here is the being vulnerable, being on the edges, exposing yourself to a big change isn’t such a bad thing after all. In fact, vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but may be our greatest measure of courage.
Take the case of a seed. What would happen if the seed constantly tries to save itself? The answer is that a new life would simply be impossible. The seed goes through the struggle of losing what it believes is its identity, becomes vulnerable, and ultimately grows into a beautiful leafy tree that is abundant in fruit and flower and shade.
This is also true of a caterpillar, which must first digest itself to become a beautiful butterfly.
Without that vulnerability, that voluntary openness to transform, life won’t sprout. Right?
Anyways, after the initial years of big and small struggles in Mumbai, and then after quitting my job, I have seen my life transform over years. The struggles, the vulnerability remains, but I see those as important building blocks in my journey of becoming a better human being.
Seventeen years ago, I believed vulnerability was a liability. Now it has moved to the asset side of my life’s balance sheet.
This very thought of being vulnerable reminds me of the small, beautiful, poem from Erin Hanson, that goes –
There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?
Getting a new job or getting fired from it, starting a new business or closing one down, getting into a relationship or getting out of one, starting out as a new investor or losing money in stocks, investing in the future of businesses despite knowing that the future is unknown…these are all points in our lives that bring us face to face with vulnerability.
Talking about investing specifically, I am reminded here of the Feb. 2016 memo from Howard Marks where he wrote this –
My buddy Sandy was an airline pilot. When asked to describe his job, he always answers, “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.”
He goes to explain how investing follows a similar pattern – hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Now, both these situations make us vulnerable. In the former, we are vulnerable to losing money. In the latter, we are vulnerable to missing opportunities.
But it’s upon us how we deal with such vulnerability. Do we buckle under the fear of the unknown or have the courage to face up to it? And if we decide to face up to our fears, all we must do is to play our parts well and let go of what we don’t control.
Nature will take its course then, and a few years later, we may be surprised at what we were able to achieve just because we allowed ourself to be vulnerable.