Who amongst us has not had a problem with our looks at some point in our lives? My schools in both Nigeria and Italy were straight out of Student of the Year (or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, for all those growing up in the 90s). Good-looking teenagers roamed around in designer wear, and dances and proms were the centre of school life. I looked nothing like anyone in a Karan Johar movie — 15 kilos too heavy, crooked neck, in my mother’s tailored creations, wearing thick glasses with pink plastic frames and with braces adorning my teeth.
A few weeks after we moved from Delhi to Nigeria, our seventh grade history teacher asked me to read out loud a paragraph from a book to the entire class. I began reading as best I could, but I could see some of the kids smiling and, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why, since 18th century American history is rarely chuckle-worthy.
A few days later, I overheard some kids talking about me in the corridor and I figured out what they had found so funny. It was not what I was saying, but how I was saying it. My thick Indian accent was apparently hilarious, and it earned me the nickname ‘Apu’, after the character from The Simpsons, that perfect desi stereotype in the West: Bengali, an undocumented immigrant, stingy with money, a staunch vegetarian, and well-educated but working in a grocery store. I was Apu, and this was in the late 1990s, when it was perfectly normal for an American kid to ask me if being Indian meant you went to school on elephants. I hated how I sounded and I hated how I looked.
It wasn’t always like that. I was raised to be fearless by my parents, who insisted I take the toughest classes in school and sit on every scary roller coaster just to get rid of fear. ‘Ghabrana nahi chahiye. Don’t be scared,’ was something I heard a lot from my father. I had so much confidence as a child that my mother still jokes that in some of my photos I look like an officer out on inspection duty. …
Being a teenager changed all of this. I wondered why I had an Indian and not a British passport like my friends, why my father worked for the government instead of running his own business, and why we couldn’t afford to vacation in places others could. My mother taught in the same school that I attended. She is a tall, stunning woman. I hated when kids pointed out how ugly I looked in comparison to her. People who say Twitter trolls are tough have nothing on teenagers who want to be nasty.
Eventually, I lost the weight and my braces, but my insecurities continued pricking at me, mostly because of my neck issues. On the night of my wedding – held in an outdoor venue in January, when Delhi is freezing cold – I was standing on the stage, doing the smiling-bride-taking-pictures-with-random-people thing, when towards the end of the reception a family friend came up to me and said that even though I have an issue with my neck I should try to crank it up straight. Otherwise, her picture with me would look bad. That is not the only time I’ve faced such comments. Periodically, women at airport security checks ask why my neck is the way it is. ‘Kya problem hai, childhood ka hai?’ What is the problem? Have you had it since your childhood?
This stuff gets to you, no matter how strong or successful you are. It hits your self-confidence; it makes you self-conscious. Till I was about 30, it affected me so much that I hated seeing my pictures because I was convinced I was ugly.
All of us have these stories – it’s not just women. All of us have imperfections that we are embarrassed about. Unfortunately, we are constantly reminded about these so-called shortcomings and long after the voices pipe down the echoes stay in our heads. It could be a physical imperfection, a scar, a bald patch; it could be our height or weight. For many, it could be an accent, discomfort with speaking a language, or the background they come from. And, for some, it is a professional failure, a heartbreak, or an old mistake they’ve made. We all carry the baggage of imperfection – whether we are freshers at work or CEOs – and this baggage becomes heavier with time, even though we get used to carrying it around with a smile. In today’s world, when you are trolled if a hair is out of place, you start believing life must be what you see everyone else posting on Facebook and Instagram. Sharing your scars and speaking your truth is hard. After all, ‘Log kya kahenge? What will people say?
As mentioned earlier, in 2018 I attended a storytelling training that Captain Raghu hosted for leaders at Edelweiss. I was part of a powerful group of financial services leaders, strong and successful heads of businesses, who knew each other through common leadership meets, business victories and numbers. But when each of us had to deliver TED-style talks on that Sunday between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., there were no business strategies, budgets and quarterly plans discussed. There was just the sharing of stories – stories of struggles to escape the drudgery of a small town, stories of insecurities of not being from a famous B-school, stories of failed family businesses. There were tales of failure, loss, guilt, fear and redemption, and, as these stories unravelled, the atmosphere in the room changed.
Vulnerability built a connection among the leaders in a way spreadsheets never could have. The atmosphere in that room gave me the confidence to narrate my story, a story that I had never had the courage to tell anyone in its entirety or even share privately with my parents or Nalin. Once it was out there, I received tremendous affection from my colleagues, even those whom I only knew formally before the talk. That gave me the confidence to share the story on a public platform (in the video that became ‘The Girl with a Broken Neck’). That talk allowed me to finally let go of my baggage. I admitted my struggle with my neck and my complex about my looks, I talked about rejection and my attempt to jump off a building, and I talked about the insecurity of being a founder of a start-up and the lifestyle challenges I faced even with close friends. There were 500 people in the auditorium that day, but I was speaking, first and foremost, to myself.
Captain Raghu told me I would never imagine how far the talk would travel, and he was right – even though I didn’t believe him at first. I have received thousands of messages since it went live, and I still get them today, from men and women around the world, from colleagues of my father who are in their 80s, from friends of my younger brother, from former classmates in Nigeria and from people I don’t know. Thanks to these messages, I felt connected to hundreds of thousands of people I had never met, and more connected to my teams, distributors, clients and peer CEOs. Did these people connect with me because I am a CEO? No. They connected to a girl with a broken neck, a real person with flaws and imperfections, just like them and everyone else.
This single video showed me how powerful it is to slowly unpeel all your layers, reveal your flaws and vulnerabilities, and be your authentic self. It took me more than 30 years to realize it, even though the plots of countless movies have taught us the same thing….
I have noticed that by admitting to my imperfections and vulnerabilities my conversations with others have become more real. I have had interview candidates frequently open up to me in a first conversation about the deep challenges they have faced in their past organizations or the personal issues they have combatted. My employees have shared brutally honest, personal stories because they feel a connection. Even more surprisingly, after the video aired, I have received comments and posts about how the viewers trust me more in my capacity as a money manager, even though I didn’t speak a word about finance or mutual funds in it. As companies and individuals, we can produce reams of marketing about how trustworthy and reliable our brands are, but honest stories travel the distance advertising budgets cannot.
When I ask people what holds them back from talking about their vulnerabilities, the most common fear they voice is being judged or, worse, being taken advantage of. I do believe that while 5 per cent of the world will do what they have to, you will still find support from the majority….
The biggest benefit of accepting my vulnerabilities has been personal and internal. Confidence, when damaged, makes you insecure even when you are delivering your best. … Being able to tell myself and people around me that I am not perfect has helped me discover my self-confidence. From not being able to speak even when I have had the right answer, I can now laugh through a mistake while speaking on stage or even sing with my not-so-great voice on a webinar (if only to have Prahlad Kakkar tell me I have no sense of sur and laugh over it!). Much of what life gives us – who our parents are, where we are born, where we grew up, what we look like – are constants. They are fixed, like the value of pi. We have no control over them. Embracing vulnerability has helped me accept and celebrate these constants, rather than running away from them or fighting to change them.
Excerpted with permission from Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential, by Radhika Gupta, published by Hachette India.