ArticleBest PracticesAugust 14, 2019
Turning 40: Vulnerability and Vanilla Ice Image

Turning 40: Vulnerability and Vanilla Ice

Two weeks ago on Friday night at 8:15 PM, I pulled into the parking lot at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Urgent Care near our house. After a few days of struggling with a bad cold, I finally went in to get checked out. By the time I reached the front desk, I could barely breathe my sentences out to check in.

And as the nurse read my vitals at 103 degrees and a racing heartbeat of 140, I said to myself “What am I going to do about my other Pulse?” The nurse didn’t appreciate the brilliance of my literary double entendre even during a time of duress.

I was referring to the fact that we had our huge annual Customer Success community conference starting in three days. And as the doctor gave me the bad news that I likely had pneumonia, the diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks: I was going to miss the best part of my job this year.

I spent the next three days at home on antibiotics, catching up on The Walking Dead from our sofa and feeling like the characters in the show. During brief moments of consciousness, I brought out my laptop to respond to Pulse attendee emails to help them in their conference planning (sorry for the typos, people!).

Much to my wife’s amusement, I incessantly checked my temperature every 10 minutes Saturday, looking for a sign that the drugs were working. For hours, no change… no change… no change. Then finally, 36 hours later, I woke up Sunday morning for the first time with a sub-100 degree temperature.

I was going to make it! I Motrin-ed up and made the all-important trip to Nordstrom's to buy my annual new wardrobe for Pulse.

Nick pulse 2017

And then Monday morning, I headed to the conference venue, the Oakland Marriott, to test my health fortunes.

I was really fired up for this Pulse in particular. It was our fifth annual conference and we had more than 4,000 people coming. Our nineties theme for the event was off the hook, including a Friends-themed Central Perk coffeehouse main stage. And while I still wasn’t more than 70% healthy by the Tuesday morning keynote, adrenaline floated me up to the stage.

life is too short

I was eager to try a new experiment this year. At our company kickoff a few months earlier, I had closed my internal keynote with an homage toward vulnerability. The talk moved many of our teammates and caused a huge surge in openness within our company.

I was going to take the leap to try the same concept with 4,000 of my closest acquaintances and total strangers.

To give you some context, I’ve always had a complex relationship with the business world. I love the passion, the creativity, and the drive in companies. But I struggle with the idea that we need to be different people at work—“businesslike,” “professional,” “act with gravitas”— than we are at home. It also kills me how cynical people are about their jobs.

why so cynical

So my vulnerability talk was all about trying to challenge that. My argument was that the business world creates a lot of hurt for people - one-sided business partnerships, insincere bosses and broken company promises. And to shield ourselves, we create a wall around our hearts at work.

heart piece

My experiment in the keynote close was to try to change that. I wanted to open up about myself and my own issues.

I talked about the fact that I carry the weight of having been very unpopular growing up—and still feel that way most of the time.

unpopular grown

I spoke about how I can’t remember ever eating lunch with anyone in school, and how I would sneak away to the computer lab to dine alone and look less weird; I remarked how that still creates paranoia for me today if I have to be by myself.

eating lunch lonely

I talked about how I get really lonely and depressed even when surrounded by so many.

lonelyness

I described how our young children at home bring me joy that could fill a thousand hearts. Yet every day, I visually imagine the day when they’ll be gone and grown up and I can’t comprehend how I will live another day of my life without them.

vacant banner

And I commented that despite the fact I was running a company that had grown a lot and attracted such a big audience, I wake up almost every single day feeling like a total failure.

failure banner

I told the audience that while the weight of those feelings is tough, unloading the baggage feels good. And I mused that I hoped that in this Customer Success community at this Pulse conference that we could all drop some of our own armor a bit, get more vulnerable, and find greater connections and meaning with each other in the process.

I closed with some passages from the poem that my dad had on his mirror in my childhood home, Desiderata.

As I walked off stage, before I heard any feedback at all, I felt great. I made it. I didn’t think I would even be there after Friday night. I was on a high. Perhaps it was the DayQuil, but I felt like I was playing with house money.

And as the positive comments streamed in, I was increasingly on cloud nine:

  • “Best keynote ever!”
  • “Thank you for sharing your vulnerability—I’m sure this wasn’t easy, but this was very powerful and important to help people realize that it’s OK to not be OK.”
  • “I especially enjoyed you reminding us to break down our walls and allowing us to be authentic and vulnerable.”

I lost track but there must have been at least 100 nice comments like that.

But that evening, as I walked back from a happy hour with one of our earliest employees, I heard the other side of the coin. “Nick, a few people felt uncomfortable with you talking about vulnerability.”

The comment hit me like a dagger. I was vulnerable and I failed—for some. I shared how unliked I was growing up and now I’m not liked again. Some people probably still don’t want to eat with me.

I abruptly left the happy hour, stumbled back to my hotel, ordered Door Dash Taco Bell (which is a thing, by the way) and cried/NyQuil-ed myself to sleep. The glamorous life of a CEO.

Over the next few days, two other employees would tell me the same thing about what they heard from a few others; in parallel, I received many more positive comments.

As in a lot of life, there was no tidy wrap-up or summary conclusion. It was and still is gray. I think a number of people liked the vulnerability concept—but not everyone. There was no narrator in my life to close out the movie to make it all make sense for me. Although, we did have Vanilla Ice do a surprise open of “Ice, Ice Baby” on Day Two…

bb selfie

I’m left still stuck on the first verse—stopping, collaborating, and listening—with no real answers.

Was it a good idea to get vulnerable? Or not?

Is it better to move some and disappoint some? Or more important to make everyone not unhappy?

Should I worry about this stuff at all?

It got me thinking about how many of us in customer-oriented professions deal with this all of the time. We ask for feedback. We measure NetPromoter Scores. And if we care, the negatives hurt. Every criticism—every unhappy customer, disappointed attendee, disconcerted person I meet—is me being a failure. Every time someone doesn’t like something about what I do, it feels like they don’t like me. Every NPS Detractor is a Nick Mehta Detractor.

Of course, I know that’s crazy.

But I also know the feeling of truly caring, while painful, is also powerful.

I feel like I sit on the precipice of two cliffs:

  • On one end lies of the world of trying, experimenting, failing, feeling, and learning. This world is super painful when it doesn’t work—or even if it doesn’t work for some. But it also provides everything that’s special and meaningful for me.
  • On the other end is the abyss of mediocrity. This is the world where I justify: “You can’t please them all.” “Forget them.” “Don’t worry about it.” This is the world where I try to do as little as possible that’s different.

And though the second world might be better for my sanity, I don’t ever want to dull the pain. I want to feel it all. I want to be destroyed and depressed by the criticism so I can fight through and realize even greater levels of understanding. I want to put myself out there even if it means I’ll sometimes be laughed at and made fun of.

Feeling lonely and sad and depressed and shameful is tiring sometimes. But not as tiring as carrying around someone else’s armor.

Or maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic and loopy because today’s my 40th birthday.

nick's Birthday

Desiderata said it better than I ever could.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Picture of Nick Mehta
Nick Mehta Chief Executive Officer at Gainsight Nick Mehta is Chief Executive Officer at Gainsight
10 Comments

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  1. Mark
    May 19th, 2017Reply

    I noticed the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Urgent Care locations on Google Maps.

    Palo Alto: Pediatric
    Mountain View: Adult
    Sunnyvale: Palliative

    Stay away from San Jose. It’s death.

  2. Jen Jackson
    May 19th, 2017Reply

    I think this is well written and thoughtful. I was in the room for your key note, I am in full support of the vulnerability and humanizing of you as a person and CEO. There will always be both sides, but I think that is what it is. I am grateful for your humility and my team was connecting with you and hearing you and I could not have asked for more. Thank you. This was my first year at Pulse, it will by no means be the last.

  3. Matthew
    May 19th, 2017Reply

    Once again, I want to stand up and cheer! Well said, Nick! Even while literally holding an award from Gainsight, all the self-doubts started to play, me wondering when you’ll all figure out that I don’t have any of it truly together. Here’s to life in the gray.

  4. K..Subramanian
    May 20th, 2017Reply

    Every one of us is visibly vulnerable and also has a protective shield to cover it – both are natural aspects of living. Also we expose our vulnerability to some who can understand and help and grow with the vulnerability as a strength. We shield it from others, especially those who need a comfort of support and strength and hence can not deal with the vulnerability of those they look up to for leadership. These two options are co-existent. Balancing these two options requires objectivity. It requires a strength to look beyond one’s own needs and into the needs of others – who are exposed to or shielded from our vulnerability. Such objectivity is the hall mark of any true leader. That is the leadership one expects from any CEO.

  5. Richard Harris
    May 21st, 2017Reply

    Nick great post. That’s the hard part about being vulnerable, it leaves you open to pain.

    I walk in your shoes on a regular basis and truly empathize. For me the feeling is like I am on the outside of the house looking through the window at everyone else having a good time. Even when I’m literally in the same room and talking directly with them.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I wish more folks in The Valley would come out from behind the curtain.

    And happy birthday!!

  6. Diane
    May 23rd, 2017Reply

    I love this post. I think that for some, the concept of vulnerability is very uncomfortable. People aren’t yet of a mindset that it is safe to be vulnerable, and so they judge it as a weakness. But, in life, we can’t expect ourselves to be super amazing life warriors 100% of the time, always on the offense and upswing. Life is hard, it beats us down, and so many factors contribute to our trials and tribulations. To expect a person to have it together 100% of the time, to never feel hurt, betrayed, scared, is completely unrealistic.

    I commend you for sharing your vulnerability – it was incredibly courageous and shows amazing emotional strength. Thank you.

  7. Anita Danford
    May 24th, 2017Reply

    Nick, I found your keynote so very inspiring. Thank you.

    We are ushering in a new era. A time where all of us need to …
    Boldly listen – to ALL customer comments, even those that hurt
    Bravely reflect – on what needs to be done better…and how can we start it tomorrow morning!
    Courageously act – take the risks required to implement new ideas
    AND be vulnerable – talk to our valued customer with new authenticity

    Your keynote that was bold, brave, courageous and vulnerable set the tone for what all Customer Success leaders need to be pondering. Awesome kickoff. Amazing 3 days. Thanks again. Anita

  8. Patrick Hansen
    Jun 6th, 2017Reply

    Nick –

    I attended Pulse solo this year. Two years ago I was there with more of the TrustRadius team. I’ll admit that I had a mixed personal response to the vulnerability message in your keynote initially. Maybe I saw a bit too much of myself in your stories. Awkward adolescent? Always knowing first-hand the fragility of my own success? That’s me! Run away!!!

    But then an interesting thing happened. Your words were a powerful way to open up conversations with others in the course of the conference. I made real connections – especially at meal times – that I might not have otherwise.

    I’ve struggled for a long time to feel ‘at home’ in the business world. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years working in or on behalf of the nonprofit sector, in part because I always want to be surrounded by people who are not only capable and professional, but also sincere and caring.

    The CS community you’re building brings a culture of competent caring to business relationships that finally feels like home to me. Thank you for being a leading voice in this movement.

    -patrick

  9. Jamie Wheeler
    Aug 1st, 2017Reply

    This blog makes me wish I had attended the event! Great article.

  10. Cindy D
    Oct 8th, 2018Reply

    Sounds like an honest and genuine speech. I’d be ecstatic to work for/with someone brave enough to change the cultural perception of what a strong CEO is supposed to sound like. I have struggled with having to be two people at home as a single mother of two amazing kids, and as a director in a federal agency surrounded by general officers and government execs who I know would never have sat with me at lunch growing up. When I started looking at them as people, and not superior, and became more honest at work and home with who I am, I professionally progressed much faster. Thank you for sharing your experience and best of luck!

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