As a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Brene Brown, Ph.D., has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her 2010 TED talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com, with more than 15 million views. Brown is the author of the best-selling books Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012), The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), and I Thought It Was Just Me (2007).
Brown will bring the wisdom of her research to professional beauty industry when she takes the stage at Serious Business, which will be held in New Orleans, January 18-19. But first, she offers a sample through a one-on-one interview with SALON TODAY’s Stacey Soble.
SALON TODAY: What led you to study vulnerability?
Brown: I actually started out studying connection. Studying connection was a simple idea, but before I knew it, I had been hijacked by my research participants who, when asked to talk about their most important relationships and experiences of connection, kept telling me about heartbreak, betrayal, and shame— the fear of not being worthy of real connection. By accident, then, I became a shame and empathy researcher, spending six years developing a theory that explains what shame is, how it works, and how we cultivate resilience in the face of believing that we’re not enough— that we’re not worthy of love and belonging.
In 2006, I realized that in addition to understanding shame, I had to understand the flip-side: “What do the people who are the most resilient to shame, who believe in their worthiness— I call these people the Wholehearted— have in common?” I hoped like hell that the answer to this question would be: “They are shame researchers. To be Wholehearted, you have to know a lot about shame.” But I was wrong. Understanding shame is only one variable that contributes to Wholeheartedness. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything— from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments— to their ability to be vulnerable.
From the very beginning of my investigations, embracing vulnerability emerged as an important category. I also understood the relationships between vulnerability and the other emotions that I’ve studied. But in my previous work, I assumed that the relationships between vulnerability and different constructs like shame, belonging, and worthiness were coincidence. Only after twelve years of dropping deeper and deeper into this work did I finally understand the role it plays in our lives. Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.
SALON TODAY: What’s the difference between vulnerability and weakness?
Brown: I define vulnerability as exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk. Feeling vulnerable is at the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief and disappointment, but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity.
The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth
about vulnerability and the most dangerous. Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.
Yes, we are emotionally exposed when we are vulnerable and, yes, being vulnerable means walking into the torture chamber that we call uncertainty and it requires taking emotional risks. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and showing up in our lives equals weakness. If we want to be brave, we have to be vulnerable. Whether the arena is an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation, we must find the courage to walk into vulnerability and engage with our whole hearts.
SALON TODAY: How can showing vulnerability or wholeheartedness empower a business or brand?
Brown: Innovation requires failure and risk. We have to be willing to try new things, to take chances, to have bold ideas. When we’re too afraid to fail we stop innovating. Shame is one of the most powerful reasons that we’re afraid to fail. “What will people think?” “I’ll be judged.” “They’ll think less of me.” These are the shame tapes that play in our heads when we’re considering trying something a new way or testing a new idea. Shame is paralyzing.
Vulnerability on the other hand is daring. That’s when we say, “This might not work, but I’m going to try it. If I fail I’ll learn from my mistakes and move forward. The idea or project might fail, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a failure. It means I’m an innovator.”
SALON TODAY: What are some examples of a corporation showing that it is vulnerability?
Brown: I don’t think we can become successful entrepreneurs without risk. Think about the courage it takes to start a business. To get the people around you excited, to ask for money, to put value on your products or services. There’s vulnerability in every step of that. That’s what makes entrepreneurship so courageous.
Developing a healthy and productive approach to failure and defeat are critical to daring greatly and shame resilience is an important part of this process.
One of my favorite stories is about Myshkin Ingawale who, after learning about the unbelievable and unnecessary maternal child death rate in rural India, decided to do something about it. He wanted to develop technology that was effective and efficient at testing for anemia in pregnant women.
He was a TED Fellow and when I heard him speak in 2012 he said, “I wanted to solve this problem so I invented something that would do it.” The audience burst into applause. Then he said, “But it didn’t work.” You could feel the let down in the room. Then he smiled and said, “So, I made it 32 more times and they all failed.”
But finally a smile slid across his face and he said, “The 33rd time worked and now deaths are down 50%.”
In Daring Greatly I also tell the story of Gay Gaddis, the owner and founder of T3 (The Think Tank) in Austin, Texas. Gay cashed in a sixteen-thousand dollar IRA with the dream of starting and ad agency. Twenty-three years after opening with a handful of regional accounts, Gay has built T3 into the nation’s largest advertising agency wholly owned by a women. When I asked her about vulnerability she said, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.” In the end of our interview she told me that entrepreneurship is all about vulnerability. Every single day.
For more information about other great speakers at this year's Serious Business, or to purchase tickets, visit seriousbusiness.net.