Brené Brown is one of the most penetrating, empathetic speakers, writers and researchers that I know. Her ideas resonate deeply with any honest, self-aware human being. Her words inspire courageous self-scrutiny and hearty resilience.
I read two of Brown’s three New York Times bestsellers back-to-back. Although the three works were not strategically designed to be interlocking sequels, they chronicle the evolution of her research and thinking, and tell a beautiful story—as much modestly autobiographical as it is uplifting in its value to the reader. Understanding her current teaching in the context of her intellectual and emotional journey enrich her story enormously.
Brené Brown PhD LMSW (for Licensed Master Social Worker) is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She became a well-known public figure with the airing of her TEDx talk in 2010. It remains the fourth-most watched TED talk of all time, with over 28 Million views at the time of writing this article.
Brown’s work resonated with me immediately, for a surprising reason. During the research and writing of my first book BodyWHealth: Journey to Abundance, I came across a mildly troubling issue. The book has three parts. It describes a proven roadmap to physical health, two enabling mindsets, and then proven strategies for achieving emotional health. It was critically important to me that my recommendations be supported by best-quality research. The first part of the book was easy—there is abundant data supporting my prescription for physical health. The second half of the book was different. It covers the broad domain of emotional health, including happiness, confidence, awe, fulfilment, actualization, and prosperity, to name a few. It’s hard to get simple, prospective research to help us derive objective guidance for WHealth Seekers. But I found abundant data in the form of quotes from many of the world’s greatest leaders to substantiate my recommendations.
Here is the similarity. Brown describes herself as a “research-storyteller” (more formally known as a qualitative researcher) because her modus operandi is to listen deeply and systematically to people’s stories. With sufficient volume of meticulous interviewing, she discerns patterns in attitude and behavior, and is empowered to draw solid conclusions about the way we think and operate. I’m a firm believer in the value of both traditional quantitative research and Brown’s favored methodology.
Brown started her academic life as a shame researcher. Her early work, captured in the book The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), describe her theory that a sizeable proportion of us suffer under the belief that we’re not worthy of love and belonging. More than this, she researched the attributes of people who were resistant to the burden of shame, coming up with ten “guideposts for Wholehearted living”. In her own words, the concept of wholeheartedness can be summarized in the early morning statement: “No matter what gets done (today) and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
As her research delved deeper into the human psyche, Brown began to realize the enormous power of vulnerability. This became the central theme to the TEDx talk that propelled her to stardom in which she graphically demonstrated both subject mastery and personal vulnerability. It remains the foundation to her two subsequent books.
Daring Greatly (2012) is essentially a book about living all-in. Brown uses the lines from the well-known Theodore Roosevelt speech to invite the reader to summon the courage to be vulnerable, invoking its transformative power as the first step to emotional strength and resilience. The speech is worth quoting in full:
“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 worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
The book exposes four common myths that our society has built to (inappropriately) keep us from feeling vulnerable. In contrast, Brown teaches us that the secret to success is in being brave enough to be vulnerable. She goes on to describe the enormous dysfunction and pain that arises when we arm ourselves against it. She ends by making a strong case for introducing vulnerability into our homes, our families and even our places of work.
Rising Strong (2015) takes the story of Wholehearted living one step further. We seldom soar from success to success. On the contrary. For most of us, if we dare greatly, our journey is punctuated with heavy falls. Brown’s third book teaches us that this is where growth happens.
The “Rising Strong Process” has three phases, taking us from lying face-down in the arena like the bloodied warrior in the Roosevelt speech to the triumph of high achievement. First we must reckon with our story. She advises us to lean in to the emotions we feel at the time of our fall, being deliberately curious about their origin and meaning. After the reckoning comes the rumble, when we stare ourselves in the face, teasing apart the truth from the stories we make to protect ourselves from pain. This leaves us open to the final phase, the revolution, where we embrace the learnings from the reckoning and rumble, integrating them into our future, and bringing us one step closer to Wholeheartedness.
I highly recommend the Brené Brown experience to all WHealth Seekers. Open your heart and mind, free up some time on your busy calendar and prepare yourself for a journey of self-discovery. Start with the TEDx talk, then choose one or all of her books. You’re in for a wonderful experience.