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Me on ‘Vulnerability’ & that time I did this in front of a bunch of strangers

2:09pm. May 28th 2014. I just got home from a sleepover and seeing my physician, Dr. M for the first time pre-diagnosis since she sent me to Toronto General Emergency

How I’m feeling: Tired. Happy. Grateful. Still tingly happy from an incredible night last night with some of my favourite people and a fun sleepover. I’m getting a little anxious for the next few days. There is so much I want to do – and am hoping I can get through it. I’m trying to control that anxiety by reminding myself to focus on the right now. 

So, last night I was tasked with speaking to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs at the Start Something Big event about my story – this most recent chapter of my life. I decided to speak to the group about the strength and power of vulnerability as it relates to leadership, personal and professional development and life.

And well, yesterday I experienced a first! As experienced as I am speaking to and in front of really large crowds of people – this is what happened about 2 seconds in to my talk:


Yup. I had a little bit of a breakdown. I caused a scene. Although, now I’m a little jealous of Ron Burgundy‘s breakdown. It wasn’t nearly as epic as his – but I definitely was a blubbery mess. I couldn’t articulate much through my tears. I have no idea what came out of my mouth but if one of my goals was to inspire others to allow themselves to be vulnerable and brave – well, I guess I demonstrated exactly that with my tears – pure vulnerability and bravery.

Before the event, my mother had asked me if I had tissues with me for the tears and I replied with “Oh, I hadn’t planned on crying. I don’t think I will” and well – I did. “I’m a F%$#ing mess” I said to my friend Gerry Power who came out to see me and gave me a hug afterwards. I’m realizing that while so much has already happened, this is all still very fresh. I was diagnosed with the “Big C” only 2 months ago.

Late last night, as I was falling asleep I took the time to write out what I really wanted to say to the audience. I wanted to make sure that even despite my tears, nerves, sadness and frustration – that everyone who made the time to come out to Gwen’s incredible event walked away with a little piece of my story. I have no idea if anything close to the below came out of me last night. It was all a blur.

I’m a 28 year old busy-body. I’m an educator and technologist and have worked with a handful of organizations across various industries from small technology startups to Fortune 500 companies on product design, digital communications strategies and business process design. There was nothing I would ever let get in the way of me living my social, professionally busy, active life. I was a beast. A shark. A shark-beast?

But on March 19th, I got punched in the face really hard with some “out of no-where” news. I was diagnosed with cancer. And well, anyone who knows me pre-cancer – knows that my life has taken a COMPLETE turn.

Over the past two months I’ve been told that I may never wake up again, I’ve been told that I had this thing the size of an orange pressing up against heart, lungs and airway, I’ve been poked, prodded, biopsied and I’ve been told about the laundry list of side effects I may or may not experience.

Everything was happening TO me. My life was spinning. I felt a lack of control over anything and everything.

I’m not here to talk to you about cancer. I’m here to talk to you about something I’ve learned through my professional endeavours – and most recently (from this cancer) in my personal endeavours. I’m here to talk to you about something that has changed the way I lead, create, teach, learn, love and communicate.

And that’s being vulnerable.

Vulnerability is the feeling of uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure. It’s acknowledging to yourself that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, where things are going to go – and that you don’t have as much control as you thought you did.

As someone who has major control freak tendencies this cancer has been the ultimate lesson for me in the strength and power of vulnerability.

I’ve been able to demonstrate it in my professional endeavours and lead others through change with it, but I can honestly and proudly say that it wasn’t until this cancer business – where I started to understand how vulnerability plays a role in my complete self.

This cancer left me feeling helpless. It left me feeling like my body had failed me. Like every part of me had been a failure. And as if that wasn’t enough of a kick in the stomach – I’ve decided to make myself even MORE vulnerable to the world by publishing raw, sometimes ugly, in-the-moment thoughts on my blog about it.

We’ve all been kind of socialized to think that vulnerability demonstrates weakness.

It’s something that does not belong in the professional setting.

It’s something that makes us feel naked and exposed.

It’s something most of us feel uncomfortable with.

It’s something we’ve all been socialized to be scared of.

And yet, I can guarantee you that if you REALLY get to know some of those whom you consider extremely successful – you will hear tales of vulnerability.

How many of you have ever been scared to tell your boss or colleagues that you need help? How many of you have been so scared to tell someone that you love them? How about admitting that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing? What about admitting that you don’t have a plan?

I think that we deprive ourselves from being vulnerable because we fear the possibility of a disconnection. That disconnection from our teams, from our partners, our loved ones and from what we hope is possible. It’s a scary feeling. But really…vulnerability really is the greatest measure of courage. That’s what I believe at least.

From my experiences leading change and working with technical and creative teams – I can tell you that progression and breakthrough moments always had the backdrop of courage.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between innovation and vulnerability. In fact, to make space for innovation, we have to hold space for uncertainty.

I’m asked all the time “Carolyn, how do we innovate? How can we create something that has never been seen and done before?” And I can tell you that the moment when I can get a team to get over themselves and be vulnerable – is when I know there is going to be some sort of traction. I know it is an indication that we may actually solve innovation and creativity problems.

To the aspiring entrepreneurs out there – you can repeat what everyone else is doing – or just tweak what’s already out there – and well, that’s pretty damn comfortable. If you want to drive real change – the objective is never to be comfortable. The objective is to be courageous. And by doing so, you will work towards changing perspectives.

You are here today because you have acknowledged that you DO NOT know all of the answers.

You have an idea – but have no clue how to get started, how to validate it – there is something that you need in order for you to feel confident in moving forth.

Guess what? That means that you are demonstrating some level of vulnerability and I want to congratulate you for it. It’s the very first step towards massive growth and creating something. I’m not going to lie. I’ll be the first to tell you that it ain’t going to be easy, you may feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut and you’ll likely be in an emotional mess at times  – but I want you to know that life is much too short to not be vulnerable. You won’t regret it. I promise you.

While I was a blubbery mess, I’m so grateful Gwen asked me to speak at the event and I’m so glad I decided to do it. It was a chance to see some familiar faces (you know who you are – I wish I could’ve hugged you for even longer and tighter!), to meet some readers, to see my Project Owl friends, to inspire others and to support Gwen.

P.S. To cap off the event, Gwen made a touching announcement. Here it is.


The lovely Gwen Elliiot and I

Learn more about Start Something Big here.

2 replies »

  1. Carolyn – this is the most beautiful post. WE LOVE YOU!! Thank you so much for sharing your story so courageously and for saying YES to putting yourself out there in a big way. We can’t wait to send you to the spa!! (For 7 hours….it will be glorious :D)

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