Brene Brown is a bit of a celebrity after her viral TED Talk, but she seems not to have suffered from it. This book and the video that I link to below continue to reveal a person striving for greater understanding and a better world. The fact that she refers to things that are “shitty” in her book and talk only adds to her street cred. The situations that she describes are sometimes just that ("shitty") and her willingness not to mince words on the subject only adds credence to her academic work and 13,000 interviews.
This 2012 book follows upon her two earlier books. For her inspiration, she cites a famous speech given by Teddy Roosevelt after his presidency. Because of its importance to Ms. Brown and to her work—and because it stands out in its own right—I share her quote from it in full (with just a bit more):
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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Brown cites this as the definition of vulnerability. In some sense, the entire book is a riff of this speech (minus TR’s more machismo elements). Indeed, Brown’s anecdotes about her personal experiences as presenter, researcher, spouse, and parent make the whole project personal in the sense that the stories she shares (appropriately) bring her insights into the realm of experiences of her readers and listeners.
Brown argues that shame—the feeling or belief that we are inadequate—is ubiquitous. It’s different than guilt, which arises from specific actions or omissions. Although she does not use this term, I sense that we might consider shame as a species of original sin, impossible to escape. We can only cope. However, the universality of shame provides us with a shared humanity.
Shame can arise from any area of life: physical traits, relationships, work, sex, play—you name it and people can feel a sense of shame. Brown argues that we have to recognize the reality of shame—we can’t cure it as such—and set it aside. Too many of us avoid an endeavor that might reveal our shame, such as making a presentation, entering into a relationship, starting a new business—the list could prove go on indefinitely. The fact that we share this trait is one key to helping us overcome its drag upon us. But the most important ingredient for overcoming our reluctance born of vulnerability is courage. The worse thing that we can do is to don our vulnerability armor, the ways that we try to shield ourselves from vulnerability, which can run from physical isolation to cynicism to perfectionism. Each such strategy shortchanges us.
After defining and identifying the sources of shame and our common strategies in attempting to allay our fears, Brown explores typical situations in parenting, work, and relationships. Lots of examples that we all can recognize.
The common requirement in every endeavor is the courage that TR speaks about in the opening quote. You must also learn to discern voices. Some critics, including yourself (maybe), are worth listening to. We need to learn, and learning includes criticism. We’re not perfect, and we need feedback in to improve. But we must ignore some critics, those shouting (or posting) from the cheap seats. Only those who have entered the arena, taken the risks, and (I argue) shared the goals to which you aspire, qualify as critics to whom you should listen. I’d add goodwill as a qualification as well, those who wish for you to succeed and perform well. I can imagine rivals or the jealous holding motivations that poison their judgments.
I try to remember these when I consider criticizing any athletic performance or the actions of a political leader. Really? Do I have the responsibility, that level of skill? Am I in that game or holding that office? When someone boos at an athletic event, my thoughts usually consider the persons booing as losers who’ve never been in the arena. Likewise, among political leaders, we can and should disagree in a democracy when we believe ourselves justified, but we should do so with a sense of respect and humility. Some leaders are venal and inadequate, but far too often the most voracious criticism comes from those who are ill informed and who are not even rank amateurs.
If you want the 20 minute executive summary of the book, watch this video, where Brown shares the essence of her book with a live audience.