Daring Greatly - Book Notes

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
by Brené Brown
Goodreads link

New York City, circa 2013. It’s a cold and rainy day, and so I’m taking the subway home from work rather than biking. I live in Williamsburg and thus am inevitably shoved onto a packed L train. I stand face to face with a cute girl around my age, and she laughs at my jokes, and we strike up a short conversation.

My stop is coming up, and so, being single, I have a decision to make. Do I ask for her number? Here, on a crowded subway train where I would struggle to even get my phone out to save it? It seems like an unwise choice for a girl to give her number to a stranger she met on the subway just a few minutes earlier. The odds are not good.

What guy asks a girl for her number in a situation like that?

This guy.

Daring Greatly

The title of Brené Brown’s book comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech, and specifically the notable Man in the Arena passage, which is so good I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety:

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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Brown’s central argument is that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our best path to authenticity, courage, and meaningful connection. She does so persuasively, and I buy her argument. In this the book echoes others I’ve read recently, like The Courage to be Disliked and Nonviolent Communication, so I think I was primed for this book. I think that as a result of this, on the one hand, I accepted her thesis readily, but on the other I also did not see it as any great revelation.

Shame vs Guilt

The biggest takeaway from the book for me is Brown’s discussion on the difference between shame and guilt, which I honestly may have thought of as the same thing prior to reading this book. In Brown’s words, the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” (shame) and “I did something bad” (guilt).

The difference is important, as research indicates that “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all - there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the case of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

Guilt, on the other hand, is correlated with positive changes in behavior.

This makes sense: think about the difference between “you are bad” (the badness is an inherent part of you, and there is no escaping it) and “that thing you did was bad” (you are better than that!). Shame erodes your sense of self-worth, while guilt can unlock the power to enhance self-worth.

Even in the few weeks that I’ve been reading this book, I’ve noticed people close to me trying to shame me when I did something they found undesirable. Just being aware of what was happening, and that I should sidestep that shame, has been very helpful.

If you want to have a positive on someone’s life (including your own!), be sure to frame responses to bad behavior as guilt rather than shame.

The Girl on the Train

Back on that subway train in New York, the girl whom I asked for her number said… actually, I don’t remember what she said, just that I left that train without her number.

I wasn’t surprised, and I left in good spirits, and laughed about it with my friends that night.

So if the odds weren’t good, why did I ask her out?

Well, I was single, and she was cute, and I wanted to be bold. It was a vulnerable move - asking for something like that always is. But that vulnerability isn’t weakness - even though I was rejected, I didn’t come out wounded or lesser in any way. In fact, I think I came out more resilient and more ready to be bold - to dare greatly.

Brené gets it.

4/5 - a good read

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Saigon to Danang By Motorcycle

Saigon to Danang By Motorcycle

I’ve wanted to ride a motorcycle around the world for a long time, and Vietnam became a prime target for that in my mind ever since the Top Gear Vietnam Special came out, in which Jeremy, Richard, and James ride cheap scooters across the country. And over two weeks this January, I finally got to do it!

I can tell you’re getting impatient, so here’s a sneak peek:

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Two Weeks in Laos

Two Weeks in Laos

Modern-day Laos traces its roots to the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was around from the 14th Century to the late 18th. The kingdom then broke up into three (Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak). In 1893, these were united again as a French protectorate; Laos finally gained independence in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy. “Shortly after independence, a long civil war began, which saw the communist resistance, supported by the Soviet Union, fight against, first, the monarchy and then a number of military dictatorships, supported by the United States.” The communists won.

Today, Laos is still officially a one-party socialist republic, though a gradual and limited return to private enterprise began in 1988, and has continued. The economy is now growing rapidly, and on the ground one would not conclude that it is governed by Marxism-Leninism.

Laos Today

  • GDP per capita is $8,458 (PPP) - 118th in the world - growing at 6.9%
  • Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.604 - “medium” - 140th in the world
  • 65% buddhist

Sources: Wikipedia and CIA World Factbook

In addition to the Lao flag, all government buildings also sport the red hammer and sickle flag.

As in Cambodia, the US dollar is a de facto secondary currency here, though people here generally have a strong preference for the Lao Kip, where in Cambodia people preferred the dollar. I get charged a fee every time I take out cash, so I try to take out all I might need at a single time. When I took out about $200 USD, I got about 1,700,000 Lao Kip - a stack about an inch thick. When I paid cash for my first hotel, the guy at the front desk put the cash in his own wallet, which was about six inches thick - no joke. I told him that he looks like a rich man, and he laughed.

Luang Prabang

There are many monasteries in Luang Prabang, and each morning before Dawn, hundreds of monks pour out of them and into the streets to get alms for their only meal of the day.

Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang
Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang

The ceremony has a strange air now, though: it’s been overrun by tourists. Vendors set up sticky rice you can buy and plastic stools to sit on. Some tourists are ok, but others (and it seems to me that they are mostly the Chinese tourists) continue to talk very loudly among themselves through the process. So the monks just walk by with their bowls open and stop in front of these people, who give them rice, but the two groups don’t make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge each other. The whole process felt corrupted to me, in a way.

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It’s December 23rd, the day before Christmas. I wake up around 7am in beautiful Vang Vieng, Laos, excited to go kayaking and cave exploring in about 90 minutes’ time. I get out of bed and walk into the bathroom. I’m travelling alone, but I close the door behind me - I don’t want any bathroom smells getting into the bedroom. My bathroom business done, I wash my hands and grab the door handle to go back to the room, get dressed, and get some breakfast.

Except the door won’t open. What the heck? I hadn’t even locked it! I try again and again, but it won’t budge. I try locking and unlocking (which seems to work - the button moves in and pops out) - but it makes no difference; the door won’t open.

My first reaction is amusement. OK, it would be kind of funny to get stuck in the bathroom. But surely there’s a quick way to get out that I’m missing?

No, there isn’t. My phone is in the bedroom, as is my Leatherman. Either of them would probably make for a quick solution to this problem, but neither is accessible.

Is there a window? Not really. Only some thick glass tiles and a small fan. Speaking of which… and does it feel like it’s getting hot and stuffy in here? I’m trapped! I give the door a few hard shoves, and it changes absolutely nothing. It’s a heavy, wooden door.

The bathroom door, window, and fan
The bathroom door, window, and fan

Panic tries to grip me, and I have just enough sense to notice it. OK, panic helps nothing. Let’s calm down. I need to let go of my plans - I am not going kayaking and cave exploring today. Getting out of the bathroom is the big adventure of the day.

I name some things I’m grateful for: my girlfriend, my family, my dog and cats, the fact that I can travel like this, the nice dinner I had yesterday… you know, I have it pretty good. I can figure this out.

I take a couple of deep breaths, smile, and assess the situation.

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