Daring Greatly by Brené Brown starts with a startling premise: That the ability to be vulnerable is actually an expression of courage, not weakness. Brown starts with a quote by Teddy Roosevelt which inspired the book’s name, one I found so compelling I just had to reproduce it in full here:
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 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.
I picked up the book because I’d been referencing Brown’s TED talk in Build Yourself+ my empowerment workshop for women in design. I was ready to mine the book for good content and tips for the workshop.
I didn’t expect to be as profoundly moved by the book as I was. The last time I remember tearing up because of a book was more than five years ago, and it was a tear jerker by Salman Rushdie (I haven’t gone back to his work since. I’m not ready.) I certainly can’t remember having a nonfiction book elicit such a raw emotional response.
Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.1” This means everything from the the uncertainty and exposure involved in putting our work out there, speaking up for something we believe in, getting up to make a speech in front of hundreds of people, or even just being in love. Brown writes “when we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof until we walk into the arena we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and turn our backs on our gifts.2”
The idea of being kind to yourself and accepting yourself as a work in progress makes sense to me. After all, I am the kid of a social worker. It’s one of the key lessons of my workshop. We talk about applying the iterative process of design to our lives and careers. I tell my workshop participants about a log I started while working on a startup in grad school in which I listed each ‘ask’ we made while marketing the startup and developing partnerships. The idea was to celebrate ‘showing up’ and not whether or not we succeeded or failed. Brown talks about the “vulnerability hangovers” you can feel after you put yourself out there. I know that feeling and I love that she put a name to it–somehow it makes those ‘hangovers’ easier to move past.
The part that really shook me was the schema Brown presents about the relationship between a certain paradigm that she calls ‘wholeheartedness’ and the ability to be vulnerable. While I won’t go into all the aspects of wholeheartedness, one of the key elements is believing that “you are enough.” If it sounds simple, maybe that’s because it is… It’s just that.
You are enough…. You’re not enough because you’re smart, or personable, or you have killer fashion sense, or you know a lot about invertebrates, or you’re hooked into the contemporary art scene, or you graduated in the top 10% of your class, or as a child you were always asking ‘Why?’ or any of these things. You’re enough, because you are. ‘Nuff said. The feeling that drives the sense that we’re not enough, Brown found in her research, was shame. Shame, she describes as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging3”
Brown goes on to write about the ways in which tying your self-worth to external factors (or even “internal factors” which are really external factors in disguise) not only affect our ability to succeed, but also our ability to live and experience life fully.
Many of us respond to fear of being vulernable, and that underlying shame/fear that we ‘are not enough’ through expressing control. Brown writes, “I did believe that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable so when it happened–when the phone rang with unimaginable news; or when I was scared; or when I loved so fiercely that rather than feeling gratitude and joy, I could only prepare for loss–I controlled things. I managed situations and micromanaged the poeople around me. I performed until there was no more energy left to feel. I made what was uncertain certain, no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and my fear could never catch up.4”
While it’s clear that Brown’s frameworks are backed up by very rigorous data and analysis, (there’s a hefty appendix in the back of the book) she does a great job of making her ideas accessible and personable. She brings her ideas to life with examples from pop culture (Harry Potter and Snape have cameos) and from her life (I know more Texan slang than I ever thought I would.)
The one criticism I had–and criticism even seems like too strong a word for it–is that Brown’s book feels like it rests pretty heavily in her specific life stage (that is mid-career and married with kids. Or kid?) And while she uses examples from other experiences or life stages, and does admirable work looking at the effect of gender on her frameworks, much of the emotional grounding of the book comes from her life stories.
I am surrounded by and work with (mostly very privileged) people in their 20s/30s and see just how uncertain and vulnerability-inducing that time can be. So many people are still in that wonderful but messy mess of growth, testing who they are against the world outside, and engaging in that back and forth dance of increasing vulnerability as they form and deepen relationships with people–and that’s just the micro-community I’m part of. The frameworks are there in the book for that life stage or experience, and others, I think a reader just has to work a little harder for them.
Brown ends the book, endearingly, with a story of a guy in his early twenties who told her that her book inspired him to tell the girl he was dating that he loved her. He got in the arena, but it didn’t work out–she told him she thought he was “awesome” but that they should date other people. The guy tells Brown, “I felt pretty stupid at first. For a second I was mad at myself and even a little pissed at you. But then I thought about it and I remembered why I did it. I told my roommates, ‘I was daring greatly, dude.’5”
I just love that. Daring Greatly is certainly one of the central resources I’ll draw on in my workshop, and it’s one of those books that I intend to read every few years, just because I’ll need the reminder. “I was daring greatly, dude.”
1 Brown Brené Daring Greatly Gotham Books. 2012. p. 34
2 Brown, p. 2
3 Brown, p. 69
4 Brown, p. 55
5 Brown, p. 248