Book Review-Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transform the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

I’ve been working on a post which connects trust, vulnerability, and intimacy for weeks and weeks now. The post is in and of itself pretty long because it’s tying together a bunch of concepts and connecting dots from lots of books – trying to piece together something that I see both simply and also something that I realize is so complex. During a break from working on that, I started reading Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I nearly instantly recognized that I needed to finish reading the book before I could even continue working on the other post. The content of the book was so important and so relevant that I simply had to finish it first (and the rest of my process for integrating books into my way of thinking which I document in my post “Research in the age of electrons“.)

Making the Connection

Brown writes that throughout all her work, the thing that she recognizes most is that Connection is why we’re here. Connection is being attached to other people. We were designed to be social creatures. Without connection with other human beings, all sorts of issues emerge. In an attempt to be brief, I won’t list them all. I’ll point you to the article for Social isolation on Wikipedia. By way of example, however, consider Ted Kaczynski, “The Unabomber”, who spent years of his life alone and isolated, and the horrific things that he did. A genius was driven mad by his isolation from others.

I should hasten to say that this doesn’t mean that we don’t need some amount of time to ourselves nor that all time spent alone is bad, because it’s not. Having time to recharge, regenerate, and reflect is also a good part of the human experience. However, when we go through life disconnected from others we develop a psychopathy.

Discover the Truth

What is worth doing even if I fail?

One of the most interesting questions in the book – and indeed in many ways one of the most interesting questions I’ve heard in years is: “What is worth doing even if I fail?” The question is slightly odd to me because I don’t often think about how I’m going to fail at something. I really frame it more from the perspective of not going to succeed. (This leaves the outcomes as either positive or neutral.) The core message embedded in the question is, however, perfect. What things do you do even if you don’t succeed? What should you try because the trying enriches your life? My answer has varied over the years.

I posted publically about my experience with comedy – at least the initial class. I still do comedy from time-to-time but not as much as I want. As I’ve come back to it and done it over and over, I feel like I’ve bombed more often than I have succeeded. However, it’s fun to do. It helps me to focus on thinking differently, on delivery, timing, and what will twist people’s heads in just the right way. I’ll never be an “HBO Special” kind of comic – and candidly, I’m OK with that. It’s a thing that I’m happy to do even if I fail – and I’d better be, because when it comes to comedy, most folks fail often.

I’ve not talked much publically about the fact that I’ve been playing Pokémon cards. It started – and continues – because of my son. He got into the game through some friends and wanted to play. I wanted to connect with him and so I learned to play. As he started going to events (leagues and tournaments) I had to choose what to do with my time. So I started playing in the events. In doing so I’d get handily beaten most of the time. The randomness of the cards meant that I’d occasionally win – but I very often went to tournaments and got knocked out in the first round or two. (Technically I was just sorting myself into the bottom of the pack – but the general idea is right.) Did it hurt to repeatedly get defeated? Oh yea. Despite my best emotional coping I could definitely feel the weight of getting beat over and over again. However, I’d do it again. Why? Well, part of it is just finding something to remind me that there are people that “play at a different level” in every field. A larger part is that I wasn’t doing it to win – I was doing it to have an experience in common with my son.

It’s no secret that I speak a lot. It seems like I’m speaking about 50 times a year. It waxes and wanes but that’s a pretty good average. As much as I’d like to tell you that all of those presentations are great – I know they are not. There are off days, technology failures, and all sorts of other issues that just make it not be the caliber I want it to be every time. However, I don’t regret doing the talks; I know that sometimes I have to do things – even if I fail.

If you were going to ask the question differently I think a better question might be, what would you try – just to try? I tried to learn to fly a plane (and succeeded) but I would have tried it anyway. My son, Alex, was in cub scouts and one of the events that they sometimes do is a rain gutter regatta. That is where they make little sailboats and they blow through a straw to push the regatta down a water-filled rain gutter. It’s great fun. My friend challenged me to make a steam boat that would go down the rain gutter on its own power. So as a result, I learned how to sweat copper (piping) just to see if I could make a little steamboat that would go down the rain gutter. The steam boat never worked but it was great fun just trying to figure it out. (By the way, the real issue with the design was that it was too heavy.)

Shame and Guilt

I spoke about my feelings on shame and guilt in my review of Changes that Heal. In Daring Greatly, Brown shares her feelings that shame’s influence is negative but guilt’s influence is good. Guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad.” The problem with shame is a fixed mindset. We believe that we cannot change, as discussed in Mindset. So while I appreciate Henry Cloud’s perspective on guilt as shared, in Changes that Heal, I disagree and believe that the true issue is shame. In fairness, I believe that the distinction may be that he’s speaking of shame and is using guilt as a catch all.

I find it interesting that Brown describes herself as a shame and empathy researcher – literally trying to understand how shame works – and how to develop shame resilience. (I talk about shame resilience some in my review of Compelled to Control.)That is, she is trying to figure out how people persist in dodging shame’s grip and manage to live their lives out of wholeheartedness. Wholeheartedness, as Brown defines it, is living in a world which is the opposite of scarcity. The opposite of scarcity isn’t abundance – it’s enough.

The problem with defining wholeheartedness as abundance is how much abundance? It’s like trying to compare different infinities – it can’t be done. As long as there’s a definition around abundance there is a way for scarcity to creep back in – is it enough abundance? By defining the opposite of scarcity as enough, scarcity’s power is removed. It can no longer define us because the fear and anxiety of scarcity is nullified by the feeling and understanding that there’s enough – that we are enough.

Shame resilience is practicing authenticity in our shame, moving through the experience without sacrificing values, and emerging on the other side with greater courage, compassion and connection. Brown asserts that the antidote to shame is empathy. That is to recognize and connect with the emotions experienced by another human. Brown later describes empathy as connection – a ladder out of the shame hole. Here, I believe I disagree slightly with Brown’s language but perhaps not her intent – I believe that the real antidote to shame is deep connection with another human being. I believe that empathy is a pathway to connection. I believe that as we feel what others feel we create – or draw ourselves into – shared experience with another person.

Brown shares that wholehearted people identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection.

Vulnerability

When viewed from the outside, being vulnerable feels like weakness. It smells like a problem waiting to happen. Vulnerability is a common theme in many of the books I’ve been reading (Changes that Heal, Beyond Boundaries, Boundaries, How Children Succeed, Emotional Intelligence, The Advantage, Bonds That Make Us Free, and Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness). Through that reading, I’ve realized that there are two kinds of vulnerability – weak vulnerability and strong vulnerability.

Weak vulnerability is a state where you have (or feel like you have) no choice but to be vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable to plagues and forces of nature. There’s no strength in this kind of being vulnerable. The problem here is that being vulnerable in this way makes you feel like a victim. You feel helpless, like you have no influence. (My reviews of Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries both speak more of victimhood.)

Strong vulnerability is accepting the risk of being harmed because what you want is more important than the possibility of being hurt. When directed towards other people this can be altruism. Strong vulnerability is being aware of the level of harm that can be done – and accepting it. It’s a choice you make – consciously or not – about being open to other people.

Perhaps it’s because we more frequently see the victimhood kind of vulnerability that we tend to think of vulnerability as weakness. Throughout human history, vulnerability was a sign of weakness and not strength. In feudal times, we were vulnerable to a more powerful ruler, to our ruler, and to a great extent we were vulnerable to Mother Nature.

Sidebar: Surrender

One of the things that the conversation about vulnerability reminds me of is a thought about surrender from years ago. Just like I believe there are two different kinds of vulnerability, I believe there are two different kinds of surrender: surrender accept and surrender defeat.

Surrender accept is when you accept the other person’s position, point of view, or situation. Surrender accept feels like a gift. You’re giving the other person the gift of peace and of acceptance (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships). Surrender defeat is fatalistic (See The Time Paradox). Surrender defeat is feeling forced into no other option (Victimhood again).

It’s interesting that a synonym for surrender is yield. Of course one definition is to give up power. However another one of yield’s definitions is the “natural outcome” of a process. As in the farm yielded 100 bushels of corn per acre. So I see surrender as a natural thing. Surrender is okay – as long as we see it as a natural outcome rather than something we’re forced into.

Gratitude is the Attitude

I’ve done my share of looking for happiness (including reading and reviewing Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis.) I’ve seen the idea that we all want to be happy show up in other books like Who Am I? and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In these books happiness is described from the perspective of hedonistic (instant) happiness and value-based (sustained) happiness. Brown tackles an interesting question as it relates to persistent happiness.

Joy is a feeling of great happiness – and I’d say it has a persistence to it that we don’t normally associate with just being happy. There’s also a sense of peace that’s conveyed with joy. Researchers have noticed that gratitude and joy are highly correlated – that is, they seem to occur together. However, whenever you see correlated factors you have to wonder whether one causes the other.

The conventional wisdom has been that joy leads to an attitude of gratitude. However, it may not be quite that simple. Brown asserts that it’s gratitude that leads to joy. Certainly if you look at the problem from the “boxes” that were discussed in Bonds That Make Us Free, Leadership and Self-Deception, and Anatomy of Peace, you can quickly see that if you can get out of the distorting “boxes” and see the world for the gift it is, you’ll be experiencing a much happier perspective on life. When you see something as a gift – something that you don’t deserve and that you’ve not earned – you are inherently grateful for it.

(I should say that getting out of the “boxes” also means that we’re more connected. And if Brown is right about it all being about connection, this will inherently make me more joyful.)

I should caution that Redirect has a warning for us about how we go about development of gratitude. The goal isn’t to fully explore the thing we’re grateful for – we need to accept that the thing that we’re grateful for exists – without trying to tear apart why it’s good for us. If we dwell too long on the specifics of why we’re grateful for something we can diminish the happiness and joy that we get from it. The saying “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” seems to be good advice not just because it’s rude to try to judge the quality of a horse that was given to you as a gift – but it also seems that that level of detailed analysis may reduce our happiness. Similarly, The Paradox of Choice leads us to an understanding that sometimes we can reduce our satisfaction with the things we have by trying to explain what it is that we like.

Getting back to the heart of Brown’s point, it appears that it’s not joy that leads to gratitude but rather that being grateful for what you have leads to joy. The chapter on practicing gratitude leads off with a quote from Brother David Steindl-Rast, “It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

Scarcity

When packing up the house of the person I called Grandma Helen I found stacks of sheets, boxes of unopened packages, and a lot of work to be done. In reflecting on this experience with my mother, she reminded me that Helen had lived through the Great Depression. She had lived in a world where there were times that some of the bare necessities were hard to get.

Having lived with a real scarcity of resources during a formidable period in her life created an endless loop in her brain where she was always trying to compensate for the scarcity that she still felt decades later. The influence on her behavior wasn’t helpful – in fact in her case it led to more real current-day scarcity because she had used her relatively meager resources to buy additional things that she didn’t need – because she feared that she wouldn’t be able to buy them if she needed them later.

Every day we’re bombarded by marketing messages that weigh us down with scarcity. “Limited time offer”, “Limited Quantity”, “First 50 people” and so on are common language for the marketer today. (I use some of these myself in marketing the Shepherd’s Guide.) The problem is that people don’t function well in the context of scarcity. We make irrational and often ultimately detrimental decisions. In the book Drive we learned that applying any kind of stress – and scarcity is a powerful, survival-based stressor – we tend to not think of alternative solutions. We actually solve some problems slower because of the chemical wash that wants to keep us focused on whatever the perceived stressor is.

Brown quotes Lynne Twist who says that scarcity is “the great lie.” She asserts that worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. The same stress and poor performance that psychologist Sam Glucksberg observed (referenced in Drive) when offering the top performer a special reward for being the fastest is the same stress that causes us to perform poorly in life. Brown asserts that scarcity keeps us from being safe enough to be vulnerable.

Perfection and Excellence

We learned in Drive that having constant pressure around us limits our thinking and can ultimately reduce our effectiveness – however, that’s not the whole story. In the Paradox of Choice, we learned that there were two sorts of people maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are always looking for the best deal and are lamenting long after the decision is made if they find a slightly better deal. This is an analog to the perfectionist who has to get the perfect deal, be the perfect person, or have the perfect life. Satisficers, on the other hand, are focused on getting good enough. If a better deal comes along next week they’re not distraught about it. Maximizers were shown to be less happy than satisficers. So being, having, or getting the “best” doesn’t make people happy.

In addition, perfectionists have trouble getting things done. They’re always trying to make things perfect and therefore are never complete with what they do. In Switch and Good to Great we heard stories about organizations that didn’t make perfect decisions, they just made a decision and used that as a starting point for the next decision until the desired goal was reached. They are still people who proceed with excellence. Just because you’re making a decision with what you know doesn’t mean that it can’t be an excellent decision most of the time. If you’re not a perfectionist, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have high standards. People of high standards aren’t necessarily perfectionists.

There’s a subtle difference here between the maximizers and the satisficers. There’s the same subtlety between the perfectionists and those who proceed with excellence. It’s not about the end goal – it’s about accepting that whatever you do is enough. Whether it’s something you’re buying or something that you’re doing, knowing that it’s “good enough” is powerful for helping to get things done and also for your happiness.

Numbing

Humans are more miserable as a group than we have been at any other time in history. We’ve got more medicines to help us live healthier, happier lives and more people are overdosing on prescription drugs than are overdosing on illegal drugs. We’ve become a society of numbing our pains. We numb our pain through medications, hedonistic pleasures, and through the thorough business of our lives.

Medications may be an obvious place to start, with more people being on anti-depressants than at any time in history. We’ve developed drugs to override the brain’s normal chemical processing of feelings. We have replaced the development of deep and abiding relationships and connections with other humans with a little pill.

Today we have more ways to entertain ourselves than our parents would have thought possible. Video game consoles are compelling and inexpensive (relatively speaking). We take more vacations and spend more time at amusement parks than we ever have. We’ve found ways to live in and for the moment like no time in history. Instead of working on a service project with a friend, we go down to the amusement park and enjoy a day. To be clear, having fun and enjoying ourselves isn’t at all bad – it’s a well needed break. However, when we use it to numb the pain of our everyday life, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm – it won’t help.

Perhaps the greatest numbing agent that we use isn’t medicine or the occasional hedonistic pleasure, it’s the business of our lives. It’s the four activities each week for the three kids. It’s the three hobbies that we try to maintain instead of being able to connect with our families.

No matter how we choose to numb ourselves from the emotional pain that slowly creeps into the cracks and crevices of our lives, we have to know that numbing the pain also numbs the joy. You’re so busy that you can’t experience the beauty of the sunrise. You can’t experience the joy of sharing someone else’s pleasure. You can’t feel because the pill you took this morning won’t allow it.

When we fear pain so greatly that we build ways to never feel it, we’re giving up on life’s best teacher and we’re giving up on the fruits of life.

Leaning Into the Pain

Brown explains that you have to lean into the pain, discomfort and ambiguity to conquer shame and to live a fulfilled life. This isn’t a new concept. Those folks who are working through a 12-step program realize that it’s painful before it’s peaceful and that the pain of staying the same has to be greater than the pain of changing. Pain isn’t something that can be avoided. As I mentioned in my review of Compelled to Control, pain is sometimes just a signal.

The more that you lean into pain and discomfort, the more you’ll work your way through the pain instead of wallowing into it. At the risk of putting another thing onto your already busy plate, I heartily recommend that you read Daring Greatly if you’re interested in becoming a better you through accepting vulnerability and becoming more connected to others.