Dr. Brene Brown studies the power of courage, vulnerability

Danny Clark

Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last dozen years studying courage and vulnerability. Since her 20-minute talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” was posted on Ted.com two years ago, it has been seen nearly 7 million times. Her new book, “Daring Greatly,” takes its title from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena,” a quote, she says, that fundamentally changed her life. Brown will a keynote speaker at the eighth annual Massachusetts Conference for Women on Thursday, Dec. 6, at Boston Convention Center.

Q: How is your talk different for an all-female audience?

A: I don’t think there’s that big of a difference to be honest with you, even when I’m talking to just men, or men and women. I think underneath it all we’re very much the same when it comes to vulnerability and courage and the things I talk about. But I think when I’m talking to women, there’s a lot of humor and there’s a lot of shorthand. It’s just a different energy sometimes.

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Q: With subjects like “vulnerability” and “courage,” who should be seeking out you and your talks and your message?

A: I think it’s all of us who want to show up in our lives more fully, who want to take more chances, who want to get out from underneath what will people think and really start to believe in the fact that we’re enough. The fact that if we walk into the arena that first day after our divorce, negotiating the raise, asking for the job, parenting, these things that are so vulnerable and so hard and so uncertain, that if we want to fully engage in them, I think that’s what my work is about. My work is about “What does it mean to do that and what do we have to walk through to get there?” So I think that it’s related to everyone.

It drills down beneath the presenting issues, like when I think about weight issues or I think about stress or I think about professional struggles, I think of those as presenting issues sometimes to a larger, deeper issue, which is “Where is my passion? What do I really want to be doing? And what’s holding me back?”

And I think a lot of times what holds us back is the fear of not being enough. Not being good enough, not being smart enough, not being strong enough, powerful enough, pretty enough, whatever our thing is. And so what I think I speak to is really some primitive, fundamental issues of worthiness and courage and fear.

Q: You have done all of this research and gathered all of this information and have all of these findings, but in the end you have no tangible result. It’s great work, but what do you then do with it? So how do you gather get people to see what you see, to understand what you understand?

A: I’m fascinated by this question because I don’t know the answer. It’s something I wrestle with all the time. I think it’s weird. I don’t know how to answer it. I mean Fast Company just named “Daring Greatly” one of the top business books of 2012. No intention for that at all for me, but it works because when there’s an absence of vulnerability in leadership, it creates disengagement.

I always say, “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you, and the last thing I want to show you in myself.” To me, it’s the source of courage. So I think the book is for people who want to be more brave in their lives, whether that’s personally, professionally, whatever ...

What I will talk about at the Women’s Conference is that, in this culture of kind of cruelty and criticism and cynicism, it is really hard to screw on the courage to walk into the arena, to try something, even though we might fail, to let go of perfectionism. Because I know who that audience is at that conference: it’s me. So I’ll talk about vulnerability and I’ll talk about courage .... That’s why I love the Teddy Roosevelt quote, because it’s such a powerful metaphor that if we’re going to go into the arena, we’re going to get our butts kicked, and we have to make a decision somewhere along the line: Is it worth the risk?