Brene Brown, Author and Public Speaker
Letting Down Your Guard
Brené Brown was a meandering twentysomething, doing more traveling and bartending than she was building a business or focusing on school. As a result, she didn’t graduate college until she was 30. Nonetheless, after finishing her bachelor’s in social work, she quickly gained her master’s and PhD and started working as an academic at the University of Houston.
But something was rustling beneath the surface for Brown. Being a quiet academic and publishing papers wasn’t quite enough for her. Her inner wanderlust hadn’t yet been spent. Something stirred within her yet.
That something turned out to be entrepreneurship.
This drive led Brown to build a second career, publishing books, giving talks, and coaching executives and successful entrepreneurs.
But what Brown is most known for is her unique message calling for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike to open their hearts and minds to vulnerability. What many avoid and even look down upon, Brené Brown insists is a key to success, real intimacy, and happiness.
Brown is a maverick thought leader when it comes to the startup world. In today’s entrepreneurship community, dominated by masculine values and “tough-guy” attitudes, she cuts through the noise with her message to accept and even embrace discomfort. And she isn’t just preaching this message: Throughout her work, and her now famous TEDx talk, Brené Brown exposes her own vulnerability.
This refreshing, data-based look at life and success has resonated with the millions of people who have watched the talk, and the many entrepreneurs she currently works with. It also informs the way she runs her own business, and was in full display during her interview with Foundr.
The Misfit Academic
Brown initially dreamed of being an academic. She hoped to spend her days researching, teaching, and sharing her findings with the rest of the research community. However, soon after securing a place as a professor at the University of Houston in Texas, Brown grew dissatisfied with the reach her work had.
“In doing my work and my research on shame, it was the first time people were asking me, ‘You’re going to tell us what you find right?’ I would be like, ‘Ehhh no, I’m going to publish a peer-reviewed academic article that like four people read.’ And I realized that that just doesn’t work.”
Brown requested to move from being a full-time professor to part-time to focus on how to get the results of her research out there to a larger audience. Though she wasn’t one just yet, like all great entrepreneurs, her goal was to make her work accessible and available to as many people as possible. She wanted to scale up.
It was along this quest, when she was invited to do a talk for TEDxHouston.
“[The TEDx organizers] said to me ‘What do you want me to talk about?’” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t care. Have fun and be awesome.’ It was the first time that an event organizer was not totally prescriptive about what you could and could not say.”
With this permission slip, Brown decided to give her talk a bit differently than she might during her other pursuits. She had been speaking to executives and crowds all around the country on the topics of shame and vulnerability, but always playing the role of an outsider, a researcher delivering analysis. This time, she decided to put her money where her mouth was.
“I’m going to do something extremely experimental and scary tomorrow during this TED Talk,” she says of her thought process at the time. “I’m going to be vulnerable while I’m talking about vulnerability.”
If you haven’t seen the talk, Brown opens up in front of the crowd about how her research into vulnerability actually caused her to have a psychological crisis of her own.
After the talk was over, instead of being elated and proud of her courageous move, she was devastated. “I thought that it sucked. I had no idea it was being recorded.”
Within a few months, she was contacted by TED itself (TEDx events are independently organized spinoffs), whose staff asked her if she’d be willing to allow them to place her talk on the TED master site. She accepted, thinking that no one would watch it anyways.
What happened next changed the course of her career. The video went viral, and currently has more than 20 million views. Since then, Brown has been successfully growing a publishing, speaking, and coaching business, with a team of more than 20 people. She focuses on helping clients open up and be more vulnerable in their lives, which she acknowledged during her Foundr interview was personally challenging.
“The more successful I’ve become, the scarier being real and vulnerable feels, because the more I feel I have to lose.” Brown says. “But i know that I need to go and be vulnerable to be successful.”
How to Embrace Vulnerability
Brown has had her share of losses. She shared with Foundr the story of her first book, which she self-published since no publisher would accept it. After it did well, Penguin publishers agreed to republish it.
Brown felt victorious and was excited to boast to all of her naysayers of her big win. Instead, the book failed horribly.
“Entrepreneurship is vulnerable by definition. The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. If you are not experiencing uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, you are not an entrepreneur.”
Easier said than done for most. To help you get over the hump into the promised land of vulnerability, here’s what Brown recommends:
- Self-promotion is uncomfortable but vital. Do not ever expect anyone to place value on something that you are not placing value on. You can’t expect anyone else to get excited about something if you yourself are not excited. “People get the cue of how excited to get about something based on how excited the founder is about it. It’s hard. It’s so hard. It’s vulnerable.”
- Be vulnerable with the right audience and for the right reasons. There are certain situations where being vulnerable is not the right move. But how do you know when to share, and when to hold back? “Get really still and examine your intention. Why are you sharing? Are you trying to scare them? Shame them? Motivate them?” To illustrate, Brown recounts a recent failure in her business. An important project went down, and she was extremely disappointed and hurt. “I wanted to tell them [her team] about the failure, and I realized that my intention was that I wanted them to feel the same pain. I realized this was not the constructive thing to do.” Instead, Brown went around the room during a team meeting to talk about it. “Turns out, the team all felt bad. So I said, let’s dig into what went wrong. Talk about accountability not blame. Talk about what to do next time.”
- Don’t put on a tough face; be a tough person. “I don’t want to work with an entrepreneur who puts on a brave face. I want to work with an entrepreneur who is actually courageous. I believe in truly brave people. That means being vulnerable and asking for help and admitting when they went wrong. We don’t need brave faces running businesses. We need brave people.”
Brené Brown, despite the difficulties, has truly embraced the message she’s been spreading. It’s clear from talking with her that vulnerability is part and parcel of who she is as a person and as an entrepreneur. And it’s taken her a long way.
Brené Brown’s 3 Must-Have Traits of True Leaders
- They do discomfort.
- They are very aware of their own emotional landscapes and those of the people they work with.
- They invest in personal development and awareness, not just professional development.
- Why vulnerability doesn’t have to be a weakness and how you can turn it into your strongest weapon
- Where to find the strength to get back up when you’ve fallen further than ever before
- The right way to deal with all the pressures of being an entrepreneur
- How to take the data you have and turn it into a profitable business
- What it truly means to be vulnerable
Full Transcript of Podcast with Brene Brown
Nathan: Hey, guys. Welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan, I’m the CEO and Publisher of Foundr Magazine and I am your host coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. Now, let’s jump in and talk about today’s guest. You know, this was a really, really profound conversation and we go really, really deep, you know. For those of you that are not familiar with Brené Brown’s work, wow. I know you’re gonna wanna check it out after you listen to this conversation. I’ll just leave it at that. We talk about trust, vulnerability, leadership, courage, being afraid to fail, fear, shame, sharing stories, and what it means if things don’t work. And these are things that we all go through as entrepreneurs.
So, you know, this is a really really deep conversation, so much gold, I say this all the time, but we only give you the best stuff and we only let you have the best interviews and episodes that we have. So I know you’re gonna love this one, not gonna ramble anymore. If you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review on the App Store or Stitcher or Soundcloud, wherever you’re listening it helps so much. I hope you enjoy this episode. Now let’s jump into the show.
Nathan: So the first question I ask everyone that comes on is, “How did you get your job?”
Brené: Oh, man, it was a really windy path, you know. I didn’t graduate from college until I was 30. I took that I was on the 12-year plan. I hitchhiked across Europe, I bartended a lot, yeah, and just kinda had a lot of life experiences. Fell in love with social work, got my Bachelors Degree in Social Work, and then really rapidly went and got my masters and my Ph.D., and wanted to become an academic and a researcher. And so I became a researcher and a professor and in doing my work and my research especially on shame, I kept…It was the first time I’d ever done research where people were asking me, you know, “You’re going to tell us what you find, right? You’re going to tell us what you learn, right?” And I was like “Uh, no. I’m gonna publish a peer-reviewed academic article that like four people read, so I can get tenure.”
And I realized that just doesn’t work like that does not work. And so I went to my dean and said, “I’m gonna quit,” and he said, “No,” and I said “Well, let me work part-time,” and he said, “There’s no such thing,” and I said, “Okay then I’m quitting,” and he said, “Well, let me see.” And then he called me back in after they talked to the provost and the university president, and they said, “Okay.” So I became kind of, you know, a part-time researcher, I still teach a class every year, and then I really try to make my work accessible, and get out there and start conversations about important things.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow. Amazing. And, you know, I have a lot of stuff I wanna to talk to you about but, I’ll try, I know I’m really mindful of your time. So I’m just gonna hit you with some random questions and we’ll see how we go okay?
Brené: Shoot. Yeah, let’s do it.
Nathan: So, the first one is like, I’ve watched your TED Talk so many times. I think it’s one of the most viewed ever TED Talks, is that right? I think so.
Brené: It’s true. It’s crazy.
Nathan: It is crazy. So first of all, how did that come about? Like how did TED get in touch with you, and say they want you to do a TED talk and how did it all come about? And how much preparation went into your talk? Because it was just amazing, I have to say like it was really…it was just so like so deeply, I can see why it’s such an emotional talk and it really hits home for so many people for the world.
Brene: Yeah this is such a…The story of this TED talk is such an important constant lesson for me as an entrepreneur, and its a painful lesson because the truth is they called me from TEDx Houston, it was the first time we’d had TEDx in Houston, the curators were these really young, kinda they run culture map here, Javier Fadul calls and says, “Look you wanna open up TEDx Houston? It’s at U of H, University of Houston where you teach.” And I was like, “Yes.” And then for the first time in my career when I said what do you want me to talk about, he said “I don’t care. Have fun and be awesome.” And it was the first time that an event organizer was not totally prescriptive with me about what I can say and not say.
And so the day before that event, I was in Bali with 50 CEOs from Silicon Valley. And on this long flight, eight-hour flight back to Houston, I’m sitting with my husband, and I said I’m gonna do something really…And I’d been talking with these CEOs from Silicon Valley about courageous leadership, and about being brave and vulnerability, and I said, “You know what, I’m gonna just put my money where my mouth is, and I’m gonna do something extremely experimental and scary for me tomorrow during this TED Talk.” And he’s like, my husband’s like, “Oh shit! What?” And I said, “I’m gonna be vulnerable while I’m talking about vulnerability.” And he’s like, “Uh, that sounds terrible.” And I was like, “It does, but I’m gonna try it because look, here’s the deal, it’s 500 people, it’s U of H, what do I have to lose?”
And so I go, and for the first time, rather than like my own armor in my life is like research armor, like I’ll talk about “Variables mitigating self-conscious aphex,” you know. And so for the first time I just said look here’s the deal vulnerability is hard, it’s broken my heart, it killed me, I had to go get a therapist, it sucked but this is why I think we need to do it, and this is what I’m learning from the research and it was just really honest. And when I got home I was like, “Oh my God, that did suck and I don’t know that I’ll ever do that again.” Well, I had no idea it was being recorded. And so long story, kinda of still long, you six months later, Chris Anderson who curates the big TED site said, “We are putting this on the big TED site,” I was like, “Oh my God you cant.” He’s like, “We are doing it, it’s gonna be great.” My husband’s like, “Don’t worry no one will watch it.”
And then it just went viral. And it’s such a good lesson to me that, that was me feeling like what do I have to lose? I’m gonna put my heart out there. I’m gonna do…I’m gonna experiment. If I fail it’s okay. If I don’t try it’s not okay, and I’m just gonna kinda go for it. And the more successful I’ve become, the scarier being vulnerable and real feels, because now I feel like I’ve got more to lose, and the struggle of feeling that but knowing that if I don’t stay vulnerable and authentic and innovative, I will definitely lose out, is such a hard struggle.
Nathan: Hmm, so like, as an entrepreneur, you know, what role can vulnerability play?
Brené: I think it’s everything, I mean entrepreneurship is vulnerable by definition. I mean, the definition of vulnerability from the data is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, and if you’re not experiencing uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, you’re not an entrepreneur. Like, that’s by definition kind of what we do and who we are. And so the question becomes, are you embracing vulnerability as kind of the superpower of entrepreneurial endeavors? Are you pretending like you’re not and are you armoring up, and trying to play it safe while building something brave?
Nathan: Hmm. Because yeah, look, you know I think, yeah, you’re right. Like as an entrepreneur you have to make yourself vulnerable, you have to put yourself out there. Like I remember when I first started Foundr, and this is my first serious business, knew nothing about apps, knew nothing about publishing, nothing about interviewing, editing, you name it, started it by myself, and I was ashamed to tell people about it.
Like I even remember the first issue of the magazine I didn’t even put my face in the editor’s letter because I was ashamed that we weren’t a big magazine, and I wanted to kind of convince people we were. Which is kind of crazy thinking back. Like three years later I laugh at that, but like it is so true. So I guess, you know, what practical things, because I know we as entrepreneurs, a lot of our audience would be feeling this shame, this you know, impostor syndrome, this like you know, not wanting to ask for help even, like there’s a lot of people that don’t wanna ask for help and I think that is so important, you have to have mentors, you have to learn from others, you have to put yourself out there and be prepared to say “I don’t know the answers.” You know, what things can entrepreneurs do to be able to overcome? And it’s not like it gonna do these things and it’s gonna go away forever, it’s always going to be there, right? But how do you manage it?
Brené: You know, I think the first thing is it is so, I mean, let me tell you, I so relate to not putting your picture on the first letter from the editor, because my first book was self-published. My second book failed, and it failed because I felt so much shame having to self-publish because I couldn’t find an editor or an agent that was willing to take a chance on shame because it’s such a tough topic. So I borrowed money and self-published my first book and it did really well, and so when Penguin offered to buy it and republish it, the first…my first response was I will have nothing to do with the promotion and unsavory selling of this book because now I’m a real author, with a real publisher and I’m gonna show everybody who laughed at me when I self-published, I’m gonna show my academic peers who gave me such shit about it, I’m gonna show everyone.
And that book completely failed. And you know the first actionable thing that I would say is do not ever expect anyone put value on something that you’re not putting value on. I get that self-promotion is uncomfortable, but if you build something you believe in and you can’t get excited about it, and you can’t celebrate it, and you can’t get loud about it and talk about it, and invite people to look at it or try it or use it, don’t expect anyone else to do that for you. Because, people will take a cue about how excited they should be about something, based on how excited the founder is.
And so if you’re gonna build something or make something or produce something and then sit back and hedge your bets like I’m not gonna get too big, I’m not gonna get out there too much in case this doesn’t work, you have just sealed your fate that it will not work. It’s so hard, it’s so vulnerable but I can tell you that as someone who has, you know, really experienced a lot of success and my very fair share of failure, when I look back on the failures, like that first book, where my effort was half-hearted, half-assed, that failure hurts so much more, it’s so much deeper than the times where I did something, I put myself out there, I told everyone how excited I was, I asked people to support me and buy-in an be excited with me and it failed, that did not hurt as much. Because people came up to me and said, “You know what, that didn’t work out but, man, you were ballsy.” That was awesome, I was totally inspired.
Nathan: Yeah, so people respect that courage and I wanted to talk to you like, about courage, because I think, you know, some of the most successful entrepreneurs are extremely courageous, and you know, you said yourself that you were talking to, you know, 50 CEOs in Silicon Valley around courageous leadership. What can we learn from what you had to say to those 50 CEOs from Silicon Valley?
Brené: You know, one of my favorite stories from that event was after I finished speaking one morning, this guy came running up to me and he had just probably maybe six months before received his first series funding. And he was like, “Oh my God, I completely…I’m not vulnerable at all. I believe in what you’re saying, in fact, I’m just gonna tell the VCs, ‘Look I’m in over my head, I don’t know what I’m doing and we’re bleeding money.” And he’s like, “What do you think?” And I’m like, “I think that’s like the worst idea that I’ve ever heard. I think that you’re not gonna get any more money, is what I think.” And he’s like, “I don’t get it? You just said to be vulnerable.” And I said, “You heard what you wanted to hear, because right after I said that, I said this, the important equation to remember, is vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.
And so when we’re thinking about what is vulnerability, how do we show up and be seen, how do we tell the truth about our experiences? We always have to keep in mind our role. And so it’s not appropriate in front of your investors and people he’s brought over from other companies to help them fulfill this dream, it’s not appropriate to say, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore I’m in over my head and we’re bleeding money.”
But imagine this, I think this is a great example. Imagine, Nathan, if you had two years worth of wages tied up in this guy’s new company, right? Wouldn’t you be praying every day that he is sitting across from someone saying, “Look, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m in over my head.” Wouldn’t you be praying that he is asking for help?
Nathan: Hmm, that’s right.
Brené: And so vulnerability is sharing our stories and what our experiences are, with the right people around the right issues. So what I would hope, if I was an investor in his company, is that he’s sitting across from a mentor, from a colleague, from someone who’s got more experience, from a finance person and saying, “Well, look, I’m gonna be honest with you. I feel like I’m in over my head, we are bleeding money and I don’t know what to do next.” Because the only alternative for entrepreneurs who find themselves, and if you’re a good entrepreneur, you will find yourself in over your head and not knowing what to do next, because that means you’re scaling, that means growth, that means change, and in those moments to sit across and ask for help because the only alternative to asking for help when that happens, is just keep grinding harder at what you’re already doing. And that always leads to ruin.
Nathan: Hmm. And when you talk about, you know, vulnerability and courageous leadership, I have a question, you know, when you’re a leader of your team, you know, the CEO of your company, and I guess your team is relying on you for certain things, if things aren’t going well should you be prepared like that situation, like should you be prepared to tell your team that things aren’t going well or do you put on that brave face? Like what do you do there?
Brené: What you…oh man, it’s like…this is so personal for me because you know I started off with…I was like a girl with a book and a blog, and you know, now having a team with 20 people, yeah, you know we had this huge business, we have very large strategic partners, I mean it’s like I’m running a company which is really interesting I think it was the universe’s way of saying…my whole new piece of research is on “Brave Leadership and Courageous Cultures in Organizations” and I think it was the universe’s way of kind of kicking my ass and saying “We’ll make sure you read this before you write about it, sister.”
You know, I think the question is this, always whether you are trying to figure out how much or what to share with your team, your partner, a child, the question about vulnerability is always this, first, get really still and examine your intention. Is your intention to tell your team, “Look things are bad, we are not meeting revenue projections. You know, I’m having to take out a lean on my house and we’re trying to get a line of credit and things are not going well.” Is your intention to scare them? To shame them? Is it to motivate them? What is your intention and is sharing…What is the best strategy for executing against that intention?
So we just had a failure, kind of Q3-ish, I guess Q3/ Q4 of last year, we tried to do this new project. We really put ourselves out there and it didn’t work. And you know, I have a significant profile in some areas, so when I try to do something and it doesn’t work, it’s not like I’m a widget factory, and people are like, “Oh those damn widgets.” They are like, “Oh, man, Brené Brown, I am the widget.”
And so it was really painful and hard for me, and so for me, and I think the culture we’ve built is very much, “I don’t care if we fail as long as we clean it up, learn from it, embed the learning and don’t repeat it.” I really don’t care if we fail, like I, in fact, have tolerance for failure and embedding failure on my performance evaluations for my team. Like if you cant fail you’re not gonna be good as a senior leader with me. Because if all we’re doing is what we already know how to do well, we’re never gonna grow.
But in this case, it was a tough failure with a couple of pretty profoundly dropped balls. And so I remember like, really, I think I was listening to like AC/DC or something, like really getting ready to go into this meeting and be like, “We suck, and yeah” you know. And so I was like, “I’m just gonna tell them the truth,” and I’m like, “Wow, what is your intention behind this?” And I realized my intention was I wanted them to feel the pain that I was feeling, and I thought to myself, is that the right way to move the team through it? And I thought you know what, ‘it’s not the right way. The right way is not to absorb the pain, or the hurt from a failure, but to share it in a way that’s meaningful and leads to growth.
And so I sat down and said…this is what I said, “We’re really in a tough place right now. This project did not work out as any of us intended, and I have to say I’m really struggling with it. I’m really struggling with some shame and frustration and giving myself a hard time. And I’d just like to go around the room and talk about, before we dig into what went wrong, I just wanna see how everyone’s feeling about it, I just wanna check in. And what I learned very quickly as we went around the room, is that I didn’t need to make them feel bad about it. We all felt bad about it.
And so when it came back to me I said, “Okay we are in some struggle, now it’s time that we…this is where we have to really lean on each other, and let’s dig into what went wrong, let’s talk about accountability and not blame, and let’s talk about learnings, and what we can do different next time.” And by the time this meeting was over, granted it was two hours, but we were close, and we built something new and better understood where we had gone wrong and we grew, and it was amazing.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s an awesome story. Okay, well, look, Brené, we have to work towards wrapping up, I have a couple of more questions for you. You know entrepreneurs, you know, we’re supposed to be tough, we have to put on that brave face. I still wanna know, like, how do you know when to be tough when not to be tough?
Brené: Here’s the thing, I don’t wanna work with an entrepreneur who puts on a brave face. I wanna work with an entrepreneur who is brave. And that means not a brave face, but who is actually courageous. Which means they’re willing to have hard conversations and do it in a respectful tender way, they’re willing to ask for help, they’re willing to set up a culture where risk, innovation, there’s a tolerance and an excitement about it. So I don’t believe in a brave face. I believe in really brave people. And that means vulnerability, that means saying you don’t know when you don’t know. That means like, wow that’s a really good question. Everyone’s looking at me right now, I don’t have the answer, I can bullshit them, which is comfortable, or I can be courageous and say, “I don’t know the answer, give me a beat and I’ll try to work on it but before I do that, is there anyone on the table that knows the answer?”
I don’t need…we don’t need brave faces running business, we need brave people all the way down to the heart. And I would say after studying, you know, this work for 13 years and spending the last 5 years very specifically working with entrepreneurs and leaders in Fortune 500 companies, I would say the best leaders have three things in common.
One, they do discomfort. If you wanna be a leader or an entrepreneur and you wanna be comfortable you’re in the wrong line of business. There’s nothing comfortable about being a courageous leader. Number two, they are very aware of their own emotional landscape and their own emotions and relationships, and they are aware of the emotional landscape of the people who work around them.
If you lined up 100 entrepreneurs in my house right now, which I’m in my office at my house right now, and you asked them what is the hardest thing you do every day, it would be dealing with people. And you have to have an awareness, the biggest block to good leaders is not professional development, it’s personal understanding and insight. So you can dismiss vulnerability as a soft skill, or as something that’s superfluous or not necessary, but when you dismiss that you also dismiss any chance, I think, you have of being a great leader.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Okay, that was awesome, Well look, two more questions, One, was there any questions that you wanted me to ask you that I haven’t asked you yet?
Brené: I don’t think so, your questions are hard but they’re good. No, I don’t think so.
Nathan: Okay, awesome. And then we’ll wrap up there and just you know, I just want to leave it like you know with a quote, one of your quotes is, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” And where is the best place people can find you?
Brené: brenebrown.com is my website, and we have a new EdTech company, an online learning community, where we talk about leadership and daring leadership and leaders rising and that’s at courageworks.com
Nathan: Awesome. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Brené, This has been an amazing conversation.
Brené: It’s my pleasure and I love what you’re doing. Keep doing it.
Nathan: Thank you.