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