Brené Brown studies and talks about shame, failure and vulnerability for a living. The New York Times bestselling author and University of Houston research professor catapulted to fame after her 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability became one of the most popular videos on the platform. Now she’s out with a new Netflix special, “The Call to Courage,” in which she condenses her 20 years of social work experience into relatable data and anecdotes that are part pep talk, part stand-up special.
Brown said in her decades of interviewing people that she has never met a person who had a joyful, wholehearted life if they were miserable at work. It underscores how you cannot separate who you are at work and at home: The feelings you experience at the office can shape the person you are outside of it.
Here are two lessons on vulnerability from her show that you can carry into your job.
1. Courage at work is showing up even when you don’t know the outcome.
In her Netflix special, Brown says that vulnerability is required for courage to occur: “There is no courage without vulnerability.”
Throughout her talk, she defines vulnerability alternately as the “gooey center of hard emotion,” “the feeling we get when we feel uncertain, at risk or emotionally exposed,” or “the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”
This showing up can mean staying involved and committed, even when the task or conversation at hand is outside your comfort zone. Employees want a leader who shows up and does the hard work: 2010 research into laissez-faire leadership found that incompetent leaders “avoid decision making, show little concern for goal attainment and seldom involve themselves with their subordinates, even when this is necessary.”
Brown mentions two uncomfortable situations in which vulnerability at work happens: firing someone and being fired. But vulnerability could also apply to the risks of taking a new job, starting a business or having a difficult conversation with a colleague.
Accept that you cannot control the outcome of these situations, and rewards of innovation and creativity can await you on the other side, Brown argues.
“When we build cultures at work where there is zero tolerance for vulnerability, where perfectionism and armor are rewarded and necessary, you can’t have these conversations,” she said. “If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”
2. Be selective about the people from whom you hear feedback.
During one exchange, Brown recalled how shame once limited her world and caused her to turn down ambitious writing opportunities. “The fear of shame, the fear of criticism was so great in my life up until that point, I mean just paralyzing, that I engineered smallness in my life. I did not take chances,” she said. “If I was going to write an op-ed, I sent it to the [Houston] Chronicle, not The New York Times.”
She described shame as “the feeling you would get if you walked out of a room that was filled with people who know you and they start saying such hurtful things about you that you don’t know that you could ever walk back in and face them again in your life.”
She recalled how reading YouTube comments that criticized how she looks put her in a “shame storm.” But she soon realized that part of handling criticism is learning from whom you should hear criticism. And that does not include anonymous feedback about your body.
But embracing the discomfort of career criticism does not mean just listening to people who agree with you or adopting the belief of “I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks,” Brown argues. Instead, it’s taking criticism from people whose opinion of you matters and who call you out when you are wrong.
Soliciting and hearing this feedback can accelerate your growth. Accept that you will face setbacks and have shortcomings, and you can grow.
“You choose to live in the arena, you are going to get your ass kicked. You are going to fall, you are going to fail, you are going to know heartbreak,” Brown said data has shown her. “These are the words I say before my feet hit the floor every day: Today I’ll choose courage over comfort.”