It’s always a delight to watch Brene Brown speak. She has a magical ability to connect with her audience, using both empathy and humour, and her messages resonate strongly. Her words, spoken or written, move us, inspire us, and help us to make changes in our lives.
Brene told us in her Netflix show (The Call to Courage) that she is “super introverted”, which makes her another example (like fellow author Susan Cain) of an amazing speaker who is an introvert. She’s also highly structured, saying: “I'm more of the ‘life's messy, clean it up, organise it and put it into a bento box’ [type].” One of her superpowers is the unusual combination of her research and storytelling skills which bring her studies of human connection to life – as a researcher/storyteller, she’s a slasher. In her words: “I am a storyteller. I'm a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that's what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
This post explores the themes of courage, vulnerability, connection, creativity and critics, drawing on Brene’s ideas and sharing a recording of her keynote to creatives at the 99U conference. Exposing our ideas to the world takes courage, so we highlight some of her classic quotes which connect with us at Protagion, and offer reflections from one of our mentors on her book “Daring Greatly”*. Read more to be inspired by Brene’s ideas, advice and authenticity.
Stories as data
Brene’s anecdotes are amusing and hearteningly familiar to us all, born from her own experiences and the many qualitative interviews she’s conducted over her career. She refers to them as “pieces of data”, underlining how research-based her work is, which reminds us of Jim Collins’ approach, although Brene’s is people- and not company-centric. She speaks about her process as follows: “...very intensive data analysis, where I went back, pulled the interviews, the stories, pulled the incidents. What's the theme? What's the pattern?” While the blend can be very powerful, the tension between data/logic and emotions/feelings contributed to confusion and distress earlier in Brene’s career: “my [research] mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting”.
These experiences with vulnerability add significantly to her authenticity, which shines brightly (including her sometimes colourful language to emphasise her points). Her first TED talk (“The Power of Vulnerability” for TEDx Houston) became a major hit, currently viewed over 40 million times on the main TED site, and counting… Part of the reason for its impact is that it embodied a willingness to be brave and vulnerable herself, precisely what her life’s work has researched. She put “courage over comfort” into action.
In that talk, she spoke about her own struggle with vulnerability: “For me, it was a yearlong streetfight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.” And, even her ending words (“That's all I have. Thank you”) signalled humility and part of the continuing internal battle she has described in later talks. For example, she’s described waking up the morning after that TEDx talk “with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life”.
She describes vulnerability as “the feeling we get when we feel uncertain, at risk or emotionally exposed” and says it is our most accurate measurement of courage: “There is no courage without vulnerability.”
Vulnerability is not about winning. It’s not about losing. It’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.”
Brene has also spoken about what she’s learnt about the two sides of vulnerability, emcompassing both negative and positive emotions: “...Vulnerability is certainly a part of fear and self-doubt and grief and uncertainty and shame, but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, trust, empathy, creativity and innovation. Without vulnerability, you cannot create.”
Many of Brene’s qualitative interviews provided insights into human connection – our ability to empathise, belong, and love. In her words: “Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” And, much of her early research centred on shame, “the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? The thing I can tell you about it: it's universal; we all have it.”
She emphasises the importance of balancing how much we care about others’ opinions of us: “When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable.”
Fitting in is assessing and acclimating. Here’s what I should say, be. Here’s what I shouldn’t say. Here’s what I should avoid talking about. Here’s what I should dress like, look like. That’s fitting in. Belonging is belonging to yourself first. Speaking your truth, telling your story, and never betraying yourself for other people. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are. It requires you to be who you are, and that’s vulnerable.”
In the Arena
Brene often references Theodore Roosevelt’s inspiring words at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910, no doubt the spark behind the title of her “Daring Greatly” book.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...”
To Brene, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There's nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.” In her keynote at the 99U conference, she explained: “This is who I want to be. I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your **** kicked… If you’re going to go in the arena, and spend any time in there whatsoever, especially if you’re committing to creating in your life, you will get your **** kicked… If courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence. You can’t avoid it.”
No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”
“Daring Greatly – how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead” had a profound impact on the mentor, and he kindly shared his reflections with us:
1) Vulnerability is strength, not weakness; allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the key to being able to fully experience and enjoy things in life; otherwise it is something of an emotionless, joyless life
2) There is a link between resilience and shame; often shame means we hide and don’t dig in and continue; we need to develop a resilience to shame – acknowledge it but don’t let it dominate us; this, he says, reminded him of the ideas in Angela Duckworth’s book on grit
3) The book also covers the importance of role-modelling for kids: being things – such as honest – rather than talking about them. In Brene’s words: “we have to be the adults we hope they grow up to be”.
Creatives, Effort and Critics
We conclude this post celebrating Brene’s ongoing impact on the world by sharing her talk (on sweaty creatives and critics) to the 99U conference. It is almost 23 minutes long, and well worth watching to see Brene in action, reinforcing some of the messages above. A precis (slightly longer than 5 minutes) is also available.
* Protagion is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk. The links with * participate in this programme.