"Twenty years ago, my goal was to start a global conversation about shame and vulnerability. Wildly, I think that's happened."
Dr. Brené Brown has made herself an inspirational superstar by getting audiences of millions, including the likes of Oprah, Katie Couric, and Amy Poehler, to tap into their vulnerabilities — the latter even asked Brown to cameo on her recent Wine Country comedy. The expert researcher on courage, shame, failure, and empathy says that accepting your vulnerability is actually the key to feeling brave, finding joy, and succeeding.
“Being a qualitative researcher is really about pattern finding,” Brown, now a research professor at the University of Houston, says. “I've been a pattern-finder since I was a kid trying to see connections in people's behaviors, thinking, and feelings. I like connecting the seemingly un-connectable.” Now the author of five number 1 New York Times best-selling books on the subject, and a famed TEDx speaker (whose “The Power of Vulnerability,” has been viewed over 41 million times, making her one of the top five most-viewed TED speakers of all time) has taken her talents to Netflix. Her first-of-its-kind hour-long special, The Call to Courage, became available to stream in April.
At the start: The self-proclaimed introvert turned public-speaking sensation stumbled upon her niche expertise after going back to school. She earned her bachelors’ degree in her late-twenties and finished a graduate degree in social work at the University of Texas at Austin. While in college, Brown says her future profession was sparked in part by working in a residential treatment facility. “I think it was a combination of what I was learning in social work school and my job in residential treatment that got me really interested in shame,” she says. “I ended up studying that and researching that, which led me to courage and empathy and vulnerability.”
Getting over obstacles: “I still feel like that young woman who had to self-publish her first book because she couldn't even get an agent, much less a publisher,” Brown says when asked about her success as a speaker and author. “I had hundreds of rejection letters. But I'm a very tenacious person, so I just outlasted failure.” The mom of two says that even through her success, she still notices her gender presenting roadblocks. “I'll go somewhere, and they'll call me ‘the Queen of self-help’ when if it was a guy who had five number one books, 22 years of research, and 400,000 pieces of data behind him, he wouldn't be relegated to ‘the queen of self-help.’” But that hasn’t stopped the expert who says she’s learned how to assert herself on- and offstage.
Settling into success: Working in uncharted territory as a woman has its fair share of ups and downs. Brown says one particular moment a couple years ago at a speaking engagement changed the way she valued her work and her time. “A speaking agent came up to me and said, ‘I represent a lot of the other guys here, and they're always put out when you're on the docket because you either do the coveted opening or closing keynote.’ I just smiled. He goes, ‘The hard thing to reconcile is that they're all getting paid three times what you make,’” Brown recalls. “Fuck that.” From that moment on she’s been working on sticking up for what she deserves. “Even if it's uncomfortable for me to raise my speaking fee, I have to think about my daughter and all the women that I mentor. I'm not on a different currency when I make my house payment or my car payment because I'm a woman,” she says. “The older I get, the more I’ve become really good at asking for what I need versus just being resentful and doing what everybody else wants me to do.”
Managing misconceptions: Brown says most people who have the wrong idea about vulnerability think that it’s a weakness related to oversharing. But, she says, her work is making a difference. “Twenty years ago, my goal was to start a global conversation about shame and vulnerability. Wildly, I think that's happened,” she says. “People are starting to understand that if the definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, there is no courage without vulnerability.” Up next, brown plans to delve into researching emotional literacy, “because when we don't understand our emotions, we have a tendency to cause pain rather than feel our own.” She will begin writing on the subject this fall. “I think badassery is having the courage to show up, be seen, and be heard when you can't control the outcome. That’s the definition I use for vulnerability, too,” Brown says. “I just want to try to leave the world a little braver than when I got here.”