“It’s Vulnerability, Stupid”
Vulnerability is my favorite quality.1
I struggle to be vulnerable. I’ll catch myself journaling as if my great-great-grandson is deriving the meaning of life from my words, writing in a way so as to appear “strong” and “clear-minded.”
Why is it that I struggle to write about my own flaws and shortcomings and frustrations in my own journal? Who am I being strong for? When I read my old posts, the most compelling entries are the ones where I’m most blunt.
It’s not just my journal entries. I find characters with massive character flaws more compelling. If Sherlock Holmes didn’t ignore Dr. Watson, the stories would be boring. If David Brent better understood the manager/employee dynamic, he wouldn’t be winking at the camera.2
Christopher Hitchens is my favorite essayist. Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer. Elon Musk is my favorite entrepreneur. These people are not saints.
When I think about why I like my best friends, it’s because they tell me stories about peeing the bed after late-night Tinder dates. And the most successful politicians - Trump, Boris, Bush over Gore, Clinton, Nixon, JFK - seem even more depraved than my friends.3
Boris goes so far as to ruffle his own hair, fall off his bike, get stuck in the sky, and forget his lines when he’s speaking at events.4 Even Obama, the great orator, got famous in 2004 when he emphasized how he was just “a lanky kid with a funny name.”
Paul Graham says these politicians have charisma. And they do. They have exceeding amounts of charisma. I haven’t heard a compelling reason as to why Graham is wrong about the more charismatic candidate always winning the election.5
But, what is charisma? Graham tries to answer that question in an entire essay. His conclusion is that in order to be charismatic, you have to genuinely like people.6 And I agree. But lots of people who like other people also lack charisma. I’m reminded of this every time I get seated on a plane next to Danny From Orlando Ready To Make A New Friend.
I think charisma requires being deeply flawed.
We aren’t drawn to the Buttigieg or Romney robots. We’re drawn to the people who make us smile despite everything burning around them.
I’m left thinking about three potential relationships between vulnerability and charisma:
Maybe being flawed is a prerequisite for being liked.
Maybe flaws force people to develop charisma in order to overcome their flaws, and sometimes this spills over. Like how people who have lost their eyesight can hear things the rest of us can’t.
Or, maybe charisma gives cover to flaws and lets them fester.
I define vulnerability in this context as being comfortable enough with your own character flaws to broadcast them publicly.↩
Ricky Gervais explains the difference in American and British humor: Brits root for the underdog.↩
I love you, this is not a criticism.↩
I particularly enjoy discussing this essay with Political Science majors. They always disagree.↩
Trump is an exception to Graham’s observation of charismatic people “genuinely liking people.” Trump does not seem to like anyone as much as he likes himself. All Presidents have had egos, but Clinton and Bush and Obama and others seem to have needed connection with other people, whereas Trump seems to merely need attention.↩