Life Lessons: Embracing Vulnerability

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and has spent much of her career studying the complex human experiences of “vulnerability” and “living wholeheartedly.”

Her 2010 TED Talk presentation, “The Power of Vulnerability,” catapulted her into the international spotlight with a powerful message that literally resonated with millions.  In fact, it is among the top ten TED Talks viewed worldwide.  In addition, she is the author of the New York Times best seller, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

The phrase “Daring Greatly” came from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic.”  It has also been referred to as the “The Man in the Arena” speech, and was delivered at the University of Paris on April 23, 1910.  Here is the passage that made the speech famous and gained Brown’s attention:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Brown explained that the first time she read this quote she thought, “This is vulnerability.”  Based on more than a decade of researching this multifaceted emotion, she has learned that vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, but rather understanding the necessity of both.  “It’s being all in. I think the first thing we have to do is figure out what’s keeping us out of the arena.”

In an interview, Brown was asked, “What are the first three steps to daring greatly?”  She replied that she is not a fan of prescribed steps or tips because it is not a linear process, nor as easy as the steps can imply.  However, it can be as simple as “showing up and being seen.”  She further explained, “It’s about owning our vulnerability and understanding it as the birthplace of courage and the other meaning-making experiences in our lives.”

The truth is that most of us have been conditioned not to reveal our vulnerability.  Brown wrote, “In our culture, vulnerability has become synonymous with weakness.  We associate vulnerability with emotions like fear, shame, and scarcity; emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”

In contrast, Brown’s research reveals that important positive outcomes emerge from stepping into the arena of vulnerability, “The thing that I have learned is that vulnerability is at the center of fear and shame, but it is also the center of joy and gratitude and love and belonging.”

The truth is, it is only when we expose ourselves, perhaps in a personal relationship or in our work, that “we have experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”  Vulnerability is also at the heart of true leadership, “Re-humanizing work and education requires courageous leadership.  It requires leaders who are willing to take risks, embrace vulnerabilities, and show up as imperfect, real people.  That’s what truly, deeply inspires us.”

Sources: “Leadership Series: Vulnerability and Inspired Leadership” by Brené Brown for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; “Brené Brown: How Vulnerability Can Make Our Lives Better” by Dan Schawbel for Forbes; “Get Ready for a Vulnerability Hangover” by Roman Krznaric for The School of Life; “Professor Encourages Openness to Vulnerability” by Michelle Klump for the University of Houston.

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