A warm, humorous and intelligent talk about vulnerability from the Texan social work academic who has made it her life’s focus, pulling case studies from her own life and career.
As the introduction says, Brené Brown “spent twenty years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, wrote five New York Times number one bestsellers, and her TED talk is one of the most watched in the world.” I’m already familiar with a couple of her books, but you don’t have to be to watch Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. It’s a great introduction to her, and you might track one down afterward.
The books tend to be found amongst self-help titles, but Brown is no psychologist or guru. She teaches and researches social work and much of what she talks about comes – disertation style – from her examination of real life case studies, interviews with a wide range of people, and analysis of her own findings; then repackaged into something regular people (rather than academics) might learn from.
Brené Brown opens her “special” (talk? presentation?) with a light introduction so we get to know her immediately (“It’s a Texas thing: I’ve always got my purse and an exit plan.”), and then puts herself right into her own topic of courage and vulnerability via the subject of the cover pictures chosen for her books. There are some very funny anecdotes and reactions: “I’ve done my share of body image work… but seeing my name under an elephant’s ass: that was never going to happen.” So we know from the outset that Brown knows what she’s talking about: she has felt what she studies, and being an “expert” doesn’t necessarily make feelings of vulnerability easier.
She goes on to talk about how her first TED talk came about by accident. “I’m not going to do my usual talk,” she told her husband, “about variables mitigating self-conscious effect. I’m going to be vulnerable, talk about vulnerability and put my whole self out there.” So she talked about how she hated vulnerability; and how when she discovered it was the “key to wholehearted living and loving”, she had a breakdown. (Watch the talk for the rest.) After the TED talk, Brown found herself in a small place, watching its popularity rise… She explains how this led her to a pivotal Teddy Roosevelt quotation (see below), and deciding to live that way. She then uses definitions and examples from other people to shed light on what that means: being bold without knowing the consequences. This leads to the crux of her message in this talk and the books I know her from: vulnerability is not weakness, but the most accurate way we have of measuring courage. Brown’s life provides a series of case studies with lessons learned, but she doesn’t put herself on any pedestal: she’s no show-off about how she’s applied everything she’s learned.
Regardless of how much you relate to or like or need the learnings Brené Brown has distilled here and in her other media, she is an utterly likable person. She is a natural human, with curses and jokes about her family, peanut butter and Downton Abbey for down moods. And best of all, an admirable blend of hilarious and intellect.
This Netflix special is presented like a typical stand-up comedy special, with a live audience nodding along in a medium-sized theatre. Unlike Hannah Gadsby, Brown had a presentation screen behind her (putting her back in her academic element), but otherwise, the set is very familiar. This isn’t presented as comedy, but documentary; and really it’s neither. It’s a full-length lecture, in front of people who already love her.
If there is a flaw to this special (and there is), it’s that the case studies, and indeed dialogue with the audience, are very white, middle-class heteronormative: the psychology and lessons may be pretty current, but it doesn’t feel like she relates them to a broad contemporary world. She talks about the current “social and political s**t storm”, and explains how business people need vulnerability in order to innovate, be creative and hold difficult conversations, but it’s apparent that she sees these issues from a very specific, narrow viewpoint. For example, she assumes everyone she’s talking to works in an office, seemingly forgetting that people with any lifestyle might watch on Netflix.
Brown mentions God a few times, but there is nothing in what she says that relates to a religion or faith. She mentions her husband a lot, but this isn’t marriage advice. These things may put off some audiences, who don’t consider she’s “one of us”, but I completely understand that if a person has faith or a spouse they will form an integral part of their life and personality. I hope a wide range of people will look past her position of privilege, though I’m not sure how far she herself sees past it.
That said, there is a lot of valuable content, most of which I don’t believe has been covered in her books or other talks, though some has been touched on elsewhere in different ways. Some of it is so intense that I had to take a couple of breaks (it took me nearly two hours to watch a one hour and fifteen minutes show), and other parts so sharply observed that I want to watch it again to take personal notes rather than critic ones.
Let me close with the quotation which Brown says changed her life, and which reinforced the direction she took with her studies; maybe it will encourage you to find out what she herself has to say:
“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, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; 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.”
Teddy Roosevelt, 1910