(This review appeared on 800-CEO-READ’s In the Books here.)
I was an enthusiastic supporter of Brene Brown’s previous book, Daring Greatly, touting it as one of the best business and personal development books of 2012. And I also found myself sharing ideas from the book with friends. It seemed to me that encouraging leaders to be vulnerable was a daring endeavor in and of itself. It’s tempting, as a leader or manager of a business, of a household, of a life, to believe you must be invincible, unwavering. But when those qualities are just protective coatings like so much Teflon, we miss out on tapping into real strength, which Brown says is sourced in vulnerability. Just as it is said that a broken bone weaves itself back together more strongly than prior to the break, being vulnerable is scary and painful, but we become stronger when we live as “wholehearted” people.
Coinciding with the publishing of Daring Greatly, Brown participated in Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, expanding her reach to an enormous audience even beyond her 2010 TED Talk that has garnered over 21 million views. In Rising Strong, there is a tendency for some “Oprah-speak” to bleed into the text which was somewhat refreshingly absent in her earlier work. Here you will hear Brown refer to “standing in your truth” or “living your best life,” but if you are either drawn to that language, or able to skim through it, you’ll find many valuable insights within. In other words, don’t let her current mainstream appeal distract you from the fact that Brene Brown is a research professor—an academic first and a public figure second.
In her 12 years of study of social theory, she says in her more recent 2012 TED Talk on shame, that she has learned that vulnerability is the most “accurate measurement of courage” there is. And what we believe to be weakness in ourselves (terrified of getting up to speak at a public speaking event) is most often seen as courage by other people (the attendees of said public speaking event who are too terrified to get up and speak themselves). Doing “it”—whatever it is that scares you, or makes you uncomfortable—regardless of the fear of vulnerability or shame is the bravest thing you can do to reach deeper into what you are truly capable of in this one life. That’s pretty convincing and motivating stuff and why I thought Daring Greatly was a game changing book, especially for the workplace. Brown advocates:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.
Which brings us to Rising Strong. In the years between books, Brown realized that just advising people to get their emotional hands dirty wasn’t the whole picture, so here she is instructing us on how to survive during and thrive after our forays into vulnerability. Opening yourself up to plumb the previously untapped depths both within yourself and within your life sounds great, but there is a reason we resist: failure hurts. That seems obvious, but Brown makes the wise observation that if we don’t take that risk, we risk all the more because when we put up walls we don’t just protect ourselves, we tend to hurt others when they run (or we push them) headlong into those walls.
There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed. Emotional stoicism is not badassery. Blustery posturing is not badassery. Swagger is not badassery. Perfection is about the furthest thing in the world from badassery.
(Side note: I love when Brown drops the Oprah-speak and embraces instead her Texas-talk.)
Certainly the self-help messaging will find its audience of people who are instinctively curious about their inner life. But Rising Strong has a universality—everyone is going to fall (i.e., be struck down by disappointments and losses in life) so how you get up matters. What you learn from the struggle matters. For Brown, rising strong is all about finding your vulnerability first, and instead of running from it, experiencing your emotions instead of acting in reaction to them. That’s what she terms the “reckoning.” And she makes clear that all people are, by design, feeling people, and so this work can happen in every facet of your life. In other words, you can’t leave this work at home.
Just because you’re standing in your office or your classroom or your studio doesn’t mean that you can take the emotion out of the process. You cannot. … The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships, and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.
Because Brown focuses her work on qualitative research, it can seem like her work is more anecdotal than scientific (despite her frequent references to her research); however, that is an approach that makes this particular message most effective. The stories of how other people have learned to work with instead of against their emotions makes the practice seem substantially more doable. While this book is definitely for those people going through grave life struggles, it is also for people who are struggling to find their way in relationships or at work. In fact, it is with the small instances that it is best to practice accessing your vulnerability and the process of Rising Strong.
Brown gives her own example of this small scale struggle and revelation within her own marriage. (She might disagree with the idea of this instance being small scale because each small incident adds up to big bad life habits.) She recounts a story about taking a risk to share a tender emotional moment with her husband, only to be rebuffed. Her instinct, as is typically ours, is to shut down, create stories in her head for why he refused to be engaged, and prime herself to lash out. Instead, she encourages them both to reflect back on that moment, dig deep into both their vulnerabilities for why he rebuffed her (he was fearful of looking weak in a frightening situation.)
This is what Brown refers to as “the rumble.” When we feel something, instead of running from it, we should turn around face it, and engage with it. A friend of mine, many years ago, taught me the idea of “sitting with” emotions. At the time, because I hadn’t done much of that practice, let me tell you, I didn’t really get it. I thought I was really good at hanging out with my emotions simply because I was an emotional person who reflected on those emotions an awful lot. But over time, I’ve realized what that means. As Brown says, when we do feel emotions, we tend to jump a la hopscotch to other ones, rationalizing or controlling them through story, rather than really spending time with ourselves. Whether you “sit” or “rumble” with your emotional response, the trick is to stay with it in its most basic form.
In each chapter, Brown presents a story about how someone (often herself) has rumbled with emotions, including, in Chapter 9, called “Composting Failure” which deals with “rumbling with fear, shame, perfectionism, blame, accountability, trust, failure, and regret.” That’s a lot, but a lot that I’m familiar with too. In 2004, after receiving a stack of rejections from publishers and agents, Brown decided to self-publish her first book, then titled Women and Shame. That doesn’t seem like such a big risk now, but self-publishing was definitely not the norm a decade ago, and she became ashamed of having asserted herself (I wrote a book, and it’s worth reading!) without the backing of a powerhouse publisher endorsing it. Even after getting enough word of mouth and republishing more traditionally, as I Thought It Was Only Me, the book fell flat.
In a moment of desperation, I scrambled to put together a book reading in Chicago, where I was already doing a lecture for mental health professionals. It was the coldest February day on record. Five people came to the reading. One woman was drunk, and two of them were there because they thought I was a mystery writer.
(From my experience working in the bookstore world, readings are the ultimate in vulnerability.)
Finally, her books were remaindered (she calls it “composted”) and the entire process filled her with shame and feelings of failure. Considering her current successes, it’s easy to see that she successfully rumbled with those emotions. “As I would learn, the hardest part of coming out from hiding is facing the painful work of rumbling with the real story. And the real story was that I had set myself up for failure.” Given her massive successes following that experience, clearly Brown figured out how to leverage the realization that, next time, she “wasn’t going to … wait for someone to knock on my door and ask me about my work. I’d put on my shit-kickers and start knocking on doors myself.” And that realization becomes what Brown calls a “revolution” in thinking. And in this case, she embraced the lesson:
Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.
I’m writing this review of Brene Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, on the very day that it’s due to be published here. My coworkers in the marketing department are expecting me to produce this piece, as I committed to it several months ago. Several months ago, I was pretty pumped to read this book since, as I mention above, I was a big fan of Daring Greatly. And back in May at Book Expo America I came very close to meeting Brown in person at an evening cocktail party put on by Penguin Random House. Just as I moved to approach her, she was spirited away to have her picture taken with Gloria Steinem. I ended up leaving the party without speaking to Brown about her work and new book, sad that I’d missed the opportunity, but still giddy about having worked up the nerve to approach Gloria Steinem and introduce myself earlier in the evening.
But things change quickly in life, and having nothing to do with Brene Brown and her book, I got sidetracked. My husband was diagnosed with leukemia over the summer, and this event and the following treatments left us feeling like we’d been either hit by a train, or that we were pawns in some kind of practical joke. Many times over the past two months, I’ve looked at the cover of Rising Strong on my desk, thinking how ironic it is that this book likely speaks directly to how I can better deal with my family’s current circumstances, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up and read it. It felt a little too on the nose. My instinct was to coil away from the book, thinking, I don’t need anyone telling me to keep my head up.
Despite the heavy distractions weighing on me from home, I am committed to doing my best work at the office when I possibly can. I love this company, and my coworkers are such a comfort and support to me, that it’s often with great peace that I spend some time at my desk plotting strategy, brushing up on upcoming titles, answering emails… or writing book reviews. So it is that the deadline for writing a review of Rising Strong arrived and I’d not written a single word. (You can imagine what Brown would say to this: that I was refusing to rumble.)
But, when my son woke up at 3am this morning and I had some time on my hands, I knew what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about how Rising Strong has indeed influenced my understanding of events and reactions in my own life. Having finally opened the covers over the past two days and reading the words I found myself afraid to read—I don’t just get to gloss over my feelings while my husband fights this cancer, but I’m going to have to deal with them??—well, I felt reassured that it was something I would be able to do. I could reckon with my fear and my inconvenience (because let me tell you, cancer turns your well-planned life upside down); I could rumble with my emotions instead of tamping them down in an effort to contain them, to be stoic, and to present myself as in control (since that’s pretty much impossible); and I could find within myself the ability to keeping “choosing curiosity and connection rather than walking away or shutting down,” a revolution in and of itself.
As you can imagine, it is easier to create stories around my husband’s diagnosis, stories that include blame and anger and jumping far into of the future, than to accept this random happening as…random and outside my control. It’s also easier to create a role to play so that you needn’t show people the extent of your fear, your hurt, your burden. In her chapter “Easy Mark,” Brown describes what happens when someone puts on a suit of emotional armor, or “learned behaviors for getting out from under fear and uncertainty” when confronted by the loss or potential loss of a loved one:
Over-functioning: I won’t feel, I will do. I don’t need help, I help.
Under-functioning: I won’t function, I will fall apart. I don’t help, I need help.
Upon the news of my husband’s illness, I definitely dove head-first into over-functioning. I told a coworker in defiance, yes I can do it all! I can work, I can parent, I can support my husband, and I can have a life, all at the same time. Damn it, I was going to cope like no one had ever coped before! Super Woman has nothing on me. And then I looked at the long view. I looked at what this illness would cost us, both in time and in money. I realized how aged I was already feeling when trying to do it “all.” I realized that it was going to be a long road despite the many friends offering help. Not only was it completely out of my norm to ask for help; I didn’t know how people could help me in real time. It would have been tremendously easier, if lonelier, to put people off and contain our struggles within the walls of our house instead of sharing them with others. This was going to be hard.
Brown, in her first chapter on “The Physics of Vulnerability” lists some basic laws. And the one that struck me the most intimately was this:
This journey belongs to no one but you; however, no one successfully goes it alone. Since the beginning of time, people have found a way to rise after falling, yet there is no well-worn path leading the way. All of us must make our own way, exploring some of the most universally shared experiences while also navigating a solitude that makes us feel as if we are the first to set foot in uncharted regions. And to add to the complexity, in lieu of the sense of safety to be found in a well-traveled path or a constant companion, we must learn to depend for brief moments on fellow travelers for sanctuary, support and an occasional willingness to walk side by side. … For those of us who prefer to cordon ourselves off from the world and heal alone, the requirement for connection—of asking for and receiving help—becomes the challenge.
After some initial waffling, over the past two months, I have made myself more vulnerable than I have ever been comfortable with in the past. While my husband was in the hospital, I accepted daily dinners dropped off on my porch by local friends. My dog has received more walks than he has come to expect all his life due to my willingness to say yes to friends who are willing to take him through the neighborhood (and trust me, that’s not an easy job because he’s not an easy dog). And, successfully working my way through my pride and shame, I created a gofundme campaign to ask our friends and family to help me fund childcare for my son as my husband will be unemployed and unable to care for our child during his illness and lengthy recovery. The process and response was humbling. And, if I’m honest, I know I will need to continue rumbling with my feelings of shame. I will need to continue rumbling with the fear of lost friendships; that the burden of helping will drive people away. And I will need to continue rumbling with feeling unworthy.
So as I read Rising Strong, instead of feeling like I was being lectured on how to master my emotions, I found an ability to reframe the experience of putting myself out there: I feel the helping hands of a hundred people reaching out because I was willing to be vulnerable and reach out to them. The circle of strength that flows through that circle of hands will get us through the upcoming challenges. And I suppose, by telling this story here, spreading the word even further, gives me more practice in vulnerability, and wholeheartedness.
When I first became the general manager at 800-CEO-READ, we held a meeting at which I tried to explain to everyone why I was confident I could do this job. At the time, even before my husband’s cancer, I’d had plenty of challenges in my life that have ‘knit my emotional bones” together, making me strong. I shared these challenges, these losses and disappointments and hoped that this would help them understand why they could trust me to lead. And now, in the face of this new personal mountain to climb, I hope that as I continue to offer my story and lead with my (very human) super powers that include effort and attention, rather than perfection and control, our staff at 800-CEO-READ is made more comfortable leading their own whole lives in the workplace, knowing that we establish team trust through vulnerability and strength through support.
And perhaps an introduction to Brown-speak will give us some common language with which to improve:
Curiosity, clean communication, circling back, and rumbling become part of the culture. Just like people, when organizations own their stories and take responsibility for their actions, they get to write the new endings.
Brene Brown’s work in social theory, which is an engaging mixture of qualitative storytelling and quantitative research, has some valuable skills to teach us, whether our struggles are small-scale or life-altering. Learning to partner with our emotions as opposed to making them the enemy—which is exactly what Rising Strong will help you do if you are willing to invest the effort—can lead to what Brown calls “wholehearted living,” and what I would call survival.