Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent two decades studying shame, vulnerability, and courage. This doesn’t necessarily make her a lot of fun at parties. In fact, she jokes that when she tells people she studies shame, they look away uncomfortably and find someone else to talk to. Yet she also has five best-selling books to her name, and her TED Talk on vulnerability is one of the top 25 most popular TED talks of all time. I hesitate to pick up anything that book stores shelve in the “self-help” section, but after watching some of her TED talks, I dug in for more.
The title of Daring Greatly is taken from a famous speech, sometimes referred to as the “Man in the Arena” speech, in which former President Theodore Roosevelt 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; . . . . 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. . . .”
Immediately after giving that speech, Roosevelt wrestled a dinosaur and carved his face into Mount Rushmore with his bare hands!
Brown explores the question of what prevents us from daring greatly, and two answers show up again and again in her research: fear of vulnerability, and shame. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” In her talks, she sometimes challenges her audiences by asking them to raise their hands if they think of vulnerability as weakness and is greeted by a good percentage of upraised hands. She then asks them to consider the other TED talks that they have witnessed in which speakers expressed vulnerability and asks how may people thought those speakers were courageous. Woosh! Nearly every hand goes up. As humans, we like seeing vulnerability into others, but we can’t face it in ourselves. The truth is, none of us are going to be experts the first time we walk into the arena: whether it’s writing our first novel or singing karaoke, we’re probably going to suck that first time out. And probably the second time. Maybe we’ll hone our skills and become great and then suck again at our 100th attempt, just because we’re having an off day. If we’re going to create anything, we’re not going to be perfect all the time. Unless you’re born a genius like Mozart.
Now see what I did there? I’m tearing down this poor 18th Century child prodigy because I’m insecure about my own musical talents. If I had any confidence in my own singing or piano playing, I wouldn’t need to make myself feel better by criticizing baby Mozart. While I’m unlikely to hurt the feelings of a long-dead composer, this type of behavior plays out every minute these days online. Meaningful feedback and fair critiques are one thing, but go to any comments section on any story about literally any topic and you’ll see the most horrific personal attacks imaginable.
“This dog is such a LOSER! I feel sorry for her puppies!” (Some guy on the internet)
Brown share her own personal experiences in this area. When her talks went viral and her name started appearing in articles, the negative comments were simply mean. Rather than attacking the content of her talks, the trolls attacked her appearance and her parenting–comments designed to cause shame.
Brown goes into depth about shame and how it’s different from guilt. Guilt is a constructive emotion. If I hurt you, I should feel guilty about it and take steps to fix it. Shame, on the other hand, is destructive. It ties everything you do to your self worth. Wallowing in “I am a terrible _______,” is a harmful approach, whether that blank is filled in by “writer,” “karaoke singer,” “friend,” or “person.” Brown even challenges us to understand narcissists. We all know a person or two who we’d consider a narcissist. . .we run into them every day, cutting us off in traffic, acting entitled in Starbucks, etc. Our response is to want to cut these people down to size, to let them know they aren’t special. “What almost no one understands,” Brown writes, “is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t ‘fix it’ by cutting it down and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure.”
Ugh! Is she telling me I have to be nice to narcissists now??? Not exactly. But she is trying to get us to understand motivation and practice empathy. Empathy doesn’t excuse behavior; it does understand its source. She talks about “common humanity,” the recognition that personal inadequacy is something that everyone experiences.
Except this asshole
I’m concerned I’m making this book sound like hippie-dippie, free-love mumbo-jumbo, but it really isn’t. Remember it’s based on research–thousands of interviews with real people and recorded data. Brown is at heart a researcher and is driven to conclusions based on what the data is saying.
If you’re still skeptical, check out the talk I linked at the beginning of this review, or this one on shame. Then get out there and create something, critics be damned. Make Uncle Teddy proud.