On September 3, Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, best know to many for her remarkable TEDx talk on vulnerability, smiled and shyly stepped on stage, wearing a black zippered jacket over a white buttoned shirt and denim jeans. Surrounded by the calligraphy of Zen master Thich Nhat Han at the elegant ABC Carpet and Home in New York City, Brown exclaims, with a hint of Texas drawl, “I almost ditched this whole thing to shop.” The audience burst into laughter. “I wish I could say I was kidding.”
Brown then explains that she can tell how good her talks will be by how nauseous she feels beforehand, “and I’m pretty nauseous,” she says, to more laughter. Looking around at the delicate pottery, paintings, and sand art on display in this event space, Brown says she feels like a bull in a China shop, far too clumsy and forceful for an environment like this.
In these opening moments, Brown captures the hearts of the audience, much the same way she did in her now-famous talk at TEDx Houston. She doesn’t just talk about vulnerability; she embodies it. While many speakers do everything they can to obscure or suppress their nerves and insecurities, she does precisely the opposite. She leans into her discomfort, and serves as a poignant example of the lessons she teaches.
While Brown isn’t typically a fan of sound bites, she says the spirit of her new book, Rising Strong, which was released on August 25, could probably best be captured by the following sentence: “He or she who has the greatest capacity for discomfort rises fastest.” This is a book about being in the arena, about living life with heart, and being willing to feel the discomfort that stands between us and our greatest desires.
After giving her TEDx talk (below), which has garnered more than 21 million views, Brown says she had the “worst vulnerability hangover” of her life. Remarkably, this was when she thought the lecture would be seen only by the few hundred live attendees, before she had any idea it would be published online.
Prior to that event, when she decided to be vulnerable while discussing vulnerability, she had “engineered (her) entire career to be below the radar.” Her armor, when uncomfortable, was to use academic words no one understands, “including me.” She didn’t put herself fully into her work, buying into the fallacy that by holding back she could get less hurt. There’s only one problem with this approach: “It leads to resentment and pissed-offedness … because you’re not using your gifts.”
In the aftermath of her TEDx talk going online, several months later, she received a call from Chris Anderson, the head of TED, saying her talk would be published on the main TED site. In the weeks and months that followed, her talk received more views and press than she could have ever imagined. Brown was positively overwhelmed, then did the one thing a caring friend or spouse would advise one not to do: She read the online comments.
In that moment, she saw, strewn out in hateful font, her very worst nightmares. People criticized everything about her—her appearance, her weight, the content of her talk. They mirrored back all her worst insecurities. She had bared her soul. She dared greatly, only to have her worst fears confirmed.
Distraught, Brown started down an internet wormhole, googling random facts, when she had what she describes as a “God moment”—stumbling across Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 inauguration speech, which included these lines:
“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.”
Reading this, she realized she was in the arena. Most of her critics were on the sidelines, their critiques fueled by self-loathing and unfulfilled potential. As painful as this experience was, Brown renewed her commitment to live a courageous life to at worst fail while daring greatly. She would live “all in.”
As Brown says, when we give something our all and fail, it’s incredibly painful. Yet, when we fail after holding back, the pain is 10 times worse.
She now lives by this credo and teaches executives and leaders that when you’re in the arena, there’s only one guarantee: “You will get your ass kicked.” You will fail. It’s not if, but when.
Sometimes, when we put ourselves on the line and expose our innermost truths, we get rejected, which can feel devastating. Yet, everything we want—connection, creativity, career success, love—is grounded in our willingness to be seen.
She also recognized that vulnerability is having the courage to show up and be seen, when you have no control over the outcome. In that way, she equates vulnerability to one of the best measures of courage. She did that with her TEDx talk, which both confirmed her worst fears and surpassed her wildest dreams.
Despite her painful online experience, Brown is now firmly in the arena. Rather than getting torn destroyed by critics or going to the opposite extreme of saying she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, which Brown says is a surefire way to blockade oneself from connection, she has a new solution. She suggests taking a 1-inch by 1-inch piece of paper and writing down the names of the people whose opinions matter. Her criteria to make it on this list? People must love her because of (not just in spite of) her vulnerability and imperfections. Plus, if you’re not in the arena, she doesn’t want to hear your feedback. This seems like good advice for all of us.
When inevitable challenges arise, Brown’s new book, Rising Strong, offers a framework for how to approach these with strength and at least an iota of grace. She guides us from the “reckoning,” when we walk into our story, getting curious about our emotions to the “rumble,” when we fully own our story to the “revolution,” where we fully own parts of ourselves we previously abandoned.
To illustrate this point, Brown shows a slide with photos from various points in her life, adorned with different hairstyles, personality characteristics, and desires. She explains that, in order to become the fullest expression of ourselves, we must own all of who we are. We can’t hide the darkness without also dimming the light. After all, our best and worst qualities often lay on the same continuum: Someone who is detail-oriented and thorough may also be micromanaging. In order to become whole, to become the fullest expression of ourselves, we must integrate and even embrace the formerly orphaned parts of ourselves, aspects we may have wanted to leave behind out of shame. As we do this, we stand in our full power—united, strong, and ready to face any challenge that comes our way. Even if that challenge takes us down, we will be healthy and whole and able to rise strong again. As Brown says, “The whole soul of Rising Strong is integration.”