A Beautiful Interview on Courage and Vulnerability

“Give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due,” says Dr. Brené Brown.

After 13 years of studying vulnerability and courage, she has razor sharp insights on these subjects. Dr. Brown is especially well known for her 2010 TEDx talk, The Power of Vulnerability, which has over 20 million views. This summer, Dr. Brown was on the Tim Ferriss Show to pull back the curtain on how she prepared for the talk and how she felt after giving it.

Both stories might surprise you.

The full interview, which goes deep into her research on guilt, shame, vulnerability and courage, is nearly two hours long. If you don’t have time for a full listen, I hope you’ll enjoy some delicious nuggets of wisdom shared below. (I especially love her answer to one of Tim’s final questions, “What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?”):

Tim opens the interview by asking Dr. Brown about the genesis of her TEDx talk — one of the top five most viewed talks on TED:

“The TEDx talk was kind of a combination of an accident and an experiment. […] I was on a flight home the night before — a long flight with my husband and kids — and I looked at Steve and I was like ‘I think I’m going to experiment tomorrow.’ And my husband looked at me and he said ‘That sounds like a terrible idea.’

“And I said ‘No, I think I’m going to actually be really vulnerable while I’m talking about vulnerability’ and he said ‘You know, again, not sure that’s a great idea.’

“So, I went to the TED event and I experimented. I really kind of put myself out there. I talked about my own breakdown [and] spiritual awakening. I talked about having to go to therapy and how much I really hated that and I kind of thought it was bullshit, but I felt like I had to do it. I really put myself out there and I remember driving home and thinking I will never do that again. I mean, I literally had what I thought was one of the worst vulnerability hangovers of my career. […]

“I don’t have any memory of that being recorded. […]  When it came out on the TEDx site, I was pretty mortified and Steve’s like, ‘No one’s going to watch it, don’t worry.’ […] And it went like one, two, one million, one million one, three million.” […]

"If I look back, my learning, my takeaway from that experience was this: If I’m not a little bit nauseous when I’m done, I probably did not show up like I should have shown up.”

After some discussion, Tim asks how she rehearsed and prepped for the talk:

“I don’t rehearse at all. […] When I rehearse in the traditional way we think about rehearsing, it’s about what I’m going to say and when I’m going to say it and how I’m going to say it. If I do that, what ends up happening — and I’ve tried it a couple of times — I get so ‘pre-frontal cortex,’ I get so wrapped up in ‘Oh, wasn’t I suppose to pause here and wasn’t I supposed to do this there,’ that I’m not connecting.  For me, it is: Use images as the arc, understand what every image means to me and what I want to wrap around that image. Then, require that the house lights are on so I can see people’s faces.”

At different points in the interview, she defines each of the subjects she had studied in depth:

“Vulnerability is about the willingness to show up and be seen when you have zero control over the outcome.”

“Courage is really about choosing what’s right over what’s easy, practicing your values, not just professing them, and choosing to be brave over being comfortable.”

“Shame is a very formidable foe. Shame is this intensely painful belief or experience that something is wrong with us, that we are flawed and that we are unworthy of love and belonging. We all know it. Everyone knows that warm wash that comes over you that makes you feel like you’re not enough. We have fifty years of data that really show us — in my mind unquestionably — that the only people who don’t experience shame are people who don’t have a capacity for connection [or] empathy. So, if we are capable of having connection, we know shame because shame is the fear that we’re not worthy of connection.”

“Guilt is the psychological discomfort created by the cognitive dissonance between our behavior and who we want to be. It’s healthy and adaptive.”

The interview then turns to a discussion on her first book, The Gift of ImperfectionTim asks, "The Gift of Imperfection has been described as the lifelong journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’ […] How do you balance the well-being of having a mindset of ‘I am enough’ verses […] the discontent that seems to drive so many […] people to accomplish great things?”

Dr. Brown says:

“I think the soul or the center of my ability to keep putting myself out there and trying new things, even when I fail — and I have had some big failures — I think the soul of my healthy competitiveness and my ambition is the belief that I am enough.

“When I don’t believe I’m enough, I engage in behaviors not to push myself, not to grow and stretch and learn, not to strive for excellence, but to prove to other people what I can do.

“But when I start from a place that, you know what, I’m enough. I’m imperfect, I’m afraid, I’m super vulnerable, but that does not change the fact that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.  When I start from that place, I am completely unleashed. […]

“I’m talking about a belief of self-worth that I am enough not based on what I do, what I accomplish, what I prove or produce. I am just enough. If you start from that, that’s the healthy center — I think — of the most awesome achievements we’ve seen.”

Dr. Brown then talks about how she originally wanted to engineer her career to be small and safe, because she didn’t want to put herself out there and be open to criticism:

“The problem with staying small, is it’s always served up with resentment and pissed-offedness, because we’re not using our gifts. We’re not in our power and there’s always a price for that.”

“I do want to live a brave life.  I do want to live in the arena and if you’re going to live in the arena, the only guarantee is that you’ll get your ass kicked.”

“The big question I ask is: ‘When I had the opportunity, did I choose courage over comfort.’”

She then returns briefly to the discussion of ‘being enough’:

“One of the things that really turned my life upside-down — there were four or five things in the research that have taken me a long time to get over and get through — and one of them is the difference between healthy striving, or striving for excellence, and perfectionism.  I’ve always been perfectionistic about my stuff and what I learned in the research was that perfectionism is very outwardly defined.  It’s dictated by ‘What will people think?’ and healthy striving, or striving for excellence, is internally motivated.”

Later in the interview, Tim asks Dr. Brown about masculine virtues and traits versus vulnerability:

“We need to stop with these false separations between tough and tender. Tough and tender can coexist, and to me that’s kind of the equation for bad-assery, and it can also exist in women. Grit and grace, tough and tender, afraid and brave. This idea that we’re either courageous or we’re chicken shit is just not true, because most of us are afraid and brave at the exact same moment all day long. And so, to take courage and vulnerability, to not teach that to our kids—boys or girls—is not teaching them how to be emotionally available or tender either. What concerns me is about the need to drive a stake through the middle of these things and I think that’s what’s really important—to be both!”

In the final moments of the interview, Tim asks Dr. Brown who she thinks of when she hears the word ‘successful.’ She hesitates, because she doesn’t picture anybody, but instead says that ‘successful’ has been a dangerous word in her research because it is so subjective.  What she does say is:

“When I hear the word successful my answer is: ‘Be clear that your ladder is leaning against the right building.”

A few moments later, Tim asks: “What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?”

“It’s okay to be afraid. You don’t have to be so scary when you’re scared. […] The 30’s are so exhausting. It’s the age of perfecting, proving, pretending and there’s some liberation that came […] in my 40’s. I would just say, you know, stop hustling.”

She then asks him the same question, to which he says: “Start meditating and chill the f# out. You don’t need to have a resting pulse of 150 beats per minute to get a lot of big things done.”

At the very end of the interview, her final request for listeners is:

“Lean into some discomfort. […] You have to choose comfort or courage, you just can’t have both. So, I guess my ask would be more of a big metaphysical ask to give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due. […] He or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest but rises the fastest."

Thank you, Dr. Brown, for these powerful lessons from years of research.  To hear the interview in its entirety, visit Tim Ferriss’s website.