In this episode of Design Matters, I talk with NYTimes #1 best-selling author and researcher Brené Brown about belonging, courage, and vulnerability. This is one of her gems: “The very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability. And the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability.”
AND NOW, for the first time ever, I am adding transcripts of my Design Matters interviews for my Drip family! I've gotten a lot of requests over the years to provide transcripts, and now, finally here they are!
Curtis Fox, my producer: This is "Design Matters" with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 13 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative types about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about. On this podcast, Debbie Millman talks with author and researcher, Brene Brown about belonging, courage, and vulnerability.
Brene Brown: The very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability, and the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability.
Curtis Fox, my producer: Here's Debbie Millman.
Debbie Millman: Vulnerability, shame, failure. These aren't the things we like to think about in ourselves, but for Brene Brown, they are the focus of her attention.
As a research professor and business leader, she has studied how being vulnerable can make us more courageous and empathetic, more true to our humanity. In her new book, "Braving the Wilderness," Brene Brown calls on us to move closer to each other, because people are hard to hate close up, to speak truth to bullshit, but be civil, to hold hands with strangers.
She's here today to talk about her brand new book, her career, and the TED Talk that changed her life. Brene Brown, welcome to Design Matters.
Brene: I'm excited to be here. I listen to you all the time, so it's fun to be across from you doing this.
Debbie: Ditto. [laughs]
Brene: I love it.
Debbie: Ditto, yes. Brene, is it true that when the movie "Grease" first came out all those decades ago, you saw it 25 times?
Brene: I was trying to remember exactly, so I went with the most conservative number that we could come up with, but yes.
Brene: Yes, I used all the money I had saved up, all my Christmas, birthday card money. I saw it at least 25 times.
Debbie: Was it because of Olivia Newton John? John Travolta? What was the allure? Was is the two of them together?
Brene: No, I don't even think it was that part. It was the singing and the dancing and like, "This is gonna be high school, and I can't wait."
Debbie: Olivia Newton John, I think, was my first crush. I went and saw her when she was still a country music singer back in the '70s. [laughs]
Brene: Late '70s, yeah.
Debbie: I totally get it.
Brene: I think it was that, and I started smoking.
Debbie: I actually read that you wanted to be Olivia Newton John with a cigarette and a catsuit winning over John Travolta.
Brene: Until I watched it maybe 10 years ago with my daughter, who's now 18, so maybe she was probably 10 or 11 when we watched it, so maybe it was 8 years ago, 7 years ago, I was like, "This is completely inappropriate. You, we, we have to shut this thing off."
Debbie: "Cover your eyes."
Brene: The moral of the story is don't be the good girl, get the catsuit, buy a pack of Marlboros.
Debbie: Stockard Channing ruled in that movie.
Brene: Yeah. I loved it, and I aspired.
Debbie: I wish my listeners could see your face right now. Your eyes are sparkling.
Brene: [laughs] It was.
Debbie: Now, you were born Casandra Brene Brown in San Antonio, Texas, but you moved to New Orleans, Louisiana when you were very young. You've described your mom, who you are named for, as outspoken and tenacious. In what way?
Brene: Yeah, my mom and I are both Casandras, and she goes by her middle name, and I go by Brene. This is recent history, which we're not that old, but when I started kindergarten in New Orleans, it was 1969, was the first year of mandatory integration. I think the laws had come down maybe a decade before, but they weren't acting on them, so this is when the judiciary said, "You will integrate your schools." My mom was very outspoken around racial issues. She wrote an open letter to "The Times Picayune" against what we would call racial profiling today.
She was very outspoken in a time when people were not, especially white women.
Debbie: She was also rather crafty. I understand she made you, herself, and your Barbie matching yellow plaid shift dresses. Please tell me you still have them.
Brene: I don't have the dresses, but I have the pictures. I have us boarding a train, and she's holding my hand, and I'm holding my Barbie and all our dresses match. I thought of her ever as my crafty mom, but I knew when other adults got around her, they could look at her like she was a shit starter.
Debbie: She had it all going on, crafty, smart, vivacious. You take after your mom, I see.
Brene: I do a little bit, luckily.
Debbie: [laughs] From what I understand, when you were little, there was a time when you wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader?
Brene: Oh my god. Where did you get your research? That's terrible. It's true, but it's terrible.
Debbie: [laughs] Well, it's true? It was followed by a short period of time when you dreamed of driving an 18 wheeler.
Brene: Yeah, because we had a CB. Once we were proficient enough on the language, we were allowed to talk on the CB during family trips. We'd go back and forth to San Antonio from Houston all the time, and so I'd say, if we were going to San Antonio, I'd say, "Breaker 1 9 for I 10 eastbounder, how's everything looking over your shoulder?" We'd be looking for police, and so they would say, "Everything's clean and green. You've got a smoky mile marker 29." As long as I could understand and be fluent, I was allowed to use it. I was like, "I think I'll just do something where I talk on this for a living."
Debbie: I would give just about anything right now to be able to talk on a CB radio with you. The last thing I want to ask you about in terms of what you were aspiring to be when you were a child was that when you were in middle school, inspired by the television show "Love Boat," you wanted to be a cruise director, like Julie.
Brene: [laughs] Oh my God.
Debbie: You're staring at me with hatred.
Brene: I did. We've got Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, truck driver, or cruise director. Yeah. Look. What we see matters. We hear all these debates about inclusivity on television and seeing people in jobs. That shit matters.
What I saw were Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, because we watched football all the time, and there was no female...Captain Stubing was not a woman on the Love Boat. It was just the cruise director telling people where the parties were or whatever. That's what I saw and so that's what I wanted to do.
Debbie: Until you discovered Eleanor Roosevelt.
Brene: Oh man.
Debbie: She changed your life.
Brene: That changed everything. Yeah.
Debbie: What happened? How did that happen?
Brene: I just remember that my parents were hosting a bridge party. All four of us, the kids, were upstairs. There was a PBS special on. We were never allowed to watch television. We could watch television, we could watch two shows a week.
Debbie: What did you watch, besides Love Boat?
Brene: Love Boat was later, but when we were young, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom..."
Debbie: Yes, me too.
Brene: Yeah, and Disney.
Debbie: Marlon Perkins, right?
Debbie: Oh, I loved him.
Brene: And Disney. There was a PBS special on Eleanor Roosevelt. It was all no rules that night because of the bridge party downstairs. I watched it and I was like, "She's a complete badass. I can't believe she put up with all the crap she put up with, and why wasn't she president? I think she was pissed off that she wasn't president," and I even like her more now. That shifted everything, then I became much more aware.
Debbie: You left New Orleans for Houston, Texas when you were in the fourth grade, and then you left Houston for Washington, DC when you were in the sixth grade. In eighth grade, you moved back to Houston. That must have been really hard for you.
Brene: It was terrible. I was always the new girl. It was terrible, yeah. That's why writing a book on belonging seemed so natural to me, because I think I could mark the calendar of my life by not belonging. Yeah, it was really hard. Just think about this. Now as a parent, I think about moving fourth grade, sixth grade, and eighth grade.
The hard thing about the Houston move is we moved back to Houston and I went back into the same school I was in sixth grade but I had been gone for two years.
Debbie: Everybody's friendships had developed...
Brene: Yeah. My friend group had nothing to do with me. I had been living in Washington, DC, so I was a little bit more ahead in terms of how I dressed. I would go to bed and I would put 100 little braids in my hair and wake up and wear it really big and curly. People were like, "Mm. Where is she from?"
Debbie: After the final move back to Houston, your parents' marriage began to seriously disintegrate as well. It was also at this time, at the very end of eighth grade, after eight years of ballet, you tried out to be a cheerleader, on the drill team.
Brene: On the drill team. Yes.
Debbie: It's a slightly different type of...
Brene: Yes. It's the bear cadets. I just want you to picture white leather cowboy boots, a blue short little satin skirt with white fringe, a white cowboy hat, and then everyone had a short wig that had flipped out Doris Day hair, but in their natural hair color. You had to wear a standard issue Cherries in the Snow Revlon lipstick.
Debbie: In your amazing new book, Braving the Wilderness, you wrote that to this day, you're not sure that you ever wanted anything in your life more than you wanted a place on the drill team. Being on this team was about belonging personified. Can you share with our listeners what happened in that experience? Without giving too much away. It's such a great story. It's such an amazing story.
Brene: I think we had just moved back and we moved back two days before tryouts or something. We were right as tryouts were starting at the end of eighth grade. I think we moved back with four weeks of eighth grade left, which was just...
Debbie: Oh my God. It's "The Rules of When Not to Move," by Brene Brown.
Brene: Yeah, I know, really. "Are You There, God? It's Me, Brene." "Do not move." I said, "OK, I'll try out." When I had seen them...they came in the first day of tryouts, the whole team, and did a routine for us, and I was like, "It's like Greece. This is Greece. This is ticket to Greece." My parents were strung out. Things were so hard. My dad worked for Shell and they've been moving us around a lot. It was hard and I was the oldest of four. Things were just getting more and more tensed at home, more fighting. Back then, I didn't know anyone whose parents were divorced. All I knew is that my grandmother was divorced, my mom's mom. She was also an alcoholic and my favorite person in the world. I named my daughter after her. She was amazing, but growing up, she was an alcoholic, she was divorced, and no one could come to my mother's house because my mom had a divorced mom.
All I knew was that that divorce thing is really bad. Here are my parents feel like on the cusp of disaster, but here are the bear cadets and they're so bright and shiny. These high kicks, they're like, "What is happening? This is great." I go to tryouts and we get the routine, and it was funny because when I was writing the book, I was like, "What is the name of that song we tried out to?" I went to iTunes to try to find it. I was going through all these different songs, and I hit it, and it did the preview, and I just burst into tears. I was like, "Oh my God, that's the song."
Debbie: You still know the routine, don't you?
Brene: I still know the routine, yeah. I could probably do half of it right now. It was not a hard routine. Again, I had been in ballet for like eight years, so it was not a big deal. There was a rigorous, terrible weigh in. I remember during the whole thing everyone was starving themselves to death. No one was eating. Everyone was working out. There's plastics, sweat pants and sweat tops. Tryout day came. I got to the gym to tryout. I looked around. I was getting out of the car by myself and all of the other girls had spent the night together the night before. They were running in, holding hands, giggling and laughing. I got out of the car by myself and I realized very quickly, within seconds, all of these girls were just full make up, huge hair, golden blue were our colors, bows, golden blue silver outfits. I had on a black leotard, gray sweatshirt, it's like sweatpant material shorts that were rolled on my leotard, and just dancing shoes.
Debbie: Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance."
Brene: Flashdance, yes.
Debbie: That's what you looked like.
Brene: That's what I looked like because it's a dance thing. I just remember being traumatized by the weigh in, because I made the weigh in by six pounds because you don't eat for that week. There were girls screaming and running into the dressing room with their hands over their faces because they didn't make it. I did the routine. It was easy. It was great. I could kick harder than anyone in my group. It was fine. You went home. You had to wait for three or four hours until they posted the number. You wore a little number on your thing. I get back to the high school and there's a poster board.
Debbie: Your parents drove you back?
Brene: My parents drove me back because we were going to San Antonio to visit my grandma. I remember walking up to the poster board. I was number 62. I remember looking, and they're in numerical order, and I'm like, "58, 59, 64, 67," and I was like, "No, no. 58, 59, 64, 67." I was like, "How is this happening?" I remember this girl named Chris, who was the shiniest of all girls in eighth grade, running up, looking at her number, clearly seeing it, screaming. Her dad jumping up out of his car, running, and grabbing her and twirling around. They were twirling around. I was like, "Oh my God, this is not happening." I get back in the car and I was crying, and my parents did not say a word.
Debbie: I know. I know. I couldn't breathe when I was reading this. They didn't say anything.
Brene: They didn't say anything. They just got really quiet and looked down. This is the hard thing about parenting. The story I made up at the time, is my dad was a captain of the football team, and my mom was the head of her drill team. I think they were ashamed of me and for me. They did not know what to say. My parents had no idea what to say in that moment. We just drove, and Ashley, Barrett, and Jason, we're all little. If I was 12, Jason was 8, the girls were 4. They knew it was hard but no one said a word, like for three hours [laughs] to San Antonio. For me, it was a defining moment, because it was the moment I no longer belonged to my family. I did not belong with these people anymore. My brother was cool, my sisters were even cool in fifth grade. I was like. "Oh, my God." It's funny because when I talk to my parents about it today, they just said, "We didn't know what to do."
They couldn't be vulnerable growing up to survive. They came from very hard backgrounds. Their story was not Greece at all. Their story was the opposite of Greece. Back then, you just make up these stories, that's the thing about parenting.
Debbie: Nobody's life is Grease.
Brene: No one's life is Grease. I always tell parents, "You cannot control for the stories your kids will make up. The only thing you can do is provide a culture where they can go to you and say, 'The story I'm making up right now is this, are you ashamed of me or for me?' or 'Everyone's cool here but me.'" It really defined me. It was the last thing I ever tried out for my life. What I did is, fitting in is imperative in high school, I took to Miller Lite and smoking weed.
Debbie: You became Stockard Channing.
Brene: I found another crew that did not dance on the drill team. It was not great. It was really hard. It continued really through my early 20s.
Debbie: Well, you go on to write after sharing this story with the readers, how not belonging in our family is one of the most dangerous hurts, and it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self worth, and that day, all three broke for you. I was just astounded when I read the ways in which people, family, respond to this type of profound hurt. You talked about how there are really only three ways we respond to this type of pain living in constant pain, denying pain, or finding the courage to own the way we move forward. Can you talk a little bit about those three ways of trying to deal with pain at that point?
Brene: I think when people experience pain like that, and it's really interesting because I thought this is a book that takes on the political culture right now, today. This is a book that takes on everything from white supremacy and Black Lives Matter, why am I starring with the story about the drill team and not belonging? Aren't there bigger issues to take on? There are absolutely bigger issues to take on, but there is no bigger issue, I think, for those of us who feel like they don't belong in their families.
Debbie: Or don't belong on the planet.
Brene: Or don't belong on the planet, because, then, it's hard for us to be a part of the resistance, it's hard for us to speak up, because we don't know, and we lose ourselves in the movements that we become a part of.
For me, what I've observed in the data are that, the reaction to pain is, one, I pretend like it doesn't happen until it absolutely cripples you. Pain is not going to be ignored, and in the very end, it will take you down physically, like the body keeps score, and it will always win. The second piece is people who take that pain, and this is what we see today in the world. People who take the pain, the early pain, and they inflict it on others. They take their own pain and their own hurt because it's easier to cause pain than it is to acknowledge and feel your way through it.
The last one is, people who acknowledge pain, work their way through, and who in response to doing that have a very keen eye for seeing pain in the world and other people. I think that was my choice. The little miracle for me is that my parents grew with me. My parents will read every book and say, "God, we didn't know. What do you think about this?" Now I watch them with my kids and they're like, "You know, Ellen, I don't think you should pull that in on yourself. Don't carry that load. This is not about your worth." I'm like, [whispers] "Oh my God," which is great, but I'm like, "Where are you?" I think those are the only three options. Inflict it on others, pretend like it's not happening till it takes you down, or own the story and walk through it.
Debbie: In many ways, I feel that Braving the Wilderness is a bit of a culmination of your previous four books. As I was rereading quite a lot of your books before today's interview, one of the books that I was really struck by in how much of that book became a primer for this book, was "I Thought It Was Me, But It Wasn't."
I was struck when I read your description of Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Shelley Uram, and her work on "Remembering the Wound Versus Becoming the Wound," and you wrote how most of the time when we recall a memory, we are conscious that we are in the present recalling something from the past. However, when we experience something in the present that triggers an old trauma memory, we re experience the sense of the original trauma. Rather than remembering the wound, we become the wound. This makes sense when we think of how often we return to a place of smallness and helplessness when we feel shame. How do you get over those initial life defining wounds? How do you get to a place of feeling like you don't belong in your family, and then to a place where you're willing to look at why, and then feel that you do belong at some point to the world?
Brene: I think the key is owning the story. I think as long as you deny the story, the story owns you. The story is not going anywhere, so your choices are to pretend like it's not happening, or to own the story and walk into it. When you talk about becoming the wound... Like when I look at Charlottesville, and I look at those guys with torches, I see people living a wound, and thereby inflicting pain on other people. I think you either own the story, and you heal from that story, or you become dangerous to other people.
Debbie: It seems to be, from my perspective, so obvious that anybody that has to exert their power over someone else doesn't feel powerful enough.
Brene: Man, you just hit one of the biggest controversies I think in my field. I'm a social worker. I mean a social worker, social worker, like bachelors, masters and PhD in social work, that's what I did. I started very early in domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a lot of controversy around when you're dealing with perpetrators of domestic violence. Is that an action of power and control? What I found in my work is that is a response to powerlessness, not power. People who feel a sense of power don't respond like that. There is no greater and more profound danger in the human experience than powerlessness.
Debbie: Why is that?
Brene: How do you respond when you feel powerless? We're desperate. I mean, Martin Luther King defined power as the ability to affect change. When you're sitting there in Harvey and you're watching water lap into your neighbors houses, coming up your stairs, it is a sense of powerlessness, it is a sense of helplessness, of you want to come out of your skin. Powerlessness is incredibly dangerous. Now, are those people in Charlottesville really...Are the white supremacists really powerless? They're a member of a majority culture, they're men. I don't know this for sure, so I'll just say, hypothetically I'd make up they're mostly straight and Judeo Christian.
What their narrative of powerlessness is I don't know, but that's when people become dangerous. That's when people are really dangerous. I think what we're seeing right now in the culture, not just from this administration but around the world, is power over is absolutely making a last stand. Power over is absolutely saying, "This is the way the world has been since the beginning of time. We are not going to go to a model of shared power. We are defending the paradigm of power over at all costs."
Debbie: What made you decide to write a book like this?
Brene: Belonging obviously for obvious reasons is something that's always been very important to me. I thought I covered it in "The Gifts of Imperfection." I didn't know I'd come back and revisit it. I was going through my own metamorphosis around belonging, I was trying to finally understand what it meant to carry belonging in my heart and not to negotiate it externally with other people. It wasn't their shot to call whether I belonged or not, it was my shot to call. I thought, "Let me look back into it," and I was in it for five minutes before I realized, "Shit, you can't write about connection and belonging without talking about the real political world today." It was not my intention to wade into politics and what's happening, but you have to follow the data when you're a scientist, and that's where it went.
Debbie: You call yourself a grounded theory researcher, which you've described as developing theory from people's lived experiences. It doesn't feel like a big stretch to actually be looking at the way in which people are living their experiences now.
Brene: No, it's interesting. Just a quick story, I think you'll love this. Grounded theory was developed by Glaser and Strauss in the '50s, and they needed to find a methodology to talk to children who were dying, about the fact that they were dying. They couldn't ask them what they thought because back then, there was a pact made between physicians, nurses, parents, and clergy, to not let children who were dying know that they were dying.
Brene: They thought they couldn't handle it. They thought they couldn't handle their prognosis. These researchers were stuck, and they thought, "We want to study dying in children, but we can't ask them what it means to die. We're just going to come up with a methodology that is rigorous, based on peoples lived experiences, but we're not going to ask them anything but, 'Tell me what's going on in your life?' If what we want to study is not a priority for them, then we won't take it on, because this is peoples lived experiences." They would sit down with children and say, "Tell me why you're in the hospital?" One after one, the kids said, "I'm dying, but it must be really terrible. No one will talk to me about it." Grounded theory evolved as this methodology for studying hard topics. If I sit down with you and said, "Tell me how you negotiate belonging with people who you disagree with politically." There is so much loaded in that question that what I'm getting back is very prescribed. I just say, "Tell me about your family and your friends after the election." We build it from there, and then we test it quantitatively.
Debbie: You stated that grounded theory is really controversial in a lot of academic arenas. Why is that?
Brene: The methodology is not controversial. The methodology is super rigorous and very difficult. In fact, most of the time we try to tell people, you don't want to do it for dissertation, because it's long and hard. I mean, we don't use any technology, so we code all data by hand. I have 200,000 pieces of data we've collected over 17 years. What's controversial are the findings, because we are not proving the dead white guy theories out there, we're really asking people what it means in their lives. The theories that come up are hard, because it calls into question traditional research.
Debbie: You mentioned Barney Glaser, one of the founders of grounded theory, he calls it the drugless trip, and he said that you have to have a real comfort with uncertainty and vulnerability to do this kind of research. You define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. When you began studying vulnerability, your own conflict with it became apparent, and you recognized you were, in your own words,judgmental, perfectionistic, all work, and not only no play and no rest, but a kind of disregard for play, and rest, and the people who thought it was important. Was this an attempt to understand yourself, what caused the spiritual awakening/breakdown you referred to in your first TED Talk in 2010?
Brene: No, I think what happened early on is, I was trying to figure out the anatomy of connection. What do men and women who are connected share in common? I remember it was a very Jackson Pollock moment because Steve took the kids to San Antonio for the weekend, and I had like 50 big poster size post it notes all over my house. I was coding this data, and I was going through, and I ended up with a list of the wholehearted men and women do this, and they don't do this. They do this, but they try to avoid this. I looked at the don't, like the shit list, and that described me to a tee. Like, try to be cool, try to be perfect, try to derive your status from how exhausted you are, how hard you work. All these things just described me, and so I thought, "Oh my God."
Debbie: I think they describe everybody I know.
Brene: Yeah. I'm on the wrong end of the research stick people.
Debbie: It was at that moment, then you decided to seek help for yourself and figure it all out?
Brene: Yeah. Went to a therapist.
Debbie: Why do we do that? Why do we use these outside badges, this social cache to buoy ourselves up in the eyes of others, or in doing what we think buoys ourselves up?
Brene: Yeah, I mean it's a culture status thing. I mean exhaustion is a status symbol. I think because we just desperately want to be seen, we desperately want to belong. We want to believe we're lovable. In the absence of connection, there is always suffering, so we want to feel connected.
Debbie: You said that we're living in a scarcity culture, and that many of us feel that we'll never be thin enough, or rich enough, or safe enough, or maybe exhausted enough, or successful enough. The number one casualty of a scarcity culture is vulnerability. Why is the opposite of all these things, this social cache, this external meaning, this external validation, the opposite of vulnerability?
Brene: Because vulnerability at its heart is the willingness to show up and really be seen. No armor, to really be seen when you can't control the outcome. Every one of those things on the shit list, the judgment, the perfectionism, the work, that's trying to control perception.
Brene: Yeah, Instagram is trying to control how we're perceived, where vulnerability is, "This is who I am."
Debbie: Just an OK ness with that.
Brene: Always willing to get better and change, but this is the flaws, this is me.
Debbie: I, for many, many decades really tried to hide not only how much shame I felt about living, but my failures my rejections. As if somehow, if I revealed that, that it would mark me, it would damage me. I would never be loved again. I think it ultimately came from not every feeling loved to begin with.
Brene: What is so powerful is the one thing that we all have in common, is the fear that you just named. It is the paradox of vulnerability. That when I meet you, the very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability, and the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability. I'm desperately seeking yours while hiding mine.
Debbie: What are we so afraid of people seeing?
Debbie: It's rare to meet someone that you can see immediately as someone who's had good parenting. Ultimately, I think good parenting is what makes you feel lovable in the world. That has very little to do [laughs] with anything else, at least from my perspective.
Brene: I think it is key. I think the mistake that we make, I would say, is with very few exceptions, 99.9 percent of the parents, who raised all of us, were doing the very best they could and probably 10 orders of magnitude better than what their parents did. The belief that we have to change is that because someone didn't or couldn't love me, that makes me unlovable. That's the big mythology. Regardless of someone's ability or willingness to love you, whether it's a partner, a parent, it has really no bearing on your lovability whatsoever. To take that onto our load, that's what changes the trajectory of people's lives.
Debbie: If somebody does love you, there's this crazy paradox of why do they love me and they need to keep proving that they love me.
Brene: Or they love me so they must not be so great. It's like the Groucho Marx thing. I don't want to belong to a club that would let me in. Steve was the first person I felt like who really saw me, like really saw me. He caught the tail end of self destructive wild Brene. He saw me and he came from a really similar hard parenting, a lot of divorces. We were the first people we talked to about those things. He really saw me. I remember six months after we got married, I was in a therapist's office, and I was like, "This is not going to work at all." He's just bugging the shit out of me and I don't think I can stay married to him at all. We had several sessions. She was like, "I think you're right about Steve." I am like, "Yes. I knew it." She was, "He likes you so much more than you like you." I was like, "I'm sorry?" She was like, "He just likes you so much more than you like you. It must be a lot of conflict." I was like, "Fuck you. You're fired."
Debbie: I underlined that in the book. It's a wonderful story.
Brene: I was like, "You're fired." I got there eventually.
Debbie: A Maya Angelou quote figures prominently in the narrative of Braving the Wilderness and it comes from an interview she did with Bill Moyers. I was wondering if you could read it today for us on the show.
She says, "You are only free when you realize you belong no place. You belong every place. No place at all. The price is high. The reward is great." This is a line that actually really bugged you for a long time. I know you spoke to Steve about it at length. This thing was like a craw in your side.
Brene: It was totally stuck in my craw. I was like, "What does that mean? You're only free when you belong nowhere and everywhere." I'm calling bullshit on that. That cannot be true. As someone who craved belonging, there's no freedom in not belonging. That's been like a straitjacket, not freedom for me. There was this moment where I was sitting with Steve just a couple years ago, and I was going through a big stack of speaking requests.
One of them said, "Please come speak at our church. We really love you. There'll be 3,000 people in the audience. It'll be amazing. We know you're folksy and down home. The only thing that we ask is that you not cuss. It'll offend the faithful." I won't say what I said to that, but that would actually offend possibly the faithful. I was like, "What? I'm the faithful." In the same stack, two requests deeper in the stack, it said, "Fortune 100 company," because I do 90 percent of my work around leadership and culture development, and people don't know that. That's where I spend most of my time. They're like, "Super excited to have you come in and talk to the leadership team about your work. We saw you speak at this retreat. We love what you're saying about vulnerability and innovation and art and creativity. It's super important for our business right now. You did mention that your two values that lead you are faith and courage, and we're wondering if you can omit the faith part and just talk about the courage part, because in the corporate setting, we don't talk about faith." I was like, "No." I look at Steve. It's my 49th time. I'm 49. I still belong nowhere. I'm not the church speaker. Completely not the church speaker. I'm not the leadership speaker because I talk about feelings and faith and things that are important to us. I don't belong anywhere.
He's like, "Brene, everywhere you speak, you're like the top rated speaker. You belong anywhere that you go as long as you're yourself." Maybe, I mean. I guess I belong everywhere. I belong everywhere. I belong nowhere. Holy shit, the Maya Angelou quote. I was like, "Oh my God." I grab my laptop. I searched it. I read it to him. He was like, "Yeah, that makes sense to me." It wouldn't make sense, but I think that's true of you. I Googled the interview with Bill Moyers, because I had never seen the whole thing, just that clip. The next question he asks after she says this is he says, "Really? You don't belong anywhere?" She pauses for a second and says, "No, actually, I belong to Maya. And I like Maya very much." I was like, "Oh my God. I want to belong to Brene." I went back in my study and said, "I'm going to look into this thing for a minute." He was like, "Should I order dinner?" "No, no, I'll make dinner. You start. No, you make dinner." He was like, "I'm going to order dinner, because the last time you said this, it took two years. So I'm going to go ahead and order dinner." That's when I started the research on belonging.
Debbie: I love that. She says, "I like Maya very much. I like the humor and courage very much. When I find myself acting in a way that isn't, that doesn't please me, then I have to deal with that."
Debbie: I love that. I love that.
Brene: She's so wise.
Debbie: The experience of learning into that quote motivated you to start this body of research that allowed you to start developing this book and the theory of true belonging, and I was going to ask if you would share that with us as well, Brene. The theory of true belonging.
Brene: True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply, that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn't require that you change who you are. It requires that you be who you are.
Brene: Thank you.
Debbie: I think I need to have that tattooed on my heart. Why are so many people so afraid of being alone, Brene?
Brene: I think people are afraid to be alone because they don't belong to themselves. One of the things that was so crazy to me about this research and these findings was that true belonging is not just about being a part of something but also having the courage to stand alone when you're called to stand alone. When the joke's not funny, when you don't believe in something, when you have a different opinion, when you're at family dinner and people are saying things that you actually find hurtful. When you're called to stand alone and you can't, then true belonging is very elusive. Your level of belonging will never exceed the level of courage you have to stand alone. That was a new thing for me. I'm at a place in my life right now where I'm not afraid to be alone. I so fully belong to me now. I call what we're in right now a spiritual crisis of disconnection. People get nervous about spiritual practice and spiritual crisis. They're like, "Not religion. Isn't that why we're in this mass to begin with?" This has nothing to do with religion or dogma. I define spirituality as the belief that we're inextricably connected to each other by something bigger than us. Some people call that bigger thing God. Some people call it fishing. Some people call it art. Spirituality is no more, no less, than the belief that we're connected to each other in a way that's unbreakable. You cannot break the connection between human beings, but you can forget it. We have forgotten that inextricable connection between human beings. When I am alone and standing up for something that I believe in, I know you can't do anything to permanently break the connection between me and everyone else in the world. I know I'm called to courage to stand alone. I think people who forget that we're inextricably connected actually feel completely not just alone but lonely, and I think that's the difference.
Debbie: How do you hold onto your vision of what is right and just and noble in the face of other people's rejection or discontent with whatever it is you stand for?
Brene: This is why I call it the wilderness. Every poet, artist, musician, theologian has used the metaphor of the wilderness to describe that solitude, that journey of it's just me and I don't know what to expect. I don't know what's coming next.
Debbie: That inner belief.
Brene: That inner belief. When you're called to the wilderness, it's very hard to walk in and stand alone, but you have to hold onto the belief that even though you feel like you're the only one, a lot of us live out there.
The thing about going into the wilderness and standing alone and taking a stand is I think those experiences mark your heart. To me, it's the mark of the wild heart. I do find sacred being a part of something, but never at the cost
of betraying myself.
Debbie: Your TED Talk catapulted you to fame, but you had already been speaking and publishing quite a bit before that. Your first book, the book that I referenced earlier, I Thought It Was Just Me But It Isn't Making the Journey from What People Think to I am Enough had been published in 2007. You self published it first as "Women and Shame" back in 2004 and you'd written about how you could wallpaper a building with your many rejection letters from publishers. I'm not sure that everybody really knows that about you. You even borrowed money from your parents and sold copies of the book out of your trunk.
Brene: I did.
Debbie: What gave you that sense? You were deep in the wilderness at that point.
Brene: Oh my god, I was. No one was talking about shame. People were like, "A book on shame, no thanks. Sexy as that sounds, we're not interested." Man, one publisher said, "We're interested. We'll buy it. We'll need to change the title to 'Women's Most Embarrassing Moments.'"
Debbie: Oh, no, no. What gave you the power to persevere? What kept you sure that you were on the right course?
Brene: I knew. I felt otherworldly about it. There's a lot of tears, a lot of frustration, a lot of crying, a lot of rejection. I sold enough books out of my trunk that it got Penguin's attention, then Penguin bought it.
Debbie: They changed the name.
Brene: They changed the name from Women and Shame to I Thought It Was Just Me, which is great because that's the one thing people say when they read the book, "Oh, I thought it was just me." I experienced so much shame, especially at the hands of my academic colleagues for self publishing, that when Penguin bought it, I was like, "I will absolutely sever myself from the vulgar commerce of book sales. I will not do any kind of promoting of this book. I will sit back and wait for it to hit the charts and do everything." It failed. I Thought It Was Just Me came out. Two months later, they called me and said, "How many copies do you want to get?" I said, "I'll take 10 for my mom and her friends." They were like, "No, we have thousands. You're being remaindered, pulped. It's over. It's done. You failed."
Debbie: What did you do?
Brene: I lost my shit at first. I have a very high tolerance for risk and failure as long as I can learn something. I was like, "What is the learning here? What is the learning here?" I think the learning for me was, if you're not going to get excited and put value on your work, don't expect anyone else to get excited or put value on your work.
If you're going to sit back and wait for people to knock on the door and say, "Talk to me about your work," don't do it. That was a hard lesson for me. I got a chance to redo it with a paperback. The other thing about I Thought It Was Just Me, it's a lot of people's favorite books. It's all women. It's thick on shame. It's a book just about shame.
Debbie: You featured four women in that book. I did read the book thinking, "Oh my God. I thought it was just me." I have actually been saying that through all your books. I almost feel like you write the books for a specific point in my life that I am approaching or in the middle of.
Debbie: They're guide books to get out of whatever is in my way. You said that courage is more important to you as a value than succeeding.
Debbie: Was this when you cultivated it, coming out of that whole...?
Brene: Yes. That and after the success of "Daring Greatly" or maybe the success of "Gifts of Imperfection," I can't remember which book, I think there was some pressure to do a formulaic book, just keep doing what you're doing.
I'd rather have a book...Well, this is the learning from I Thought It Was Just Me. If I fail whole heartedly, I can live with that. If I fail and I've been half assed or half hearted in my effort, that I cannot live with.
Debbie: I had a student a couple of years ago, we were talking about the kind of life we want to have. One of the classes that I teach is called Differentiate or Die How to Get a Job When You Graduate. It's not only about getting a job, but getting a job that really means something to you. What do you feel like you deserve? What do you feel like you're worthy of? I actually feel like I've shown your 2010 TED Talk so often. I show it in every class that I teach that I could actually do it if you wanted me to. I won't, at least not now. One of the things that I ask the students is, "What are you afraid of? What is keeping you from trying this or doing this?" One of my students said something that I've never forgotten. He said, "I'm afraid if I do this and I fail, I will die of a broken heart." At that point, I try to bring Dan Gilbert and synthesizing happiness in. Essentially saying, "What would you rather die of, regret at not trying it?"
Brene: That's much crueler.
Debbie: Any advice for young people that are at the beginning of their adult lives and thinking about what they can do with their lives that can allow them to feel that courage?
Brene: Plan on heartbreak.
Brene: Just plan on heartbreak. The only people who don't have heartbreak in their careers are people who have no love or passion for their career. Heartbreak is, while miserable when you're in it, a small price to pay. Heartbreak and criticism are small prices to pay for doing work that you're profoundly in love with. I find the work of people whose hearts are stretch marked and scarred to be far more profound than clean shiny new hearts.
Debbie: I think having experienced with heartbreak allows you to understand humanity in a way that you couldn't possibly if you didn't experience it.
Brene: It does. Know going in.
Debbie: That's whole hearted, right?
Brene: That's whole hearted. Know going in. That's daring greatly. The only guarantee if you live a brave life is you're going to get your ass handed to you. Just know that is part of the process. Grieve. Have a hard time. I think that's what you have to do.
Debbie: One of the most significant themes of Braving the Wilderness was the notion of trusting oneself and others. I love the quote you included from Charles Feldman, who describes trust as, "Choosing to risk, making something you value vulnerable to another person's actions and distrust as deciding that what is important to me is not safe with this person." It blew my mind. It really blew my mind. I think that's the world we're living in right now, this sense of distrust. My last question to you today is this...I think it's a big one. How can we learn to be more trustful in our relationships and in our communities and in our countries and in our world? How can we do that?
Brene: I think it starts with self trust. Trust is a big, hard word. When our trustworthiness is called into question, we usually go very limbic. We hear like the Peanuts mom, like Wah wah wah. We don't hear people talking.
What we did is we went into the research and said, "When we talk about trust, what are we really talking about?" We found the seven elements that you're referring to. We use the acronym of BRAVING, Boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault which is confidentiality, integrity, non judgment and generosity. I think we build trust by having honest conversations about what trust is. To sit down with our families and say, people want to pull in information, integrate it, and then slowly ooze it out with people...Just sit down and say, "Look, I read a book. In this book, it said the definition of trust is sharing something vulnerable with you and feeling safe about sharing it. You all are the people I love the most, but I don't feel like I can trust you with my opinions because they're different from yours. Can we talk about this? I don't know what to do, but if this is the definition of trust, it's really important that you and I have this. I don't feel like we do right now." Just having the hard conversations. That's how I think this starts.
Debbie: Brene Brown, thank you so much for being on the show today. Thank you for writing these remarkable books that help to change our lives, our culture, our world. It is so important now more than ever. Braving the Wilderness is a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment in helping us do that.
Brene: Thank you so much.
Debbie: To find out more about Brene Brown and read an excerpt from Braving the Wilderness, go to brenebrown.com. This is the 13th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening.
Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
Curtis, my producer: For more information about Design Matters or to subscribe to our newsletter, go to debbiemillman.com. If you like the podcast, please write a review on iTunes and link to the podcast on social media. Design Matters is recorded at the Masters and Branding Studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by designobserver.com. You can subscribe to this free podcast on the iTunes store or wherever you get your podcasts.