This interview between Dan Schawbel and Dr. Brené Brown first appeared on forbes.com.
On Vulnerability and Daring Greatly
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, as well as the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Fast Company Magazine named Daring Greatly one of the top ten business books of 2012. She has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her groundbreaking research has been featured on PBS, NPR, CNN, The Katie Show, and Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday.
Brené’s 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top ten most viewed TED talks in the world. She is also the author of The Gifts of Imperfection, I Thought It Was Just Me, and Connections. In this interview, she talks about how she’s been able to embrace her own vulnerability, shares a story of an entrepreneur who dared greatly to achieve success, and explains how vulnerability really works in our society and more.
From your experience, what were the obstacles in embracing your own vulnerability? When did you realize that you needed to do it?
Vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. I was raised in a “get ‘er done” and “suck it up” family and culture (very Texan, German-American). The tenacity and grit part of that upbringing has served me, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few. Learning how to be vulnerable has been a street fight for me, but it’s been worth it.
This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen ... to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive." And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves. ~ Dr. Brené Brown
There are so many examples of successful entrepreneurs. Can you give one example of someone who dared greatly and was a great success as a result?
Sure one of my favorite stories is about Myshkin Ingawale who, after learning about the unbelievable and unnecessary maternal child death rate in rural India, decided to do something about it. He wanted to develop technology that was effective and efficient at testing for anemia in pregnant women.
He was a TED Fellow and when I heard him speak in 2012 he said, “I wanted to solve this problem so I invented something that would do it.” The audience burst into applause. Then he said, “But it didn’t work.” You could feel the let down in the room. Then he smiled and said, “So, I made it 32 more times and they all failed.”
But finally a smile slid across his face and he said, “The 33rd time worked and now deaths are down 50%.”
In Daring Greatly I also tell the story of Gay Gaddis, the owner and founder of T3 (The Think Tank) in Austin, Texas. Gay cashed in a sixteen-thousand dollar IRA with the dream of starting and ad agency. Twenty-three years after opening with a handful of regional accounts, Gay has built T3 into the nation’s largest advertising agency wholly owned by a women. When I asked her about vulnerability she said, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.” In the end of our interview she told me that entrepreneurship is all about vulnerability. Every single day.
Do you think society supports people who are viewed as more vulnerable? Can we come off as weak if we show imperfections?
The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.
This is where shame comes into play. Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we’re fueled by the fear of what other people think or that gremlin that’s constantly whispering “You’re not good enough” in our ear, it’s tough to show up. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it.
When we’ve attached our self-worth to what we produce or earn, being real gets dicey.
The good news is that I think people are tired of the hustle – they’re tired of doing it and tired of watching it. We’re hungry for people who have the courage to say, “I need help” or “I own that mistake” or “I’m not willing to define success simply by my title or income any longer.”
People connect more with those who have weaknesses. Every superhero has a weaknesses (Superman has kryptonite, for example). What makes these people more relatable? If they were perfect, would we care as much about them?
Most of us don’t trust perfect and that’s a good instinct.
In the research there’s a significant difference between perfectionism and healthy striving or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.
Perfectionism is also very different than self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self- focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.
Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
Last, perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a form of shame. Where we struggle with perfectionism, we struggle with shame.
What are the first three steps to daring greatly?
I’m not a big fan of steps and tips because it’s never linear (and rarely as easy as steps imply). I think daring greatly is about showing up and being seen. It’s about owning our vulnerability and understanding it as the birthplace of courage and the other meaning-making experiences in our lives.
The phrase Daring Greatly is from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic.” The speech, sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena,” was delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910. This is the passage that made the speech famous:
It’s 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 at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. ~ Theodore Roosevelt
The first time I read this quote, I thought, This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.
I think the first thing we have to do is figure out what’s keeping us out of the arena. What’s the fear? Where and why do we want to be braver? Then we have to figure out how we’re currently protecting ourselves from vulnerability. What is our armor? Perfectionism? Intellectualizing? Cynicism? Numbing? Control? That’s where I started. It’s not an easy walk into that arena, but it’s where we come alive.
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. ~ Dr. Brené Brown