Dr. Brené Brown's books offer ideas and principles for making a life that matters.
Principles for making a life that matters from books by Brené Brown
This episode continues our occasional Productive Reading series featuring key takeaways from books that have been influential in my thinking about productivity and making a life that matters. (For previous discussions, see episode 133 – Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing and episode 147 – Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit). This time I’m sharing some of my most important takeaways from three books written by Brené Brown.
Who is Brené Brown?
From her website: “I’m a research professor at the University of Houston, where I hold the Huffington Endowed Chair. I’ve spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. I’m the author of four books: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness.”
I first was introduced to Brené's work in her 2012 TED Talk on shame. (See below) It was so thought-provoking that I went out and found her book, Daring Greatly. I was so inspired by it that I then bought Rising Strong. This year when she came out with Braving the Wilderness, I read that as well.
Here's how Brené summarizes her books:
- The Gifts of Imperfection — Be you.
- Daring Greatly — Be all in.
- Rising Strong — Fall. Get up. Try again.
- Braving the Wilderness — (jokingly) How to lose friends and make people mad.
These are really great books. She’s a scientist, a Ph.D., and she’s a licensed social worker, so all of her research is around these concepts of shame, courage, vulnerability, and empathy. There’s a lot to be learned, and the lessons I’ve learned from her books really do have an impact on our ability to be productive.
1. The value of vulnerability
The flip side to the value of vulnerability is the cost to us of hiding behind masks. She defines vulnerability as: “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome… ” (Daring Greatly). It’s about being willing to be seen as who you are, even not knowing how it’s going to be received. It’s a hard thing for us to do as human beings, but, as she talks about in the book, it’s important to anything we want to accomplish.
2. The importance of showing up in your life and the role failure can play in your personal growth.
Connected to that point is another lesson that I’ve learned from her about the importance of showing up for and in your own life. Making a life that matters requires a willingness to show up, be real, and risk “failure.” (We could get off on a whole tangent about what failure is. She talks about a lot of those kinds of things in the book. What I keep reminding myself is that I haven’t failed until I’ve given up.)
Many times I've held myself back from doing things because I didn’t want to fail. I’m trying to learn to be a little braver and try things, even if I don’t know if I can do them well or if I can succeed.
Rising Strong is about how we recover from failure — how we get up after we fall down. Brené tells stories in about how people rebound from failure, stories from her life and from the people who've participated in the studies she has done. She makes a compelling case for the role failure (and recovering from it) can play in our personal growth:
“While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.” Rising Strong
This really resonated with me, this idea that failure — trying and not succeeding — is not something to be afraid of or to hide from, but it’s a process that teaches us about who we are.
“The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.” Daring Greatly
The more we are willing to step up and give it a shot, not knowing how things are going to turn out, not knowing if we’re going to be able to succeed — every time we do that and it doesn’t kill us, it makes us a little braver to try the next time.
“Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of feeling hurt. . . But nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous or hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.” Daring Greatly
I wonder if that speaks to you as strongly as it did to me, that sense of standing on the outside of your life, looking in and wondering what things could be like, what difference you could make in the world, if you were brave enough to show up and let yourself be seen. To me, that’s at the heart of making a life that matters. It’s about being willing to show up, put ourselves out there, and let ourselves be seen as who we are.
The value for me of reading these books of Brené’s is that she put words to what I didn’t have words for. Vulnerability is an unavoidable element of being alive. When we engage in behaviors intended to protect ourselves (to avoid being vulnerable) we’re not living our real life–we’re not living a whole life.
“When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be. Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice — the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Daring Greatly
What does this have to do with productivity? I would challenge you — is there something in your life that you’ve wanted, that you feel drawn to do or accomplish, but you’ve held yourself back because you’re not sure you could do it or you’re not sure what people would think?
One of the great things about Brené’s books is they reinforce the idea that we all struggle with these things. If I struggle with not wanting to feel vulnerable — not wanting to be exposed — that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It’s normal. The way to accomplish the things that we want to in life — to make a life that matters — is to face that head-on and move into it. To me, the cost of hiding behind a mask is too great. Taking off the mask overcomes my fear of vulnerability. The older I get, the more I realize that if I don’t show up and live my life and be who I am, I’m never going to accomplish anything of value. That’s one of the first lessons I’ve learned from Brené’s books.
3. The necessity of self-awareness and self-care
Self-awareness and self-care are essential to accomplishing anything important and to making a life that matters. This has various components addressed in Brené's books.
Challenging the stories we tell ourselves
One is recognizing that the stories we tell ourselves in a situation might not be (probably aren’t) true. We feel more vulnerable because of a story we’re telling ourselves about a situation, about the other people in a situation, or about ourselves that magnifies the risk.
“In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are wired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Meaning-making is in our biology, and our default often [is] to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how best to self-protect.” Rising Strong
Our brain is very good at self-preservation. It will look at a situation and make up a story about what something meant that somebody said or about ourselves. It’s all about self-protection.
In Rising Strong, Brené suggests three crucially important questions — questions that “cultivate wholeheartedness and bring deeper courage, compassion, and connection to our lives when we’re feeling vulnerable, threatened, less than, incapable, or afraid” of something that we want to try:
- “What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?”
- “What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story?”
- “What more do I need to learn and understand about myself?”
These are questions we can ask about the story we’re telling ourselves about the situation that’s holding us back. Just recognize that we are wired to make up stories about situations and the voices we’re hearing in our heads — the story we’re telling ourselves — may or may not be true. Learn to ask these questions, take a step back, and question the story we tell ourselves.
The need to pause
Similar to the lessons about the value of self-awareness and self-care is a lesson about the value of pausing. In Rising Strong, she talks about two tools to become aware of our emotions and the stories we’re telling ourselves: mindfulness and breathing. She talks about tactical breathing.
“Breath and mindfulness give us the awareness and space we need to make choices that are aligned with our values.” Rising Strong
We can be very reactionary in a situation where we feel overwhelmed or threatened. Pausing to take a breath and to be mindful and to be aware helps us to be more intentional about the things we’re doing, rather than being reactionary.
Giving yourself permission
We can give ourselves the permission we need to do the things we want to do (or to feel the way we want to feel). Brené tells a story in Braving the Wilderness about her visit to Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday show, when she literally wrote herself a permission slip to enjoy and embrace the experience. I just love that. We often wait for the world to give us permission to feel the way we want to feel or to try the things we want to try. I love this idea that we can give ourselves that permission. She recommends writing yourself a permission slip and carrying it around with you.
Learning to have your own back
The last piece of this self-care lesson that I gathered from these three books is just the idea of taking care of ourselves and liking ourselves.
“Our work is to get to the place where we like ourselves and are concerned when we judge ourselves too harshly or allow others to silence us.” Braving the Wilderness
In order to accomplish the things we care about and make a life that matters, we can and have to give ourselves permission to do those things but also to be okay with who we are and whatever contribution we have to make in the world and to be aware when we are being too hard on ourselves. I remind you and myself often to extend grace, not only to other people but to ourselves and that’s the message I got from this language in the book.
4. The need for connection
Anything worth accomplishing in life is going to require the help and support of other people. That means we have to learn to be both vulnerable and brave enough to be vulnerable in asking for and accepting help.
“We simply can’t learn to be more vulnerable and courageous on our own. Sometimes our first and greatest dare is asking for support.” Daring Greatly
That’s hard for a lot of us to do, but in order to accomplish the things that we care about, we’re going to have to be connected to other people. We’re going to have to be willing to accept the support, encouragement, and help of other people.
“The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough. Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world.” Rising Strong
It’s been a rough few months here in the United States and, really, the world. There’s been so much violence, so many rough things going on, and it would be easy to withdraw into yourself, but I think what she’s saying in this passage and elsewhere in the books is that these are times when we need to open up to each other and give that compassion and that empathy and love. That’s all part of making a life that matters.
In all of the books, Brené talks about the idea of belonging, what a primal need it is for us as humans. She points out that “Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing.” (Daring Greatly)
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Braving the Wilderness
She spends a lot of time in Braving the Wilderness talking about this tension between belonging and being willing to stand alone when necessary. Although fitting in often requires us to hide certain parts of who we are, belonging requires authenticity. We can’t belong anywhere we aren’t our real self.
Belonging is hard for everyone–even Brené Brown. At a point she was struggling with this, her husband told her: “You will always belong anywhere you show up as yourself and talk about yourself and your work in a real way.” (Braving the Wilderness). I underlined that part: You will always belong anywhere you show up as yourself. That’s the difference between fitting in and belonging. In order to truly belong, we have to show up as who we really are.
In chapter 2 of Braving the Wilderness, Brené quotes from The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
This goes back to this overall lesson of self-awareness and self-care. She says true belonging is “not something we achieve or accomplish with others; it’s something we carry our hearts.” (Braving the Wilderness)
She also talks about how true belonging includes a respect for boundaries. That goes along with being willing to be authentic and be our real self (i.e., we don’t have to subsume ourselves into the group or become doormats in order to belong — that’s fitting in). To fit in, we become like the people we want to fit in with but to truly belong, we have to be ourselves. In her research, she found: “The clearer and more respected the boundaries, the higher the level of empathy and compassion for others. Fewer clear boundaries, less openness. It’s hard to stay kind-hearted when you feel people are taking advantage of you or threatening you.” Braving the Wilderness pg 70-71. Isn’t that interesting that belonging requires of us that we be our authentic self and that we have clear and known boundaries of what is OK and what’s not OK?
Going back to this issue of vulnerability, the overall message of all of her books has to do with the idea of the difference between what’s important to us and what people think of us. I talk about that in episode 165 — this idea of how other people's ideas and other people’s expectations can drive our behavior. True belonging means that we set those boundaries and we protect ourselves, without hardening ourselves to other people.
One of Brené’s ideas I love and that I’ve shared in that previous episode is that the list of people whose opinion of me matters should be very short: Only those who actually know me and who love me and only those who are in the arena with me, actually doing the stuff, taking a chance and trying to make a difference. People who are sitting on the sidelines just commenting–their opinions don’t matter. They’ve forfeited the right to comment on me and what I’m trying to do. I think the same list of people should be true of you as well.
We want to be connected, we want to belong and in order to do that, we need to know who we are, be willing to be who we are, and be open to conversations with any number of people but guard our hearts and think about who has a right to speak into our lives.
Brené Brown and productivity
So what does all this have to do with productivity? I summarize it all with these ideas:
It’s hard to be productive, in any sense, if we are holding ourselves back for fear of failure or judgment, if we’re afraid to put ourselves out there and try and do the things that are important to us or if we don’t like ourselves well enough to be who we really are. Those are foundational things that we need to grasp in order to live a productive life, either in the sense of getting things done or in the sense of making a life that matters.
We cannot accomplish anything of lasting value alone. In order to have that connection and the give and take of support and encouragement, we need to be willing to be brave enough to be vulnerable to be our true selves.
The only way we can make the contribution we were put here on earth to make is to put ourselves out there, show up as our true selves, and do what’s in our heart to do. Time management, organization, calendars, and to-do lists, smartphones, computers, and apps — all those practical things we talk about on this show are just tools to help us do those things — to show up, to put ourselves out there, and do what’s in our hearts. That’s what it takes to be productive. That’s what it takes to make a life that matters.
I’m grateful to Brené for the work she’s done, both in the scientific sense and as a writer, to put this work out there that helps so many people, including me and, hopefully, you. I recommend you to read these books if you haven’t read them, to give some thought to how they may help you to become more authentically yourself and more productive in all the best senses of the word.
What do you think?
Have you read any of Brené’s books or seen her speak? Did any of these lessons that I’ve learned resonate with you? I would love it if you shared your most lasting takeaways — or another book that has helped form your thinking about what it means to make a life that matters. I’m always looking for more books to help me think better and be better.
Resources and Links:
- The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown
- Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown
- Rising Strong, by Brené Brown
- Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown
- TED Talks, Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame”
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