During the south Louisiana flood of 2016, Brené Brown contacted her friend and spiritual mentor Joe Reynolds, interim priest at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, asking how she could help. The result was her talk last night attended by me and about 500 other people that raised more than $50,000 for flood victims.
She was quick to offer help she told us because she knew. Her mom had four feet of water during Allison, she and her family were without power, and her pediatrician husband volunteered in the makeshift clinics serving Katrina victims after the storm. She knows the need created by natural disasters and reached out to do what she could. She also said it is inevitable that South Texas will again be in need and knows Louisianans will be there to help.
And then she told us a very big secret: We need each other. No status, privilege, or wealth is great enough to keep people from needing each other.
The topic for the evening was the work that resulted in her latest book, Rising Strong, which focuses on what it takes to get back up.
If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know that I regularly invoke Brown’s wisdom and am a devoted fan of her work. Being in the audience last night was as exciting for me as seeing Sting or Trombone Shorty or Keith Urban. I tried to take notes but didn’t do too well. The following are bits I managed to capture although most could use more detail or elaboration. For clarification, check out her books and talks and website.
From her earlier work which includes The Gifts of Imperfection came this idea related to playing large vs playing small in our lives: “The problem with engineering smallness in our lives is that it is served up with anger and resentment.”
Brown next shared that for her TEDx University of Houston talk about vulnerability she decided to really put herself out there, i.e., be vulnerable. She wasn’t too concerned because only a couple of hundred people would likely ever see it. However, the national TED organization liked her talk and put it on their site and suddenly it exploded. All at once, the national media began talking about her work and vulnerability. Millions of people watched (and continue to watch) that TED talk.
Finding the daring greatly quote was a result of reading the online comments about her TED talk which caused her to binge watch Downton Abbey. This in turn led her to google more about the era and to wonder who was president of the US during the time. It happened to be Teddy Roosevelt who famously said “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, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; 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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Reading that quote changed Brown’s life and she now looks at her life as the time before and the time after that moment. Daring Greatly also became the title of her next book. The following are some ideas from Daring Greatly:
- To live in the arena you must be brave. If you are in the arena, guaranteed you will fail. Is it worth it? The question is will I choose courage or just be content?
- Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen when you can’t control the outcome; showing up and being brave. Being vulnerable is not weakness but actually a measure of courage. In her research with CEOs she has asked what is holding them back and some of the top answers are 1) not willing to have the hard conversations, 2) don’t want the feedback, and 3) don’t want to ask the hard questions. Interestingly, all of these require vulnerability. Side note: nowadays, failure is showing up on performance evaluations in Silicon Valley and the issue is not that a person has failed but that they haven’t failed. If they aren’t failing, they are not putting themselves out there. Vulnerability – risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure.
- If you are not in the arena, I’m not interested in your feedback about my work. She believes feedback is essential to mastery but only feedback from people who have earned the right to give you feedback. We need feedback because we are hardwired for connection. Goal: let in what is useful, keep out what is not.
Finally, she shared ideas from her latest book, Rising Strong.
Rising Strong Phase 1: Reckoning
For Rising Strong, she interviewed veterans of active duty, leaders, creatives, and some elite athletes and coaches.
Physics of vulnerability is that if you are brave enough, often enough, you’re going to fail. The next step is to ask “What is the story I’m making up right now?” Go to the story.
Emotion is key in that story. Our response to emotion is actually physical. Resilient people recognize what that is for them. We are feeling beings who on occasion think. When something tough happens, emotion is at the wheel and thinking is in the trunk, all tied up. This is because it’s all about survival. Our brain is constantly monitoring and asking “what is happening? how do I protect you?”
Our brains recognize story – beginning, middle, end, and love a black and white story such as safe/unsafe or bad/good. So if something could possibly be a threat – funny look from the boss – our system can go into survival mode which is some modern day version of fight or flight. The remedy? Mindfulness – pay attention to how you are feeling. Practice tactical breathing. It actually changes physiology.
Emotional explosiveness is not a good thing if you are a leader.
Rising Strong Phase 2: Rumble
Examine the stories we are creating and rumble with them. Are they conspiracies and/or confabulations?
Conspiracies – a story with limited data points filled in with fear and belief. Without data, humans make up stories. ‘Shit happens’ is a funny phrase but in reality we are constantly making up stories about how and why things are the way they are. We make up what we don’t know for sure. Confabulations – lies told honestly. Again, rumble with your stories and determine if they are true or possibly conspiracies or confabulations.
Brown’s new research is on emotions. Asked several thousand people to name every emotion that they can. On average, people named three: happy, sad, and angry. However, those in the sample identified as resilient were able to name thirty different emotions – 10x what non resilient people could name. Empathy, self-compassion, and resilience all depend on emotional fluency. We need to be able to articulate what we are feeling. A subset of the thirty emotions identified by the resilient show up as anger, fear, or shame. Lots of people do anger better than disappointment, hurt, grief, sadness, etc.
Big message from her work – if you own your story, you can write your ending. If you don’t own it, it owns you. Also, people with the greatest tolerance for discomfort rise the fastest after being face down on the floor of the arena. Often the story we make up is that we are OK because we know people who have it worse than us. Therefore, we tell ourselves we are not allowed to feel bad/be angry. However, Brown has learned it is better to piss and moan with perspective than deny what is happening.
Thank God for moments of joy in the midst of struggle. Who does it serve to engage in comparative suffering? Why be in a race to the bottom?
Rising Strong Phase 3: Revolution
This phase is all about integration – to make whole – all the parts of who we are. And she stressed all parts of us, starting with our youngest selves and every version of us throughout our lives.
The most dangerous stories we make up are about our lovability, creativity, and divinity. All of these things are God given and no one can take those away.
In answer to a question about her work and parenting: Perfectionism is the most contagious straightjacket we pass on to our children.
Finally, a big lesson she learned from Joe Reynolds is that if you love someone, you’re going to hurt them. This makes the Rising Strong process important for everyone.