EP 67: Emotional Labor, Social Capital, and #vulnerability with Tara McMullin

Uncategorized Dec 09, 2022


We all connect with the power of vulnerability in ourselves and in others. 

And vulnerability continues to be misunderstood and misappropriated in marketing businesses and services, political campaigns, legislative agendas, and leadership, to name a few. 

These days, discerning between true vulnerability and what today’s guest calls #vulnerability can become a real challenge.

When vulnerability is used with an agenda to acquire more community, brand awareness, or social capital, this agenda moves us away from the heart of this courageous state. 

Vulnerability is complicated because it RARELY feels good. But what leads us to vulnerability often is good, because it means we are following our integrity even when there’s a lot to lose. 

Many of us struggle with vulnerability because we struggle with knowing ourselves. All too often, we know more about who we think we should be, than who we really are.

This becomes extra challenging when the expectation to “just be vulnerable” as a tool to lead and to sell continues to increase. 

But if we do not have our own clarity of values, clarity of our identity, then vulnerability turns into a commodity to use.

#vulnerability is so attractive–even seductive–because it draws us in with stories and experiences that evoke emotion. And it usually draws the likes, follows, shares that so many covet. 

And today’s guest digs deep with me #hashtag vulnerability today.

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who's been making business make sense for small business owners for over 12 years. She's the host of What Works, a podcast about entrepreneurship for humans that's been downloaded over 4 million times. She's also the co-founder of Yellow House Media. Her new book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal Setting, was released in November 2022.



Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How economic uncertainty plays into the way we leverage vulnerability for social capital
  • How social media algorithms take advantage of vulnerability and heightened emotions to keep us scrolling
  • How privilege, marginalization and risk intersect with vulnerability online
  • The difference between self-disclosure and true vulnerability
  • How both performative confidence and performative vulnerability can lead to self-alienation
  • Why we need to account for emotional labor and capacity when we’re considering our resources


Learn more about Tara McMullin:


Learn more about Rebecca:



Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:

Tara McMullin: When we’re looking at moving people, when we’re looking at creating things that are transformative, there is vulnerability in that. If you're offering a story, offering an experience, offering part of your identity, then yes, you need to check yourself and say, “Am I taking a risk here? Is what I’m sharing valuable in the way that I’m sharing it?”

[Inspirational Intro Music]

Rebecca Ching: The last couple of years helped me discover one of my love languages, and that’s live music, particularly in outdoor venues. Thank you very much, San Diego. Something happens when I’m at a concert, right? Those parts of me that shut down risk and are cautioning against emotional exposure, they go away, and I lose myself in the music. I dance in ways that would probably make my kids cringe with horror. I scream and hoot and holler with joy and abandon. I’m not worried about being misunderstood. I’m not worried about my safety. And, yes, I do this sober which may be a surprise to those watching me, and I’m struck how my sense of self-consciousness relaxes and my protectors (the parts that are always analyzing and trying to keep me safe) give me a little space. I feel aligned to what matters most, and I feel deeply inspired with perspective and presence days after the concert.

I’m also struck by how the glow of this experience fades and those parts of me that want to shut down risk and uncertainty and emotional exposure. They creep back in, overthinking and doubting, and I look around and see how hard all of our inner risk assessors work to keep us safe, especially right now.

Now, like you, I hear and read the #encouragements to “speak my truth” and “be brave with my work and life” and while I value the sentiments behind these encouragements and even say them myself, I also think, “Yeah, right. No thank you,” to more risk and exposure in a world that feels primed and ready to critique and attack on repeat.


I also know living in fear of criticism or being misunderstood keeps us small and stuck and stagnant, but the overt push to #bevulnerable as a tool in business and life calls for pause and it calls for some discernment.

I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.

We all connect with the power of vulnerability in ourselves and in others, and [Laughs] vulnerability continues to be misunderstood and misappropriated, especially in marketing business and services or political campaigns and legislative agendas and leadership, just to name a few. And when I see vulnerability used with an agenda to acquire more community or brand awareness or social capital, this agenda moves us away from the heart of this courageous state which is why I want to take a nuanced and deeper dive into vulnerability. [Laughs] These days, discerning between true vulnerability and what today’s guest calls #vulnerability can become a real challenge.

Okay, so what is true vulnerability? Now, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure (all things that trigger danger to our nervous system), and we all experience vulnerability unless you're a sociopath or a zombie, so, if we care and love, we’re vulnerable. And just about every time vulnerability shows up, our minds and bodies kick into gear to shut it down because the experience brings on intense discomfort.


It’s important to note that rarely being in a state of vulnerability is pleasant, and if you can hang in there and move through it, true vulnerability acts as a bridge, a precarious one at times, to so much of what we desire, like love, belonging, creativity, faith, connection, and innovation.

Vulnerability’s complicated because it rarely feels good, but what leads to the experience of vulnerability is usually good because we’re following our integrity even when there is a lot to lose. Vulnerability becomes a powerful measure for our capacity for discomfort because it feels like, well, truth. Often, your heart races and your palms sweat, and your brain frantically plans escape routes while second-guessing your choices. Vulnerability can sneak up on us, and it can also be a choice. I believe so many people struggle with vulnerability because they struggle with knowing themselves, and over the last two decades, my clients have taught me they know more who they should be than who they really are which lies hidden under these protective masks and inner risk-assessors that know how to perform and please and shape-shift. This becomes extra challenging when the expectation to just be vulnerable as a tool to lead and to sell continues to increase.

And so, this is where #vulnerability often shows up. #vulnerability involves more calculation and an agenda that uses the gifts of connection vulnerability offers for a specific goal or motive. It understands the power it evokes, and many expect it to be something that it’s used to evoke a specific outcome or a response, but if we don't have our own clarity of values or clarity of our identity, then the vulnerability expected turns into a commodity to use.


Now, okay, so, if someone claims vulnerability and shows up all chill or excited like, “I was sooo vulnerable. That was awesome,” I know what just happened was not vulnerability but something else, and I also know if someone shares something with me, deeply personal or explicit, without permission or honoring my boundaries and asking for consent, the share moves away from vulnerability into feeling exploitative and manipulative. So, vulnerability ceases to be present when there’s an entitlement to someone’s emotions, and that becomes the focus, over connection.

The expectation of #vulnerability looks and feels a lot like the emotional exposure component of Brené Brown’s definition of vulnerability but lacks the presence of real risk and uncertainty. #vulnerability doesn't take into account the real risks for additional emotional exposure for anyone in marginalized groups or identities, missing the fact that vulnerability is a luxury for many when it’s expected as a leadership tool. Without cultivating safety, trust, and community, it could do great harm and only further burden people

#vulnerability is also so attractive, even seductive, because it draws us in with stories and experiences that evoke emotion that we feel connected to, and it usually draws the likes and the follows and the shares that so many covet, and #vulnerability becomes less about strength and courage and more exploitive and manipulative. #vulnerability creates a false sense of connection and community and puts the pressure to keep up the emotional exposure at the expense of the connection true vulnerability creates.


I’m concerned about the pressure to be vulnerable because the power it evokes has become, again, coveted by some almost on demand, even though our personal histories are not taken into account with this expectation, and I see many in this vice grip of the pressure to be vulnerable and the pressure to mitigate personal risk so they can meet the expectations of culture at work or the online space and so on. Yet, we’ve become very skilled at masking our risks and have developed a higher and higher tolerance for emotional exposure which shuts down our capacity for true vulnerability.

Leaders need a more nuanced understanding of vulnerability so they can understand and catch #vulnerability and so they don't fall into the trap of using that and being used by #vulnerability. Our capacity for our tolerance of risk, one of the core tenants of vulnerability, connects to our life experiences, betrayals, personality, temperament, and season of life, and if you want to increase your capacity for true vulnerability, you'll need to up your capacity for this risk, uncertainty, and non-engineered emotional exposure. This requires ongoing work because whenever you do something new, the default to protect or settle for #vulnerability will show up, and I believe leaders, when we learn how to better recognize when #vulnerability shows up, we can push back on its use and the harm done. Today’s guest digs deep with me into #vulnerability today.

Tara McMullin is a writer/podcast producer who’s been making business make sense for small business owners for over 12 years. She’s the host of What Works, a podcast about entrepreneurship for humans that's been downloaded over four million times. She’s also the cofounder of Yellow House, and her new book What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change The Way We Approach Goal Setting just dropped November 2022, and it is such an important book.


I bought it for all my clients and many colleagues. It is a thoughtful and essential read, so I hope you check it out.

In our conversation today, listen for the connections Tara makes with vulnerability as social capital. Pay attention to when Tara identifies the role of risk and how #vulnerability often leaves risk out. And notice when Tara discusses the emotional labor involved with vulnerability, especially when it’s expected in the spaces we work and lead. All right, now, please welcome Tara McMullin to The Unburdened Leader podcast.

Welcome, Tara. 

Tara McMullin: Well, thanks so much for having me, Rebecca! I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to be talking about this topic.

Rebecca Ching: Me too. It’s a real honor for me, I have to say, and I’m really excited for this conversation and to see where it goes as we dig into vulnerability and its intersection with business and work and all of the things. I’d love to start off by you walking me through your thought process on how vulnerability has become a form of capital --

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- and how this approach to vulnerability has created new norms and expectations around what we disclose and what’s deemed sensitive and personal.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, so, there are a few different threads that I want to pull on how vulnerability or #vulnerability has become a form of capital in the 21st century economy. I think the first is just to acknowledge that individual people are less empowered, economically speaking, today than they were 20 years ago, 40 years ago. There are fewer ways to either amass the wealth and stability necessary to break into the middle class or fewer ways to stay in the middle class as well.


So, there’s that piece. We have less access to ways of generating wealth, ways of generating capital, ways of just surviving in our economic system than our parents had, for instance.

So, what that means, then, is that we’ve learned how to leverage other things as forms of capital in a way that, then, can help stabilize us, right? So, one of those things, today, is social capital. Now, social capital has been a thing for as long as we have known how to use resources to our advantage, right, which is forever. And so, social capital really is the practice of understanding how relationships can help us secure what we need to live, right? So, I have a relationship with you. You have a relationship with me. If you need a favor, I’m there to offer that. You’re there to reciprocate when that time is necessary, and social capital today extends way out from the local community into the global interwebs, right? So, social capital is just all around us now.

Different people are good at amassing more social capital and using the systems that we have to sort of -- I don't want to say hoard social capital because I don't think anyone is hoarding it but having access to social capital. Different people are really good at accessing it in different ways and using it to their advantage. That’s a real leg up in today’s economy in terms of creating a feeling of stability, creating actual wealth, creating all sorts of needs-meeting processes, right?


We see this even with things like GoFundMe or Kickstarter where people can put these campaigns together and ask friends for help in launching a business or paying medical bills or the list goes on and on and gets sadder and sadder, right? So, that’s one way that social capital is being used, and that’s one way that vulnerability kind of can create that particular form of capital because vulnerability, at its core, is a way of relating to others, connecting to others, right? It helps create trust relationships between people. It deepens relationships, creates more intimate relationships, and that’s a way of banking social capital. So, that’s one thread.

The other thread that I think is really important dovetails with that which is the rise of platform capitalism and social media, right? So, social media algorithms are designed to keep people on particular platforms. Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook. Instagram wants you to stay on Instagram. LinkedIn wants you to stay on LinkedIn, and so, the way that a post is received determines whether that helps the person viewing it stay on longer. We know that posts that elicit certain emotions (certain kinds of high-activation emotions) get more engagement which means people stay on longer which means social media companies have more ad inventory to sell, etcetera, etcetera. And so, what we’ve learned how to do is create posts that generate those high-activation emotions. And so, we see this with rage, right? We know rage is a big driver of engagement on social media.


Rebecca Ching: Totally.

Tara McMullin: But it happens with other emotions as well, and so, that deep feeling of empathy for that outpouring of support when someone fesses up to something or discloses a particular part of their identity on social media is a driver of engagement which is a driver of visibility which is a way to grow an audience, right? And so, all of these things benefit, not only the social media platforms, but then benefit the brand as well. So, now, we’re taking what was sort of a relationship-based social capital and we’re turning it into an algorithm-based social capital and building personal brands on that foundation.

So, those are the two main threads that I think about when I think about vulnerability or #vulnerability as capital. 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, gosh. My brain’s going a few different places, but just thinking about how there’s this #vulnerability but I guess maybe I even want to dial it back to there’s this sense of I want to create something so I can get the engagement (the likes, the follows, the purchases). So I’m going to calculate a story and share something, and that feels different than vulnerability and what I’ve been taught about what vulnerability is. And the other piece I’ve learned about vulnerability over the years is that people love to see others do it, but they don't like to do it themselves. You know, Brené Brown talks about it’s the first thing that we want to see in others and the last thing that we want to show in ourselves, and I feel like what you're talking about is this almost reinforcing. We kind of can jones off of other people’s shares, but we’re not necessarily really sharing unless it’s a more calculated share. I don't know what that brings up for you.


Tara McMullin: Yeah, I mean, I do think that there are people that are making those very calculated decisions about what they disclose and how they disclose it on social media to build an audience and to garner support.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.

Tara McMullin: But I think the vast majority of people who are engaging in forms of self-disclosure that have only been normalized in the last five to ten years are doing so in good faith, right? They're doing so because there is a feeling of solidarity from it, right? We get personal things from it, too. It’s not just about gaming the algorithm.

I think one of the things about vulnerability kind of broadly defined is that it involves risk, and what I’ve really been interested in is where risk exists on social media and where it does not, and for whom it exists for and for whom it does not, right? So, what we see is a lot of white women with college educations who fit all of the standard American beauty and body standards. So, they have a very high level of privilege. They can appear vulnerable online because that vulnerability has very low risk to them. They can share all sorts of things that we would have never shared ten years ago, but it’s not actually risky, right? There is no risk involved. Sure, you might get some unfollows. You might even get some nasty comments, but the benefit outweighs the risk.

Rebecca Ching: Oh, sure


Tara McMullin: Again, that benefit is both social capital and just the personal response of having people support you which is a wonderful thing that we don't have enough of in daily life, right? But then, on the flipside of that, for less privileged people, for more marginalized identities, there’s a greater level of risk in sharing vulnerability as well.

And so, I think maybe part of what you're getting at with we enjoy seeing other people share in that way, we enjoy seeing other people self-disclose in that way, but we are less likely to do it ourselves is that one component of risk is visibility and size of audience, right? So, if I already have 20,000 or 50,000 followers on Instagram, if I lose a couple hundred when I share something that is legitimately vulnerable, it doesn't matter because there’s still 49,800 people who are here for it and supporting me, whereas someone who’s just getting started on social media building an audience is going to be less likely to self-disclose in that way because there is more risk involved. You know, if a couple hundred people unfollow you and you only have a couple hundred followers, that’s a problem.

So, I think the risk dynamic there is an important one to unpack around an individual’s ability to share.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and I think it can go both ways, too, ‘cause I’m thinking there are some other folks that build brands around TMI 24/7, too.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And they're like, “This is just me. This is my brand. I’m not holding back. I’m gonna share it all, and your consent is by you following me.”

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Or signing up.


Tara McMullin: Yeah, I think those people, by and large, are almost always early movers on a platform, and then as a platform matures it is harder to create an audience with that, right? So, we see the early vloggers being very transparent and building audiences that way, but people building YouTube channels now are largely building them around a particular premise that is not, “I will tell you everything about my life every day,” right? Same thing on Instagram. Same thing on TikTok. Very, very quickly, I think, especially if a new platform starts to rise to the top today, the user base matures so quickly that you really have to be in that first wave of people signing up if the main thing you have to offer is just TMI. [Laughs] 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, so, I guess, for me, as you know and anyone who’s followed me for a while knows that I’m deeply immersed in Brené Brown’s research. I’ve been working with her and her team for over a decade now, and defining vulnerability as risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure, they’re a trifecta, and without risk, it’s no longer vulnerability. So, what is it? What is it, then? Is that the #vulnerability that you're kind of referencing?

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I like calling it #vulnerability, performative vulnerability. A friend on Twitter was just saying it’s self-disclosure. It’s just saying things that are true about you but without that risk component. It really isn't vulnerability. There’s no intimacy being built there.  

Rebecca Ching: I think that’s the key. There isn't real intimacy there or relationship building there. It’s more transactional. I think that’s a really interesting point. Are we really building relationships? Are we really pushing forward some thought leadership or is this a transactional thing I perform, and you respond?


I don't know. There’s something there about the relationship that I think is important. 

Tara McMullin: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s a lot of research on the parasociality of the relationships that we build online with the people that we follow, right?

Rebecca Ching: Yeah. Yeah.

Tara McMullin: And so, a parasocial relationship is, by definition, not an intimate relationship, right? There can't be intimacy between 1 person and 50,000 people, right? You may feel like you know me. You may feel like you get me, that you know all of these inner workings of my life, but you don't unless you have met me in person and spent a lot of time with me. Really, there are very few people in my life that know me that way, yet, if I go to a conference, there’s gonna be a line of people waiting to talk to me about all sorts of different things that may or may not have anything to do with podcasting or business or goal setting, right? They’ll say, “I feel like I know you!” And I’ve never seen their name. I’ve never seen their photo before. That’s not intimacy. They may feel like they know me. They may feel like what I share is vulnerable and open, but that’s not really true. That’s the nature of a parasocial relationship.

Rebecca Ching: It’s fantasy.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It’s fantasy. I mean, so, another thing that Brené says a lot is that vulnerability ceases to be vulnerability without permission and boundaries, right?

Tara McMullin: Mm.

Rebecca Ching: If I just jump in and start sharing with you about a childhood trauma, and I didn't check in and say, “Hey, Tara, I’ve got something I want to share. Is this a good time? Are you in a space to hold this?”


I just kind of come in, and I come in hot, and you just got vomited on, that’s not vulnerable. Then, if you say, “Hey, Rebecca, actually, no, I’m not in a place to receive this, and if I don't respect that and I just push it like, “Well, we’ve known each other for so long. I should tell you this,” that’s not vulnerability either. It’s power over. It’s coercive. It’s manipulative. And so, I feel like this is where we get into this place, too, where I didn't -- and I was just talking to a dear friend of mine, too. She was like, “I love the mute button on Instagram. It is my best friend.”

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] Yeah!

Rebecca Ching: “Because I like these people but they're sharing stuff that I don't want or need to know.” And I’m like, yes, it’s your best friend, you know? Because you may genuinely care about someone or like them or not want to do the whole unfollow drama or whatever, but I do think that this is where it gets murky. Where does vulnerability cease to be vulnerability without permission and boundaries online or even in our places of work? I’d love your thoughts on that. 

Tara McMullin: [Sigh] So, I think one thing I haven't said yet, that I think this is probably a good time to say it, is that I don't think that there are any clear-cut answers to this question. I think it’s all gray area. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Fair.

Tara McMullin: We’re not going to get to an answer of how to be vulnerable online without making it performative.

Rebecca Ching: We’re not gonna operationalize it?

Tara McMullin: No, no!

Rebecca Ching: Oh, shoot. [Laughs]

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] I don't do that. I don't play that game anymore. I just ask questions that have no answers and enjoy that. So, this is a question that has no answer. However, I think I probably need a couple of weeks to really dig into the permission piece in terms of how that operates on social media, but social media companies have it in their best interest to reduce the amount of permission-giving required as someone is on a platform.


They want to reduce the friction of scrolling to the next post, right? We never know what the next post is going to be, even when we have followed someone, even when that is sort of the level of consent that we’ve given, we don't know what they're sharing, and we don’t know when the platform is gonna serve it up to us, and the platforms like it that way because that keeps people scrolling, but it also means, then, that we are bombarded, often, with content that can be really triggering and activating, and it’s hard, often, to respond to that, I think, in a rational way, in a non-reactive way. Again, that’s in the platform’s best interest as well, and anything that’s in the platform’s best interest finds a way to become in a personal brand’s best interest as well. They don't have the same goals. They don't have the same means, but we know that the more you can make the platform happy with the content that you put out, the better your content is going to perform. And so, anything that is an incentive for the platform becomes an incentive for a personal brand.

Rebecca Ching: Okay, you riffed on something, as we were prepping for this conversation, around emotional entitlement. 

Tara McMullin: Mm, mm-hmm!

Rebecca Ching: And there’s something here to follow up on is that many people feel entitled to know more about you or the brand because of their fantasy or their false sense of intimacy.


They have a connection, for sure, but it’s not true relational intimacy. But there’s something about this entitlement that I’ve seen take a lot of leaders down. They feel the pressure like, “I’m supposed to be there,” and there’s this expectation to share more, be more, show up more, do more because of this entitlement.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: My sense is you've probably experienced that probably know a lot of people who have experienced that, too.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve definitely experienced it, and I’ve changed a lot of my behavior and business model because of it.

Another friend of mine, Sarah Von Bargen has been online as long as I have as well, and she told me at the end of last year that she was quitting the personal brand game. She no longer wanted to be a person on the internet. She still works for herself. She still works 100% online. But she is no longer a person [Laughs] that people want to or can follow online, and my understanding is that it’s for this same reason, that the entitlement has gotten so high. That word trips me up a little bit because I don't want it to feel like I’m complaining about followers or shaming followers.

Rebecca Ching: Totally.

Tara McMullin: Because I think it’s really natural, again, for the same reason that these platforms incentivize a certain type of behavior. And so, people kind of in their own self-interest but also just in the way they're being directed on a platform, they're going to develop that. It’s sort of a rational logical response to the input that we get from these platforms. But it is really exhausting.


It’s emotionally exhausting. It’s energetically exhausting. It is a whole form of affective labor and emotional labor that we don't calculate for in terms of our working time. So, for individuals like the people I speak to who are independent workers or business owners, those folks are showing up on these platforms even in #vulnerable ways and not realizing that this platform that’s supposed to be enjoyable, even if it’s also marketing, is working time, right? You are putting in a massive amount of labor.

I think this is where it sort of maybe starts to dovetail out into the wider working world as well because we’ve definitely seen over the last 10/15 years an increase of sort of the professional class talking more about vulnerability at work as well and how fostering relationships and soft skills and all of these things has a real benefit in the office. That, again, is a form of affective labor, emotional labor, and it’s a form of work that is, in most ways, unpaid but falls under the guise of this is how you do well at your job. And so, we have been trained not to notice that kind of work because if we were to get paid for it, no one would be making a profit, right?

Rebecca Ching: I appreciate you naming that emotional labor. There’s an unintentional expectation I may be putting on somebody or someone is putting on me because of their perceived connection --

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm.


Rebecca Ching: -- and through kind of a parasocial connection, and that can quickly go dark, especially, obviously, in culture it can go like -- oh, especially if someone who’s maybe famous or particularly well off, then it’s like, “You have a lot of money, you have a lot of social clout, so you should do this for me.” I see that go dark, and then I see other people like, “I don't want to bother you. I don't want to be a bother,” but I do think as something to think about, some folks don't even show up. They don't even want to enter into this space because they see it as something that would be a complete suckage and they're kind of torn like, “Who am I and who do you want me to be versus who I am?” It gets a little murky when marketing becomes “be vulnerable,” you know? That’s kind of a mandate now.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, well, and that goes back to kind of where I started with we don't have any sort of assurance that a college education, a more-than-college education is going to get us a job that makes us feel stable, that meets our needs, that pays down the debt for that education, right? We don't have any assurance of that anymore. We live in an inherently precarious state 100% of the time, even for those in the professional class or business owners. There is a ton of precarity.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Tara McMullin: In that environment, we start to look at what we can leverage to start to ease that precarity, and so, one of the reasons that, then, these sort of #vulnerable shares become marketing, become a source of business, is because it’s the one thing we have, right? It's the one thing that I can go to market with.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.


Tara McMullin: That’s especially true for anyone who’s doing work that is in material labor, right? So, that’s service work, emotional work, care work, intellectual work, which is what most of us do now, right, (at least probably most people listening to this podcast). And so, because we’re not producing something tangible, we need to be producing these products of emotion, products of thought, products of personality that, then, we can offer in order to get something back from that.

Rebecca Ching: You know, I’ve been thinking about this in this conversation and even reflecting on your support of me with this podcast over the years, and I didn't realize how much I had fallen into, maybe, some of that kind of way of writing, this kind of performative vulnerability, and you had pushed me like, “Rebecca, there are no risks here. You’ve got no stakes here with what you're saying.”

Tara McMullin: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: It’s almost like this zombie fog that we’ve fallen into, and I was like, “Oh, you're right,” you know? I’m even thinking of the podcast that just dropped with Barrett Ward who’s the CEO of ABLE who, when we decided to say, “We’re gonna show our wages, and we’re gonna show our scorecard with our wages with our company, and it’s not great,” and his team really pushed back and said, “Do you want to put us under?” And he was like, “We just have to do this,” and he was like, “I didn't sleep well,” right? As he said in the interview, “But it was the right thing to do.” There was a risk there, and I think that, when you look at risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure, the risk piece that you're focusing on really has become a good tell for me whether it’s in my own work or working with someone else, of what are the stakes here, and what moved Barrett forward and what moves me forward in my writing or my choices is what are my values right? 

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm.


Rebecca Ching: It’s like I can't not be vulnerable because of my values. That’s what grounds me in a non-performative or #vulnerability, too.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, and I think what you bring up here is really valuable because, in this conversation about #vulnerability, it can start to sound like it is imperative to actually be vulnerable, to actually take these massive risks, and I don't think that’s true. I do think that when we are looking at creating art, when we’re looking at moving people, when we’re looking at creating things that are transformative, there is vulnerability in that, and so, if in that, you are offering part of you, if you're offering a story, offering an experience, offering part of your identity, then, yes, you need to check yourself and ask, “Am I taking a risk here?” Am I actually sharing this in a way that is truly vulnerable or is truly -- maybe even vulnerable is not the word, but just truly connective? Is what I’m sharing valuable in the way that I’m sharing it, in the truth of how I’m sharing it?

But if you're selling podcasting services, as my husband and I do, you don't need to be vulnerable to market that business, right? There is no reason for us to have a social media channel where we’re talking about the ins and outs of our marriage, right? That would be ridiculous, and yet, people get the idea that that’s what they're supposed to be doing. So, I want to make it clear that there is a time when what we are creating calls for that full truth, that if we decide to share something, it must be fully true, and we must share it in that way, and most people do not need to be doing that because they're not creating that kind of thing on a daily basis.


Rebecca Ching: And I love the tell of what’s the intention, what’s the meaning of this, what’s the role of this share, versus this is what I’m supposed to do because that’s always a flag. “Oh, this is what everyone’s doing.” That’s a hard stop or at least a hard pause. [Laughs]

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: But I appreciate that, and, again, the context of my writing or what I’m sharing here, that’s important to push some of that stuff and what’s my voice? I think those are things for us to discover, but we can have a very private life, and it’s not everyone’s business, and that’s okay.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence and clarity and calm. Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions but sometimes vulnerability shuts things down when the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.

Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small. Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up and don't allow for true vulnerability. Internal emotional practices and external systemic strategies are needed to keep the protectors of cynicism and inner risk-assessors at bay and foster a hope that is both actionable and aligned.


When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead so you can show up with more true vulnerability, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.

To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me, go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!

[Inspirational Music]

I want to bring up a book that you turned me on to, and I joked and said it wrecked me in the best of ways, and if you've been in my orbit, it’s called Confidence Culture. I can’t stop talking about it to everybody or sending it to people. It was Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill. The book is called Confidence Culture, and they had some really powerful takes around the intersection, even, of vulnerability and confidence. I’d love for you to talk about what you see as the connection between what we’re calling #vulnerability and confidence culture. 

Tara McMullin: There’s actually a quote that I would love to read from the book that I think encapsulates this really well.

Rebecca Ching: Please!

Tara McMullin: So, they write: “There appears to be a curious turn from the self-made woman of the late 1990s and early 2000s and the millennial Wonder Woman who is encouraged to airbrush her insecurities and reframe them as confidence and resilience, to celebrating a female subject who foregrounds her pain and vulnerability as a vital asset for success at work.”


We can kind of translate that vital asset piece to the social capital piece that I’ve been talking about. So, the asset, in this case, is a form of capital. Being someone who grew up in the ‘90s and went to college in the early 2000s and kind of grew up on that, what is it, third-wave feminism, (you know, the very Lean In feminism, women can do anything that men can and in the same way that men can, right?) I understand that sort of mindset of how we’re supposed to show up as this highly-polished, quote-unquote, “highly-professional,” highly masculinized version of a powerful woman, right? And, having worked the last 14 years online, I have also seen the rise of this woman and people who -- it’s not just women, right? The book is focused on women, so that’s why we’re talking about women here, but people who, as they say, foreground their pain and vulnerability because it’s an asset. It is something that can be instrumentalized to get ahead, whether that’s on social media, whether it’s in the office, whether it’s in networking events after hours, those kinds of things.

I think that, in terms of sort of the paradox of confidence and vulnerability being two sides of the same coin, one of the ways that we might think about that is if this #vulnerability is a form of capital, it’s an asset at work or an asset for success, something that can be instrumentalized is that that is a confidence boost, right?


To be able to say, “Well, I’ve got this story and this story and this story that I know how to use to get ahead. I’ve got this identity and this identity that I know how to use to get ahead,” (and white women have been doing that really well for a number of years) of course, that’s gonna be a source of confidence or a particular form of confidence because now, I’m not devoid of capital.

Now, I have lots of capital, and I know how to use it. I know where to put my investment, right? Yes, that is a form of confidence in our 21st century economy, but it’s not the same thing as actual vulnerability, and it’s not the same thing as creating intimacy. It’s not the same thing as forming real relationships. It’s a kind of calculated way of being in order to get what you need to survive, and I don't want to -- I’m not really interested in tearing people down for doing what they need to do to survive, and we find all sorts of different ways to cope with that and ways of being to make that possible, but I think it’s worth interrogating it and looking at is this really benefiting us or is this just a stop gap?

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, you're absolutely right. This isn't to shame or blame or judge because, I mean, until I was reading some of this without deep interrogation, I was like, “Oh, crap. I’ve been swimming in the deep end of this stuff, too.” As much as I stand against it, I was kind of contradicting myself internally and externally, and it’s like this performative vulnerability to be performative confident to survive, right? 

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm.


Rebecca Ching: Then it’s like we lose ourselves, and there’s so much harm done in that because people aren't getting to know us, we can lose ourselves, and then there’s this expectation of, “You're not wanted but an image that I want is what I want,” and it’s explicit and implicit. So, it’s a cesspool worth interrogating, and once you see it, you can't unsee it. At least that’s been my experience. 

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] Oh, no, you cannot unsee it. It’s awful. You just go through the world, and you see it everywhere. [Laughs] You see it at Target. Anywhere you go, you see it.

Yeah, I think what you're kind of poking at there is the self-alienation piece, right? That, I think, is where the irony is, right? Because we’re showing up as these, quote unquote, “whole human beings” on social media, but actually that whole human being is alienated from who we actually are, and that creates a profound sense of instability in one’s own identity and one’s own experience. And this is something that Arlie Russell Hochschild talks about in The Managed Heart where she, first, sort of defines the idea of emotional labor, and she talks about self-alienation as one of the core consequences of continual uncompensated emotional labor. She relates it to physical labor in the way that physical labor can alienate one from their own body in that physical labor often involves injury, right? You are entering into this territory where you can get hurt, you could lose a finger. There are all sorts of things that could happen, and so, your body becomes not yours, essentially, when you're on the job. When the work is emotional labor, it’s not your body that's not yours, it is your entire sense of self.

Rebecca Ching: Yes.


Tara McMullin: And I can tell you from experience that that is awful. It’s awful!

Rebecca Ching: Well, if you're comfortable, I’d love to hear about your experience because I know that when people lose themselves with performative vulnerability and just having to be confident, and they may not even know they have a choice, it drastically impacts our mental wellbeing, our relational wellbeing, and our physical well-being because they all are connected. Yeah, if there’s anything you want to share on that, I’d love to hear you share more on that.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, you know, my experience with vulnerability and #vulnerability, I think, is pretty, I don't want to say unique, but it’s pretty different than the average person’s in that I have a lot of emotional detachment from the facts of my life. [Laughs]

So, for instance -- and sort of, as an explanation for that and as an example -- last spring, I started sharing with my audience that I discovered that I was autistic, and I put it out in a lengthy article, and I didn't tell Sean, my husband, what I was doing. I was just like, “This is a piece of information. It’s just information.” That’s how I feel about things like that. He is like, “You need to talk to me before you do these things because this is --,” I still don't even really know. I just know that I’m supposed to talk about things that other people would perceive as vulnerable, right? That is just me. [Laughs]


And so, there have definitely been things that I’ve shared over the years on social media where I get messages and comments like, “Oh, your vulnerability is just so refreshing, and the way that you show up and share these things about your life is just so inspiring,” and I’m just like it’s information! So, I don't have an experience very often of actually sharing something that feels risky because, to me, facts aren't risky. [Laughs] But that’s my neurology, right? That’s how I’m wired, and that’s not normal. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Well, it’s not common.

Tara McMullin: It’s not common, thank you.

Rebecca Ching: It’s not as common. Yeah, it’s not as common, and what’s interesting is people projected, “Oh, wow. I wonder if I could have shared what Tara shared. [Gasp],” you know? Also, it shows up there are layers and layers especially around neurodivergence.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: So then, let me ask you this. In the way that you think about this, then, do you kind of weigh trade-offs when you consider sharing something that does feel vulnerable in your writing or podcast that’s not just information, and how is this different for you? No?

Tara McMullin: It’s all just information. [Laughs] It is all just information. Yeah, [Sighs] what I have really pushed myself to do is become a better storyteller, think about detail and emotion and scene setting in a deeper way. It’s still not vulnerability in the way Brené Brown would define it because, like I said, the emotional exposure isn't there.

Rebecca Ching: It’s just facts.


Tara McMullin: The risk isn't there. The uncertainty isn't there. It’s just facts, but I think that it’s a way for me to excavate whether there is emotion there that I haven't processed or that doesn't fit into that facts category, but where I have historically gotten burnt out and self-alienated in this world is with having a personal brand around being kind of confident, in control, on top of things, highly observant, and having sort of a type --

Rebecca Ching: And prolific.

Tara McMullin: -- and prolific!

Rebecca Ching: You're very prolific in your creating, yeah.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, and having a personality that, I wouldn't necessarily classify as charismatic, but certainly a personality that is authoritative and tends to bring people in under that sort of umbrella of just being authoritative and having power in what I say and the way I say it, and what I find is that as that takes its toll on me (because I’m very good at performing the person who sounds powerful and authoritative, right? That’s one of the ways that I mask a lot of what’s going on behind the scenes. As I do that more and more, and as new challenges come up around that, that’s when I start to feel that split with my sense of self where there’s the me that’s out there that is what everyone expects. It’s that emotional entitlement piece, again. Not in a way that -- no one is wrong for expecting that. They are 100% right, and also, I can't always perform that in a way that is safe for me in terms of mental health and my own capacity.


So, that’s where I tend to get tripped up. I can remember last summer when I was really at a pretty significant low point while we were out in Montana hopping on a client call -- this happened several times actually -- and going from being in tears to wiping my face and turning Zoom on and saying, “Hi! How are you?” Looking at myself on the screen, hearing my voice, and not feeling like that person was me, right? That amount of self-alienation, that amount of just detachment from the performance of it.

And so, that’s the particular way that I experience that, but, just from having talked to so many people who are in this same line of work over the years, I think that same thing happens with that sort of #vulnerability and just personal brand building in general on social media.

Rebecca Ching: Thank you for sharing that. I have a feeling people are gonna relate a lot with, however they got there, that detachment because I’m hearing that a lot, a lot from people. We know how to perform until we can't -- 

Tara McMullin: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: -- until our bodies and our well-being doesn't let us. So, you have a book that just dropped, and I am sending it to all my clients. [Laughs] I’m very excited.

Tara McMullin: Excellent! This is what I like to hear.


Rebecca Ching: It’s their Christmas present this year, their holiday present this year. So, I want to talk a little bit about maybe even with your -- and vulnerability might not even be the best word, but even just how does your capacity, whether it’s for vulnerability, whether it’s for your bandwidth, how you're showing up, even your capacity and connection to yourself, how does that impact how you set goals and use your time? 

Tara McMullin: Yeah, so, this is a great question, and this is sort of at the heart of the book. For me, it is understanding that my emotional capacity and energetic capacity needs to be a bigger part of the equation than how much time I have or how much money I have.

So, in the book I talk about capacity as really multidimensional, right? We tend to think, like, “Do I have enough time for this?” or like, “Is this worth the money?” Those are the kinds of questions that we tend to ask around capacity and resources, but I want us to look at time, money, skills, relationships, emotional bandwidth, mental health, physical health, all of the things, all of the things that have the potential to either boy us up or deplete us, right? And so, for me, I’ve recognized that, okay, emotional energy and all of the things that go with that, that needs to be the thing that I am most careful about all the time.

As you said, I work really fast. I make a lot of stuff. Producing things is not a problem for me. So, time isn't actually ever a problem for me in the way of, like, what I actually have to get done. Time is a problem for all the things I’d also like to get done, [Laughs] but it’s not a real problem in terms of how I fit things in. What is extremely challenging for me is anything that is relational.


So, like this. Anything that is showing up in front of my webcam, in front of my microphone and talking to someone is extremely draining. So, a day when I have three calls scheduled, I will not get anything else done because that’s it. Those three hours that I’m in calls, that’s essentially all I can produce that day. I will sit in my office for eight hours, and I will tinker with stuff, but I’m not producing anything else. I can't use that time productively. It’s those three hours.

Now, the last two days, I haven't had any calls, and I’ve worked nine or ten hours a day, and I feel great, right? I’m writing, I’m editing, I’m thinking, I’m reading. It doesn't drain me at all, you know? Just not at all! But as soon as I add in any kind of work where I am masking, where I’m engaging in any form of affective or emotional labor, where there is an expectation of how I’m going to show up in that time, that stuff drains me really, really fast.

And so, I think that’s gonna be different for every person, and that’s sort of a really big part of how I think about capacity. We all have access to a different set of resources and to different amounts of resources, right? I have access to a particular set of resources that allows me to produce a 6,000-word article every week. Most people don't have access to that particular set of resources, I have come to find out, but a lot of people have access to resources that allow them to do more client work, to network more, to have meetings with team members that I simply do not have.


My capacity for that is extremely low, and if I’m not careful about that, then I get tired and I get burnt out just as someone who is 14 hours a day is going to, right? And so, we have to recognize what are all the different levers of that capacity that we can pull or push in order to decide what we take on?

And so, in terms of how it impacts my goal setting and my planning and the projects that I decide to take on, I know that I can push big goals on anything that doesn't have to be relational, right? So, the idea of taking on five clients right now makes me want to go to bed. Actually, it doesn't make me want to go to bed. It just makes me want to cry. [Laughs] But the idea of, say, writing another book next year, I’m like, “No problem! I’ve got all the resources for that.” And so, that’s how I think about that is, like, what am I gonna say yes to that is within the capacity that I have, that’s within the resources I have access to, and the other thing that I’ve been really thinking about and playing with is something that I’ve known for a while now, but I’ve just sort of articulated it more clearly, which is when I’m considering whether something is a yes or a no, I have stopped asking myself whether I can squeeze it in and started asking myself whether I have the resources to do it well. Do I have the resources to invest in this thing so that I can produce, to my own expectations, to the client’s expectations, and in a way that’s satisfying to me, too.


And so, I’ve been doing that the last few years, and I am more satisfied with my work than I have ever been because I just don't do anything anymore that I don't have the resources for.

Rebecca Ching: Thank you for all of this. There are a couple threads that are coming up for me. First, is to make sure that we’re not comparing our capacity to somebody else’s. You really, in your book, get granular on developing our own capacity awareness. I’ve been hanging out with you for a long time, so I’ve been gleaning on this for a while. So, I’ve had one of those really exceptionally full weeks where I have over 40 hours of face time on the screen.

Tara McMullin: Oh, dear God.

Rebecca Ching: That’s not my normal, right? I know, right? But one of the things that I was raised on is if you can squeeze it in, it was never about quality. It was about quantity. And so, even knowing I had a big week coming up with just some different things with trainings and work and onboarding things that was important, and with the holidays coming up it just got tight. I set in different things around my life so I could make sure I had the emotional capacity and also be able to deliver quality, and I hadn’t thought about that before. I hear so many people saying, “Well, look at Tara,” or, “Look at you, Rebecca. You can do all this stuff,” and then we compare to someone else’s nervous system, their story, their capacity, and then we turn on ourselves.

And then there’s a thread that weaves into this intersection of #vulnerability confidence culture: “I’m just gonna perform. I’m just gonna keep pushing through until I can't.” There’s no interrogation versus there’s still this, also, we’re in a culture that doesn't want us to interrogate that and say, “No, that doesn't work for me, but here’s what does.” I’m telling them, “You can negotiate this. Whether it’s in your job or on your team, you don't have to keep doing things this way because it always was this way because, eventually, something’s gonna give, and if you lose your choice, it’s gonna be dark.

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It’s gonna go dark.


Tara McMullin: Yeah, one of the questions I think that’s really important to any kind of analysis like this is who does this benefit, right? So, all of this vulnerability stuff we kind of talked about. It benefits the powers that be, economically speaking, and it benefits social media companies. It doesn't actually benefit us.

Rebecca Ching: Yep.

Tara McMullin: That “if you can squeeze it in, then you must do it” kind of mentality, that doesn't benefit you! That benefits your employer. Capital (with a capital C), that’s who it benefits or what it benefits. It does not benefit you. What benefits you is staying within your capacity and doing things well, and when I say well, I don't mean I have a particular idea of what something done well looks like. That’s an individual choice, right? What are you proud of? What’s important to you? What do you value in the outcome of a project? That’s what benefits us because when we are in a place where we feel satisfied, confident, and proud of the work that we’re doing, we are in a better position to think critically about everything else in our lives. Our critical thinking starts to shut down when we are in a place of urgency, in a place of precarity, and in a place of feeling less than worthy, less than valuable, less than useful, and everything in our culture is designed to keep us in that state.


And so, the best thing we can do to resist that is to say “yes” only to that which we can do well with the capacity that we have at that moment.

Rebecca Ching: And so, this was church for me right now, what you just said.

Tara McMullin: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: I’m just waving my hands in the air! Lots of amens to that.

Tara McMullin: Hashtag used to be a pastor! [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] And so, I think this is so key, and what I want to say to anyone listening saying, “I can't do that. I have to keep pushing through,” it’s even just starting to interrogate that is so important because I was trained that you squeeze it in, and if you say no you're a slacker. Maybe that’s just the Minnesota culture.

Tara McMullin: No, that’s American culture.

Rebecca Ching: American culture, it is just that protestant work ethic piece. 

Tara McMullin: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca Ching: But it was very much you were looked down upon if you took a lengthy lunch, you know? All of those things. And so, I think what you're saying is to recognize we can't give up our agency. We have to reclaim it, and maybe don't realize we’ve given it up, and maybe it’s even taking back a sliver of it but just starting to interrogate this and questioning it. I love the reminder of who is this benefitting to? Can I do this well if I squeeze it in, and who’s benefiting? The piece, too, that I was never really taught is that I could be satisfied with my work. It isn't just based on my ambition or my bank account, [Laughs] but I could actually be satisfied.

I mean, I’ve always done things I’ve loved, overall, but there were aspects of all the jobs I’ve had that I’m like, “Ugh,” like, for all of us, but to really start to be satisfied, I think, at least with generations above -- I’m a GenX-er, there was job satisfaction? No, you show up and do it, and do, I think for folks, depending on your age, particularly, that’s a space that I think -- and so, we don't have to be loving everything. That’s not the point. But to feel a sense of alignment and that we’re doing something good and we’re contributing, I think that is so important.


Tara McMullin: Yeah, and I think you make a really good point there that satisfaction is not the same thing as enjoyment. Satisfaction is not the same thing as loving what you do. Satisfaction is not the same thing as having fun at work, right? Having fun at work, loving what you do, those things actually, again, benefit the systems rather than you. They are tradeoffs, they are compromises that keep you at work longer, allow you to work for less pay, allow you to work with fewer benefits. We have traded those things for, quote-unquote, loving what we do.

Satisfaction is knowing that we’ve done what we can do to the best of our ability or to the ability that we have the resources for, and it is a profoundly philosophically different thing than fun, passion, enjoyment, loving what you do. I think, in that way, satisfaction can be applied across the board in life and work, right? Anything you can do, you can do in a satisfying way. It doesn't mean you're gonna like it. It doesn't mean cleaning the house is suddenly going to be this activity that is now just top of your list because you just love it because you're just so satisfied by it. No. I don't like to clean. I try to clean as little as possible, but I can look back on it and say, “I did that well! That was satisfying. Good job, me.” That’s really empowering, and it’s really a form of resistance that I don't think that we give enough credit to.

Rebecca Ching: Ah, I love that. I love that. Tara, we could talk for hours, and I hope that you do come back. I’m sure there’s more we can talk about, but I’d love to wrap up our conversation with some traditional quick-fire questions that I ask. You game?


Tara McMullin: Yes, I’m gonna try! [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Okay! What are you reading right now?

Tara McMullin: What am I reading right now? I am finishing up a set of short stories by Ted Chiang called Exhalation, and I’m also reading a book by an author named Elaine Castillo called How To Read Now, which is sort of looking at culture generally and kind of, well, interrogating how we read that culture. Where are we missing the sort of things that are hidden? Where are we inserting our experience when we really need to be centering other experiences, things like that.

Rebecca Ching: Wow, good stuff. I’m telling you, my book list is as big as it is because of you. I’m thankful, but man!

Tara McMullin: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: I’ve got my nose in a book, and most of them are a Tara McMullin recommendation. What song are you playing on repeat right now?

Tara McMullin: I am not listening to a lot of music right now so this one is tough. Oh! I will just throw out that I have a guilty pleasure of Dave Matthews Band, and so, this whole year I’ve sort of been revisiting my Dave Matthews Band and enjoying that immensely.

Rebecca Ching: I just saw him in concert live, and it was amazing.

Tara McMullin: Oh, damn.

Rebecca Ching: It took me a month to recover, though.

Tara McMullin: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?

Tara McMullin: This is a tough one! So, in terms of new shows, Sean and I are both really enjoying The Serpent Queen which is a STARZ original about Catherine Medici, and it’s just kind of that fun, self-aware, period drama where there’s some breaking of the fourth wall, and there’s contemporary music and stuff like that.


So, we’re enjoying that, and then we’re almost through all six seasons of Vikings, which I did not think that I was going to like, but we have become very big fans of that show, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who, again, enjoys sort of period drama stuff.

Rebecca Ching: My husband’s been trying to get me to watch that, so maybe I’ll reconsider. All right. Good to know!

Tara McMullin: Lots of strong female characters.

Rebecca Ching: Oh! Even better. Even better!

Tara McMullin: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Now, I know you're a millennial, but I’m wondering if you have any favorite ‘80s pop culture, movie, shows that you love.

Tara McMullin: [Laughs] I had to look this up to make sure that it was, in fact, produced in the ‘80s, but I’m gonna say The Princess Bride.

Rebecca Ching: Yes, that is definitely a guest favorite when I ask this question. 

Tara McMullin: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: For good reason! For darn good reason.

Tara McMullin: Yeah!

Rebecca Ching: What is an unpopular opinion that you hold?

Tara McMullin: Oh, I’m gonna steal one that I used on a podcast interview last night which is that there’s no such thing as healthy food.

Rebecca Ching: Mm.

Tara McMullin: And that when we use the word health, we are more often talking about morality than we’re talking about health, and with food, that is across-the-board true.

Rebecca Ching: And so insidious and toxic. Thank you for that. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Tara McMullin: I think it’s hard to pick out an individual, but what I will say is the authors that I read, the podcast hosts that I listen to, almost all of them are former academics turned journalists or sort of public intellectuals turned micro-media brands, and they inspire me to be a better leader and human because of the questions that they ask.


One of the things that I’ve really been working on this year is asking better questions, looking for the question that’s not being asked, and how that intersects with my own leadership and my own sense of self, and those people who are asking interesting questions from interesting perspectives really have inspired me to do that in new ways.

Rebecca Ching: That makes me think of something you said to me at the beginning of our work together with the podcast where you said in order to create good content, you need to consume good content. That’s a paraphrase of what you said, but that really lands. That really lands.

Tara, where can people find you if they want to connect with you and your work?

Tara McMullin: Yeah, so, all of my work is sort of centered at explorewhatworks.com. The book is at explorewhatworks.com/book, and you can listen to the What Works podcast wherever you listen to The Unburdened Leader!

Rebecca Ching: Wonderful! Thank you so much for your time today, Tara. This was truly an honor, and I really appreciate it, and I’m so excited for your book to get into people’s hands and more people to be exposed to your important writings and worldview, so thank you.

Tara McMullin: Thank you. Vulnerability was a topic I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time, and this was a perfect opportunity, so thank you for that!

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: I love this quote by Brené Brown about true vulnerability: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”

#vulnerability often thrives in the space between the vulnerability that we are drawn to in others but also fear in showing ourselves, but we also know that vulnerability is an essential tool in leadership today, and this requires deep inner work, time, patience, trust, and connection. As Tara McMullin reminded us today, #vulnerability can lead to some important metric boosts, but it does not deepen real connection, only a false sense of intimacy and can even do harm by further burdening people to be vulnerable when there’s not capacity nor community to hold it with care.


So, what support do you need to cultivate more true vulnerability in your life and work? What role does vulnerability have in how you cultivate culture and promote your work? When have you felt true vulnerability and when have you defaulted to #vulnerability? Vulnerability is an invitation and a daily practice. It never exploits and it always connects with care, and if you commit to true vulnerability, you commit to the deeper work to increase your capacity for discomfort so you can cultivate spaces for hard conversions instead of taking the shortcut of #vulnerability, and this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this episode was particularly impactful to you, I’d be honored if you went ahead and left a review, and rated it, and shared it with someone who you think would benefit from it. You can find this episode, show notes, free Unburdened Leader resources, and sign up for the weekly Unburdened email, along with finding ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.


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