“The challenge with vulnerability is that we tend to see it as a weakness and not a strength. For many the word itself is pejorative. People don’t want to be vulnerable because vulnerability means you’re taking a huge risk. It can lead to great pain. The flip side of that is that the ultimate joys in life come courtesy of vulnerability. And it seems to me that the more vulnerable one is willing to be, the more courageously one is willing to act. The person who most opened me to the notion was Maya Angelou. She was willing to make herself vulnerable in her work, her witness and her writing. The great ones are willing to be vulnerable. Everyone is chasing success rather than greatness, and greatness is achieved by loving and serving others. I just don’t think that you can create any kind of masterpiece in life or love if you’re not willing to be vulnerable.”
—Smiley is an author and a talk show host. He currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS.
“Vulnerability exists in technology, in the environment, in human beings. It’s the state of being exposed, the possibility of being attacked or harmed either physically or emotionally. A system is vulnerable if it’s left some hole that can be manipulated that could threaten its security. A human feels vulnerable when opening up because that exposure could lead to being harmed. When a couple comes to therapy, much of the work is about helping them open up to one another—exposing the part of themselves that they struggle with sometimes, the part they might not always like. I don’t feel vulnerable when I open up the parts of me that I am certain about. Rather, I feel vulnerable exposing you to the uncertainty. But it’s essential to our relational life, our relationship with ourselves and to others and the world.”
—Perel is a psychotherapist and host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? Her new book, The State of Affairs, is out this month.
“The first association I had with vulnerability was from Latin class. The word vulnus means wound. We usually encountered it in The Aeneid and various epic poems dealing with actual battle and physical wounds. That’s one way to think about it. As the term has become popularized, it sort of involves a willingness to show where one is hurt or weak or soft. It’s gone from something that might connote weakness to a sort of secret strength—as though in showing where one can be hurt, one gains communication with another. Vulnerability is essential to fiction. In order to go deep in your writing you have to wade into territory that might feel shameful or embarrassing, a state of maximum vulnerability. The paradox is that being a writer also requires invulnerability in that you need to wall yourself off to judgment and criticism. So you have to be both hard and soft, and know when to be each of those things.”
—Eugenides is an author. His debut story collection, Fresh Complaint, is out this month.
“Vulnerability could be the word for our time. I think if you were to name this period it could easily be called the Vulnerability Era because there are people who are feeling vulnerable, insecure and fearful right now. For example, if you’re a Muslim in this country or many places around the world, you’re feeling vulnerable. Women are feeling vulnerable about the rights they have fought for with regards to health care. So when I think about vulnerability I think about larger issues of social unrest. But I don’t shut these feelings down—I’m open to them, and it becomes a source of inspiration for programs at the museum. I’m a big believer that our cultural institutions are places for us not only to come in and learn about our past but to question and hear one another’s stories, to be exposed to one another’s histories and beliefs.”
—Pasternak is the director of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
“Vulnerability is a very powerful emotion. Some may see it as a weakness, but I view it more positively—it’s essential for actor training, especially when you’re trying to tap into an emotion or private moment. I feel at my most vulnerable during the opening weekend of a film. That weekend dictates the life of a film. It determines whether people see your movie as a success or failure and how many weeks it’s in the theater. That’s tough because so much goes into each project. And, as far as criticism goes, there are so many new platforms that, for better or for worse, give everyone a voice. But I did my theater training in New York. There’s nothing that someone on Twitter, or some film critic, could tell me that I haven’t heard expressed 10 times tougher in New York. I always embrace the criticism. If there’s some truth to it, then it’s something I probably already know and I’m working on.”
—Teller is an actor. He stars in the film Thank You for Your Service, which is out this month.
“I never really set out to build a brand. I was thinking of doing something smaller for friends when a great retailer came to me and said, ‘I’d like to carry your collection in my store.’ That’s when the vulnerability took hold of me. I was being asked to dive in headfirst into something I really didn’t know much about. I wasn’t trained as a fashion designer. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology to study textiles, the family business. But I said, OK, I’m going to put myself out there, because vulnerability can open you up to further creativity and to experimentation and new ideas. In this business, you get rejected a hundred more times than you get accepted. So if you’re going to be vulnerable, you have to have coping mechanisms in place. But I’m very proud and happy that I took that initial risk.”
—Perry is a fashion designer. Her 10th-anniversary capsule collection will be released at Barneys New York this month.
More from WSJ. Magazine
John Lithgow, Jeanne Gang and More on Status Quo
September 7, 2017
Carine Roitfeld, Amanda De Cadenet and More on Persuasion
August 14, 2017
Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Olsen and More on Advice
July 25, 2017