"Always state a strength as a weakness if you are asked about your weakness!" stated Shannon Iorio as she guided me through my mock interviews. "No one wants to hear about your weaknesses!" Shannon was my career mentor at Cornell University's business school, and she had just procured three investment banking job offers for me.
Incidentally, during my very first banking interview, my interviewer handed me a sheet of paper, which stated,
"Investment Banking is a business where thieves and pimps run freely on the corridors and the few good men die the death of a dog!"
In big, bold letters at the bottom it said, "THERE IS ALSO A NEGATIVE SIDE!" With a stern look, my interviewer asked me my first interview question, "Which one of the three are you?"
The message was written on the wall. I was walking into an environment where failure, weakness and honesty were treated as disease. The gravity of the challenge only became evident in the very first week of my new profession after I landed one of the offers Shannon had set up for me. The intensity of success-orientation, the sense of image consciousness, and the drive to be the best filled every nook and corner at work.
In that environment where every junior associate's performance is closely monitored and quickly labeled, I had my first major stumble. I was the only one in my class of 74 associates to fail my first major financial services examination -- the Series 7.
As I walked out of 100 Williams Street that evening, it was a sinking feeling. I waited until all my classmates had walked out -- not wanting to be with any of them. A deep sense of personal failure and the fear of being labeled as incompetent clouded my mind. I was extremely worried about losing the positive regard of my colleagues right at the start of new career.
I was thinking to myself, "I will just say I passed! No one will know anyways!" Determined to save my face at all cost and rationalizing it very well, I made the decision to "cook the books".
That evening, I spent time alone looking inside myself in a way that I never did before. There was an extreme uneasiness to sit and watch my feelings. For the first time, I encountered the fact that in my headlong rush to achieve, I had become a master at repression and a compulsive achievement machine.
I had so long invested in an image that I carefully preserved to convince others and myself about my capabilities. Behind an armor of achievements, I experienced the pain of my own vulnerability.
I realized that I lived in a culture that discouraged vulnerability. Vulnerability is usually associated with weakness -- something that I could be rejected or exploited for. In this culture, I have grossly and subtly ingested the notion that I should not have any weakness -- so much so that when I came in touch with my natural human limitations, it was painfully embarrassing. My idealized self-image was fractured. I realized that in the pursuit to keep the image alive I had invested in an image to gain positive acceptance from others.
As I entered the office the next morning, an excited bunch of associates and analysts were talking about the exam just next to my cubicle. One of the analysts, Matt Fiorello, asked, "How did it go, Ram?" I gathered all my courage and said that I failed. There was silence and I felt the pain run through every pore of my body.
Nobody knew what to say. A few consolations floated and the crowd dispersed. As I sat on my seat, I experienced a state of true grounding -- as if I had let go of a huge load. There was acceptance of my own vulnerability and a simple, lighthearted joy in that acceptance -- a relief that I did not have to live with an image.
Later that evening, Matt stopped by my desk. "I cannot believe you spoke the truth so easily", he said. "No excuses. I feel very inspired. Thank you for being so trustworthy". I was pleasantly surprised and grateful.
That evening, I experienced a deep sense of freedom. I realized how I had unconsciously become a prisoner of my own image. I realized that true personal development needs an honest and compassionate acknowledgment of our human limitations and a proper space to socialize them. We need to accept ourselves before others can accept us as we are. That acknowledgment can prove to be an invaluable guardian against the self-deception mechanisms of the ego.
Otherwise, we become desensitized to our authentic self and begin to package ourselves simply to attract favorable attention. "How do I come across?" becomes the name of the game. Even amongst "friends", it becomes difficult to take off the mask due to the fear of rejection.
The slick, smooth surface conceals the emotional neediness to be accepted as we are. In such a stifling environment, true personal development does not happen. We remain slaves of an image without grounding in who we truly are.
This very lesson is conveyed at the onset of the Bhagavad Gita, India's classic on yoga and spiritual wisdom, where prince Arjuna provides a remarkable example of vulnerability. Arjuna was a veteran of many battles and had never lost a single combat. His acts of prowess, courage and intelligence were world-famous. Yet, Arjuna faced a situation where he had to fight his own kinsmen.
His courage was tested and he broke down in front of his dear friend Krishna, expressing his distraught situation. In a matter of moments, Arjuna turned from a mighty warrior into a weakling, right in front of his opponents. In that exhibition of weakness, Arjuna exhibited great courage. It is that honest expression of weakness that set the stage for timeless wisdom to be spoken. Consequently, he received the strength and inspiration to confront his inner doubts and overcome them.
The same can happen in our lives if we take the courage to be vulnerable; when we learn to walk through the door of fear that has kept us prisoners to our idealized self-image. We can wake up to our authentic potential and experience the sense of freedom. It can also help us better understand and be compassionate to another's needs.