The power of vulnerability in the professional world 

Everyone suffers from confidence issues at some point in their lives – a feeling of being different or not good enough. But what would it be like if, every day, you had to face people’s judgements and preconceptions because of something entirely out of your control?

Stephen Kakouris, a Member of Ivy House, was born with a mild motor disability that affected the way he talks and walks. Here, he shares what he has learnt about facing these differences and the ongoing process of using them to develop real inner confidence.

Stage one – own my difference

I was born with a mild motor disability that affected the way I talk and walk, and I have worse handwriting than a 6-year-old (in fact I’m pretty sure that my handwriting was better when I was 6!).

Being “different” was a massive point of struggle when I was young. I remember frequently wishing that I was like everyone else. It felt unfair but I pushed myself to overcome my challenges – doing speech therapy, physiotherapy, and whatever else it took.

At 16 I realised that my greatest “challenge” was my attitude. I was fed up with feeling insecure, sensitive and resentful about things that were out of my control. I realised I had a choice to make:

Feel sorry for myself because I am “different” and life is not fair.
Accept that this difference is out of my control and not let it negatively affect my life. Start to embrace it and live my life to the fullest.

The option was abundantly clear. And the amazing thing is that, once I had accepted it, I began to stop feeling so insecure. Like Marilyn Monroe’s mole, what made me different became a beauty mark. I started to live this decision and, as I did, I began doing things that exceeded my wildest dreams.

My last year of high school, I won Most Valuable Player for my school soccer team (big deal for the kid always picked last). I was chosen to travel to a conference in Qatar where I gave a speech in front of 2000 people (another big deal for a guy with a speech impediment!). To put myself through university I became a bartender in cocktail bars. Despite having shaky hands and “a funny accent”, my ability to make people comfortable was a real gift, and brought amazing opportunities. One such connection with a gentleman in the oil industry led me to leave the US and head to London where i pursued an energy related Masters Degree.

I made a habit of embracing my vulnerability. If there was something that made me feel uncomfortable, that was the place I had to bring myself to grow. My differences became my biggest teacher. I learnt how to deeply read and understand people, and how to connect with them in a meaningful way. I also learnt what it took to feel comfortable in my own skin. Embracing my vulnerability, I shed my insecurities and replaced them with self-confidence.

Stage two – Face the elephant in the room

I would forget that I was any different 99% of the time – I did not allow it to prevent me from doing anything. My mentality was, “This is how I am. I will exceed your expectations. If you have a problem with it then it is your problem, not my problem.”

With a Masters under my belt, confident of my prospects, I was ready to approach the job market. All good, until one evening a mentor asked, “So how do you address your difference in the context of a job interview?”.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so sure. I had confidence in my abilities but that didn’t mean that other people’s judgements and preconceptions had disappeared. I believed that if I could create a positive lasting impression, I could defuse earlier preconceptions. But in an interview, what was the solution to addressing the inevitable questions an interviewer could have? If I spoke slowly would they think I thought slowly? If I walked differently would they think I wasn’t up to the job? The thought of entering an interview with a disclaimer, “I may be slightly different but it does not have any impact on my performance…” was terrifying!

I began to question myself. Maybe I wasn’t as comfortable as I thought. Perhaps I had reached the limits of my capacity to be vulnerable.

Stage 3 – How to address other people’s preconceptions and judgements?

I was left with this challenging question but I was determined to find the answer. Earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to participate in The Edge, an Ivy House masterclass for young professionals designed to develop personal and professional impact.

This was a chance for me to grow and overcome my own preconceptions. I pushed myself to understand how others perceive me. I asked my peers for their honest first impressions, I asked the coaches for feedback and, at the end, I stood up in front of 60 strangers and told them why my difference is my superpower.

My willingness to name the elephant in the room, to listen to other people’s experiences of me, and to be vulnerable and open resonated strongly. Instead of judgment, I felt an overwhelming respect. People listened! The journey to understand my differences and overcome my own attitudes and beliefs had once again become my teacher as I learnt what it takes to really connect with others.

If you’re facing similar challenges, my advice is to meet them head on. Don’t shy away from your vulnerability – it is an opportunity for profound growth.

And as for the job interviews, I’m ready and I know what I have to say. “I have a mild motor disability and it has made me a stronger and more competent person. This is why…”

By Stephen Kakouris - Ivy House Founding Member
16th December 2017

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