The day I met Brené Brown

Dr Deb Roberts and Brené Brown

Recently, I got to meet one of my all-time heroes, author and researcher Brené Brown. She was in Melbourne speaking about her latest book Dare to Lead.  

To be honest I would have gone to see her speak about shelling peas. She is an awesome speaker, famous for her TED talk 'The Power of Vulnerability' which went viral and inspired millions. She is often hilarious; she makes you think, laugh and cry all the while discussing some very serious topics.

When I first arrived at the venue, I really didn’t know what to expect. Some people were taking selfies in front of a Brené Live sign. Part of me cringed at that, another part of me wanted to do the same, I was so excited to see her!

I was surprised to see lot of people there that didn’t fit the corporate mould…people aged 18 through to retirement and people from totally different walks of life. Her words have connected with so many, and I guess that is what a truly famous person is, someone who has influence across age, gender, class and lifestyle.   

I got a coffee and chatted to others in the line and quickly found out they were in attendance for very personal reasons. I fell into intimate conversations, ones that I wouldn’t have normally experienced at a corporate event.

Brené’s work has become very popular in the corporate sector, as it focuses on leadership but breaks the mould by entering into emotive, emotional terrain. Her research is on courage, connection, shame and vulnerability – the latter two fairly challenging topics for some of us – and she has written multiple books on these subjects.

As a presenter she tells entertaining story after story about her own life, divulging information others wouldn’t and then backs up her personal experiences with research and scientific rigor. It is certainly an appealing trifecta for someone like me who has a PhD in public health and who believes that sharing vulnerabilities is paramount to living a satisfying life.

In this talk, Brené didn’t spout a lot of statistics but she did say that 50% of the 150 global leaders initially interviewed for her research reported that people either have leadership skills or they don’t. Her analysis has turned this position on its head. Drawing on 400,000 pieces of data, she has challenged us to acknowledge and practise a new set of leadership skills.  The skill sets are: Rumbling with Vulnerability, Living into Our Values, Braving Trust and Learning to Rise. 

Along with these skill sets is the strength and conviction it takes to open yourself up to a world that is often judgmental. She calls this being ‘wholehearted’.  It isn’t some gooey hippy concept; being ‘wholehearted’ is backed by more than 20 years of research which highlights that it is an essential part of living a fulfilling life in an impermanent world. 

Everyone I spoke to at the event seemed to be practising being ‘wholehearted’. Discussion felt open and free. A woman next to me disclosed her mum was seriously ill in hospital. She said that she was worried as she had an important international work trip on the horizon.  

She was clearly stressed – but by the time Brené had finished, she had been visibly moved, her body had relaxed and she had tears in her eyes. I was amazed and thrilled, to see firsthand Brené’s effect on others.

Brené displayed authenticity from the moment she stepped on stage to speak whether it was regarding her research career, family, friends or her quirks.  Since authenticity is at the very core of my own values, witnessing her display this value in her behavior while not in any way trying to be perfect was immediately appealing.

After her talk I went to meet her for a photo opp (yes I got the VIP ticket package!) and I was instantly struck that she was in bare feet!  She had taken off her shoes, having stood on stage for most of the day.  It was an informal gesture for her and it made me feel at ease.   

She said, ‘Hi, I’m Brené” with genuine warmth and shook my hand. I felt extremely comfortable - as if I had found a friend.  We spoke for a short time, and I disclosed how my history with anxiety and depression has impacted the work I now do around mental wellbeing and how much her example inspired me to talk about it.  

I have been open about anxiety and depression and its effects on my life, but it was only about 15 years ago that I was able to talk about my mental state readily with others.  I now do so in my personal life and also professionally in my writing, consulting and teaching yoga and meditation.   

The reason I do is because I’ve deeply considered what individuals and professionals, including Brené, have shared regarding their own challenges and the ways I believe it has positively contributed to social discussions and changes in attitudes toward expressing and accepting one’s whole self.

I left the Melbourne Convention Centre feeling like I had witnessed human greatness. Not wanting the day to end, I went to the nearest park, taking time to reflect. I felt the cool air on my face and observed the currents of Melbourne’s central river and then I took some time to write down some of the points she made that had deeply resonated with me:

1.     Being courageous is being vulnerable at times, and vulnerability does not mean weakness
2.     Taking time (within a limit) for expressing fears and feelings is constructive
3.     Being clear is kind and being unclear and nice all the time isn’t necessarily kind – hard conversations are a part of life
4.     Having boundaries is essential for respect, even if it means not always being liked
5.     We need to ‘increase our real estate of self-awareness’ (I particularly love the wording of this one and it describes our human potential to better understand ourselves to better understand others!)
6.     The blame game that we all do at times is a discharge of our own pain, anger and discomfort, so choose accountability 
7.     True leadership is ‘excavating’ what is not said
8.     We all tell ourselves stories that usually are not based on all the facts (Brené reminds us to repeat ‘The story I’m telling myself is…’)
9.     Our reset capacity after we fall/fail determines our success
10.  The most important thing in life is to contribute more than criticize.

I’m grateful for Brené’s research, her ongoing work, her strength and her vulnerability. For anyone who, like me, believes that there is value in better understanding ourselves and lessons to be learned by sharing the whole-self, the good, the bad and the in-between, then I ‘wholeheartedly’ recommend Brené’s work and if you have the chance, go see her live.  Her research and her powerful insights may just change your life - like they did mine!

Until next time, Deb xo

Deb Roberts