We hosted a tour and fireside chat for Dr. Brené Brown at 1871 this week as part of our WiSTEM program, which focuses on 1871’s female entrepreneurs. The event was attended by about 300 excited members of the Rising Strong community. Brené is a researcher in social work at the University of Houston; her groundbreaking studies on vulnerability and courage, and how they relate to our human need to be connected, have yielded two best-selling books, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly, and a huge following. (Some 24 million people have watched Brené’s TED talk: The Power of Vulnerability).
But she was careful at the outset not to call the attendees “fans”— although you couldn’t prove that from the emotion and energy of the sold-out crowd or from the rousing reception she got when she walked on stage. She pointed out the irony attached to such a rapturous reception, in that her process is a shared experience, a collaborative conversation, and, most importantly, a two-way street. Fandom, on the other hand, is a fundamentally passive, one-sided, and static state. Simply buying her book, or any book, won’t make you better. It’s in applying the lessons and learnings from the book to your own life and circumstances—and then doing the hard work of taking responsibility for, and true ownership of, your stories— where the change starts and the results begin to show. You’ve got to put your heart where your mouth is and let yourself be seen.
To say that the crowd was present and “in the moment” would be an understatement. They were absolutely hanging on her every word. But, interestingly enough, at least in Brené’s terminology, they weren’t being “mindful,” which she said was a fuzzy and fussy word that she’d done her best to successfully expunge from her vocabulary. We agreed that a better and more concrete phrase would be that they were “paying attention,” which I believe is the newest and most meaningful form of currency today – especially given our noisy, cluttered and confused world. If your audience isn’t paying attention, it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying or selling. And, of course, it turns out that whatever it is that you pay attention to in your business and/or in your relationships are the only things that matter anyway in the final analysis. Rising Strong, her newest book (on The New York Times best seller list a week after publication), and also to talk about a major new online learning and sharing initiative (called COURAGEworks) that she will be launching in a few months with Oprah and others. We covered a lot of territory in our talk, but a few key concepts and ideas stuck with me that I think are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs who are starting new businesses in uncharted waters where the perils are high and the prospects of failure are great.
The most fundamental idea, of course, was the whole basis for the research and the new book itself: an exploration by Brené to uncover the common qualities among those who had set out on a journey, failed once or twice, sometimes spectacularly, but who had then picked themselves up, started forward again, and ultimately succeeded. What did it take for them to make it and what attitudes and characteristics did they share? I’m not going to try to answer a book’s worth of inquiry in a brief blog post, but here are 3 of the main things that I took away from our talk that – not entirely surprisingly – aligned pretty nicely with some of the central Perspiration Principles.
(1) Failure’s Just Another Word for Education
I’ve said for a long time that failure sucks. See Who Said Failure was Fashionable? Frankly, It Sucks. People who pride themselves on their record of repeated failures are sadly deluded and kidding themselves. They need to face the facts and face reality so they can get on with their real lives. See What Nobody Tells You About Failure. And Brené also made a very interesting comment early in her remarks. She said that “failure is an imperfect word” because, if you take the time and have the patience to learn from your failures, then they aren’t failures any longer—they’re lessons. See Failure Happens. Four Rules for Doing it Well. And once you’ve gone through the ringer, and learned your lessons – good and bad – it’s highly likely that you’re a better bet for the next time around. Not a sure thing— but a decent bet. See Should You Hire a Failed Founder? What you learn finally is that, if you really own your own stories, you’re the one who gets to write the happy endings.
(2) It’s Ultimately All Up to You, But You Can’t Do It Alone
No one does anything important by themselves today. Having a team to support you and a community to surround you are both critical. And you’ll need someone in particular to connect and share with as well. Brené suggested that in her case all the breakthroughs involved a therapist (which we can’t all afford, although she noted that there are low-income programs and practice requirements). And she said that regardless of whom you select, there were two more very important caveats: (a) make sure that your happiness and healing doesn’t depend on or require the therapist’s response and/or approval; and (b) make sure that the relationship is truly reciprocal if you expect it to, and want it, to last. It can’t be a one-way street and you can’t really open up to someone and share your feelings if the feeling’s not truly mutual.
But it’s equally critical to remember that – in the end – it’s still on you alone to get the process started and the right things done. I tell entrepreneurs all the time that they shouldn’t try to convince themselves that they’re doing what they are doing for someone else. The journey is just too hard and long. You need to own the entire process – all the ups and downs – and you need to do it without reservation, putting your whole self out there, because there are no guarantees and there’s no halfway way to do what needs to be done. You need to own it and own up to it. All the advice and wisdom in the world won’t help until you internalize and take on the task. You can explain things all day to people, but you can’t understand for them.
(3) It’s Not Always Nice, But It’s Always Necessary
Saying what people don’t want to hear is never easy. But clarity and directness is an essential step in the communication and sharing process. A leader needs to tell the team what he or she expects of them, what he is trying to accomplish, why it matters, and what sacrifices the journey will entail. Only then— with the requisite knowledge and understanding in place—can everyone sign up and engage wholeheartedly. People don’t necessarily care that they aren’t certain where things are going, but they know for sure that they don’t want to go there alone. They want people by their side who share their vision, their passion and their commitment.
But—at the same time —no one can climb the mountain for you and it’s critical to understand where you stop and where the others begin. Brené said that empathy is a valuable and important emotion, but it’s not an instance of feeling with someone else, it’s about your non-judgmental feelings for someone else and their circumstances or situation. As often as not, the right response is no response at all – it’s not about the response - it’s the connection that counts. And it’s that stepping back and creating a bit of distance that makes it possible to help without falling into the pit (or swallowing the problem) yourself. And try to avoid the “at least” trap at all costs. Getting mixed up in the mess or taking part in the pity party isn’t going to help anyone. This is why clear limits help to make for a clear conscience and a happy heart.
It’s important to be very direct about boundaries (even with family) and, frankly, as Brené said: vulnerability without boundaries—without telling even those you’re closest to what’s okay and what’s not – isn’t vulnerability at all. In the startup business world, everyone wants to help and their enthusiasm is a blessing, but too many people in the process makes for a big mess. Some people just don’t get to dance every dance and make every meeting even if their feelings get hurt. See With This Much "Help," You'll Never Get Anything Done. That’s just another part of the leader’s job— ultimately someone has to decide and only that vote counts because it’s not a democracy and it’s not a popularity contest either. See 4 Reasons Democracy Adds Up to Mediocrity. There’s no question that how you do it matters a lot, but you’ve got to do it for sure.