Our conversation with Brené Brown is real, open, and reveals what courage, vulnerability and sobriety look like in real life. Brené talks about living in Beta, the twists and turns and detours of her life, and how she learned more about empathy and people in her “twelve- year journey of bartending and waiting tables and hitchhiking through Europe” than she ever could in classrooms.
She has championed vulnerability as the crucial ingredient to build successful leadership skills. To be vulnerable is to be brave — you can’t have one without the other and together they make the quality we call leadership.
“If you can’t be brave, you can’t lead,” she says in the interview. “And you can’t be brave if you’re tapping out of hard conversations about painful, hard topics. That’s what it means to lead. That’s why there are so few courageous leaders.”
Brené Brown’s TED Talk about the power of vulnerability has been watched more than 43 million times. She is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead. Her most recent book was released in October 2018 and is the culmination of a seven-year study on the future of leadership.
Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. IN PURSUIT features candid, personal reflections from guests who are looking for answers and evolving to meet the challenges life throws at them. You’ll get inspiring conversations about life and career.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Welcome to In Pursuit, the podcast from Glassdoor. I’m your host, Amy Elisa Jackson. In every episode, we share the real stories of people navigating life’s most pivotal moments at the intersection of the personal and professional.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Today, we’re talking to Dare to Lead author and Netflix superstar, Brené Brown. She’s a qualitative researcher and professor as well as a mom and wife, and she’s been sober for 23 years. Her research on vulnerability, leadership and human connection is loved by millions. Brené Brown, Welcome to In Pursuit.
Brené Brown: Hi.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How are you?
Brené Brown: I’m doing great. How are you?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Awesome. You had quite a banner year, Brené. The first of its kind Netflix special launching your Daring Classrooms curriculum. Dare to Lead is still the number one bestselling business book. Congratulations. It’s huge.
Brené Brown: Thank you. It’s so crazy.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Does it feel like all your hard work has really paid off or does it feel like, “Holy crap, is this really me?”
Brené Brown: Oh, “holy crap.” Always “holy crap.” Yes. I live in a constant state of “holy crap.” That’s actually the PG version. Yeah. It’s like weird. On the one hand, I can’t believe it. And then on the other hand, my team just busts their asses constantly. We work so hard that I can understand how it happened, but it’s still really humbling.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Well, it’s good that you also recognize that it’s a part of you and your team’s hard work. I think as women sometimes it’s so easy to say, “I don’t know how I got here. I’m so surprised.”
Brené Brown: Yeah, I know. I got none of that. I know exactly every painstaking step. It’s so funny because people in interviews will say, “Let’s talk about your meteoric rise.” And I’m like, “Oh.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: Meteoric?
Brené Brown: Yeah, let’s do that. This is year 22 for me. That’s a slow ass meteor. That’s all I can tell you. We work really hard. We believe deeply in what we do, but I guess there’s the part of me too that thinks there’s a lot of other people that work this hard, and so there’s a piece of it too that is the right place at the right time. The right conversation at the right time maybe.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Dare to Lead as well as Daring Greatly are two of my absolute go-to books. I find myself reading them and rereading them not only for my professional life but for my personal life. I feel like both of them are really playbooks for anyone who wants to step up and be brave and bust out of your box.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Talk to me a little bit about your research and what you found were really the biggest barriers to becoming a leader. Because believe it or not, there are still maybe two people on the planet who have not read your book.
Brené Brown: Well thank you, first of all. You write the book that you need to read and so for me, especially the leadership book, after studying these big kind of emotion experiences, shame, guilt, empathy, vulnerability, courage, I really want to understand how those connected with leadership. Because I found myself spending probably 90% of my time in organizations talking to leaders and teams.
Brené Brown: So it was a seven-year study looking very specifically as what’s the future of leadership. I was not surprised to hear that it’s courage. This is from special forces, military to creatives in California doing animation. It’s the same answer. We need to have braver leaders and more courageous cultures.
Brené Brown: I think the thing that took me by surprise that my hypothesis was completely just like in technical terms, dead ass wrong, was I thought the biggest barrier to courage was fear. But in interviewing all of these folks who I thought were such brave leaders, they said, “I’m afraid every day. I’m afraid all day long.” It’s not fear that gets in the way of courageous leadership, it’s armor. It’s how we self-protect.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely.
Brené Brown: And so as a very kind of recovering armored person, that was both hopeful like, “Okay, great. I can be brave and afraid at the same time.” That’s hopeful and hard to hear because I like my armor.
Amy Elisa Jackson: We all like our armor and I feel like it’s one of those things where you build it over time and it’s really hard to take off. Even now, I feel like I still got like a breastplate on like maybe I’ve taken off like just the sleeves, and the body, and the helmet, but I’ve still got a good amount of armor. How has sort of taking off your own armor plus this research really impacted the way you lead?
Brené Brown: I’m literally sitting here thinking, “Do I go full-on honest or do I armor up a little bit in my end?”
Amy Elisa Jackson: Don’t armor up, sister. Lay down. Be honest. I mean I don’t look like Oprah, but I could be Oprah right now. Just give it to me straight.
Brené Brown: We’re just Oprah and Gayle. We’re just Oprah and Gayle.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Oh, Gayle, me and you.
Brené Brown: Yeah, got it. Okay. I think it’s been one of the greatest challenges in my career to be honest with you, because when I first started doing the leadership work, I’ve never talked about this before, so I’m just going to tell you. You just have one of those faces that are like, “Just tell me. It’s just a podcast.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s just a podcast. It can’t hurt.
Brené Brown: I think when I first started doing the leadership work, I got super buttoned up and I stopped writing about personal things on my blog or I got really armored up and thought, “You know what, if I’m going to go into this lane, I’m going to play in this area, then I need to be leader-y, I guess.” I don’t know what that means.
Brené Brown: At the same time, I’m telling people to be more human. Maybe I’m too human. Maybe I’m the poster person for like squishy, vulnerability, humanity. And so I think for me, I came to this really deep breath piece when I said, “I’m going to talk about leadership and I’m going to write about my sobriety. And I’m going to talk about being a mom. And I’m going to talk about race. And I’m going to talk about politics. And I’m going to be all of me. I’m not going to compartmentalize myself as I talk to other people about the dangers of compartmentalizing.”
Brené Brown: And so it was really, writing Dare to Lead was very cathartic for me in that way that I thought here’s what the research says. It says don’t compartmentalize, bring all of yourself to whatever you do. And I know a lot about courageous leadership and I’m a full-on human being.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Wanting to be authentic is one thing. Doing it and executing on it every single day in every decision, it’s scary, right?
Brené Brown: Oh, yeah.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That shakes us to our core. But I think it’s your honesty and sort of you speaking very candidly about your marriage, speaking candidly about what it is like to raise kids, your sobriety. I think that, that’s what makes people really trust also your research and the work that you’ve done because it’s not just like, “Oh, I tested this thing in a lab and I just talked to some people, but I don’t apply it to my real life.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: They see you wrestling with it as well. And I think what your blog post about sobriety was really the thing that really just opened my eyes and made me sort of really respect you. Because a lot of people can write books. A lot of leadership experts, a lot of amazing researchers have the PhD behind their name, but there’s something about putting your full self down in front of everybody. How was your sobriety sort of affected your leadership or what pieces of that show up every day in your life as you navigate being Brené Brown?
Brené Brown: I can’t separate anything powerful or good in my life from my sobriety. I attribute everything that is good and right and true about my life to that. Whether it’s being able to look at my kids and I’ve got a daughter who’s 20 now, a son who’s 14 and be proud of the way that I’m raising them to holding onto a marriage. When I married someone that neither one of us had …
Brené Brown: We had zero modeling of what that looked like. I mean, our parents are divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried. We had no vision of that, but I guess at the bottom of everything that I feel proud about or good about is my willingness to show up and keep showing up when it got hard, hard, hard. And that is because of my sobriety.
Brené Brown: That’s because I just have built a practice of not tapping out with beer, with taking care of other people, with numbing. I still have to fight it a lot. Every day is like a real thing with food. I can be like, “Wow, how did I end up in the pantry?” You know that feeling?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Yes, I do know it very well.
Brené Brown: Yeah, like, “What am I doing here? I just ate like an hour ago but yet I’m here and it’s so welcoming and warm.” I can’t separate what’s good and true about my life from my sobriety. It’s been a huge part of it.
Amy Elisa Jackson: One of the things that you wrote in your book was about sort of this, the food addiction piece of it aside from just your actual sobriety. But you’re right. Over the past two decades, food and work have emerged as my real drugs. Like most addictions, they’re fueled by shame and the not enough gremlins. Talk to me a little bit about navigating that truth.
Brené Brown: So it’s interesting because the food part is actually related very physically to not enough. So when I don’t sleep enough, when I don’t play enough, when I don’t work out enough, there are not enough carbohydrates in the world for me. Like there’s just not enough carbs in the free world.
Brené Brown: My policy is don’t get too hungry. And I don’t mean like I just don’t get you hungry for rest, don’t get you hungry for play, for connection, for love, for alone time. Like those are the things that help me with the food piece. To be honest with you, I’m a better abstainer than I am a [food] moderator.
Brené Brown: So like for me, I had a really high bottom around alcohol and I really quit drinking because … Well, I was a partier for sure. I did a genogram in my last assignment at my master’s in social work where you did kind of family history and there was just like a ton of alcoholism. And so I thought that combined with the fact that I love a good party, beer and cigarettes were my fun thing, so I just decided to quit there.
Brené Brown: But for me, I think that abstinence [works]… I just don’t drink. I’m not like a slice of cake [kind of person]. Like I just abstained from things where, for me, cake, one slice is too much, the cake is not enough. That makes sense?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Yes, it absolutely makes sense. I think it’s tricky though when you think about work. How do you moderate the addiction to work? Because you can’t abstain from it. I mean, unless you’re just like a billionaire and you’re chilling in the Bahamas in silk pajamas. Like it’s really hard to kind of abstain.
Amy Elisa Jackson: So how do you balance out that need to sleep, that need to play, that need to explore, to rest with work, especially when success makes it look so attractive? If you just do one more book, if you just do one more tour, if you just flew here… How do you juggle that? Because I feel like more and more Americans are actually dealing with that. They may not be on the Brené Brown super stage, but they are dealing with the hustle culture.
Brené Brown: I found myself not in the Bahamas but on my magic lake in Austin on like a raft floating around this summer. I caught myself thinking how much more do I have to do to rest? I thought, “Oh my God, is that the craziest bullshit I’ve ever said out loud to myself?”
Brené Brown: I could rest right now and just do less. And the gifts of imperfection, I talk about what happens when exhaustion is a status symbol and self-worth is tied to productivity. And the thing for me is that even if I had the billion dollars and the silk pajamas and The Bahamas, I would want to work. I love work. For me, it is a daily discipline.
Brené Brown: And so here’s the thing, how it kind of ties directly for me with food and other stuff is that I have to sleep eight to nine hours a night. I have to work out four to five times a week and I have to have healthy food, which means I have to do some cooking.
Brené Brown: When work starts eating those things up where I’m not really working out right now. And I’ll go three or four months without working out because I’m too busy, or I don’t have time to cook, or I’m not sleeping very much. Then I’m too far. I’m just too far. And so I think it’s everybody has to figure out what their sobriety looks like. What does that look like?
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s not easy.
Brené Brown: I just did this interview with The Wall Street Journal and it was like one of those fun like 20 questions or something. They said …
Amy Elisa Jackson: I saw it. With the what’s on your phone?
Brené Brown: Yeah. First app you look at in the morning. Slack. Last app you look at before you go to bed, Slack. I wanted to lie and be like, “The Our Father, like a prayer.” But it’s not. It’s like unless Jesus is on my Slack …
Amy Elisa Jackson: And he could be. He’s on the mainline…
Brené Brown: He’s on the mainline but for me, yes. He’s the real deal mainline. But I haven’t seen him on Slack yet. So like so it’s hard.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s tough. When you think about sort of your journey with sobriety, especially as it pertains to sort of alcohol and cigarettes, it’s something that millions of Americans deal with and I think we almost forget sometimes that, especially with where the world is and so much going on, we almost forget that sobriety and addiction are major, major concerns for so many folks. How are you working your program these days? Because people can say, “Oh she’s cured. 23 years, she’s fine, she’s got this.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: How are you working your program and what does it look like? Because there are listeners who are career conscious, who are applying the jobs on Glassdoor who battled the same challenges that you battle.
Brené Brown: I guess a couple of things. One, if you think, “Man, is this an issue? Should I think about stopping?” Then the answer is probably yes. I mean really. And just because you can give it up, relent, or you can stop it for 15 days, doesn’t really mean anything because the not drinking part was the easier part.
Brené Brown: The working the program and kind of doing these fearless inventories of kind of who I am and how I tap out of pain, and how I cause other people pain because I’m not willing to be clear because I don’t want to be disliked or disappoint people. That was the real work and that’s everyday work for me.
Brené Brown: And I think when you talk about millions of people, we got to really be honest about for women and people of color where the alcohol industry has said, “Let me see. Let me see who’s really struggling right now.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: …And let’s advertise straight to them.
Brené Brown: Yeah. If you look at the number of cigarette billboards and alcohol billboards in black communities compared to white communities. If you look at this whole thing on daytime morning television where people are drinking wine, women are drinking wine at 9:00 in the morning. What the hell?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Right. And it’s become normalized culture. It’s become completely normal. And so then you feel like you’re not finished with your workday until you have that glass of wine or your femininity or womanhood, your sister circle, your book club. All of the things that we do as a community sort of revolve around that as well, which I think makes it extremely difficult to navigate sobriety in today’s economy, in today’s world.
Brené Brown: I think that’s right. I love Mary Carr is one of my favorite writers because she’s so freaking badass about it. One of the things that she said that I quoted in the article that I wrote in my sobriety was I thought when I gave up booze, I’d be less sparkly, but that’s when I really started to sparkle. Like as it turns out, I’m pretty funny without it. I have a good time, I dance as much, I do everything else, I just don’t wake up with what I opened thinking, “Holy crap.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: Very true. What happened?
Brené Brown: I don’t know. I’m going to make a big leap here. Can I do that?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Yeah. Leap, jump sis.
Brené Brown: I was thinking about this a lot. This is going to be a weird thing, but I was thinking a lot about this with Toni Morrison’s death and I thought about her books that I’ve read that her fearless accounting of the history and heart-story of the black experience and then I thought to myself …
Brené Brown: And I’ve taught Toni Morrison before in a graduate social work class. It is history, but it’s also the socio-emotional history. And I think about this and what’s going on in the world today when we talk about white supremacy. There just comes a point where you come across something that’s really hard, The Bluest Eye. What just happened in El Paso and Ohio.
Brené Brown: And you hear things that people are saying, “Wow, we’ve got a white supremacy problem.” Or, “Wow, there’s a real dehumanization of people of color or women.” And there comes this tiny, tiny point where you have to decide as a person. “Do I accept what I’m hearing and that pain that comes with it? Or do I just say it’s not real and diminish the truth of it?”
Brené Brown: And we are forced to that point every day right now. Maybe that’s the upside. Carl Jung said for every great progression, there has to be a massive regression. Maybe I’m not looking for any good spot of what we’re in right now.
Brené Brown: When you get to that point, do you have the capacity and the courage to hold the pain, own the story and fight your way through the story? And so somehow, as a collection of people, we’ve lost our capacity and our courage to hold the pain. And so we deny the pain.
Amy Elisa Jackson: We do.
Brené Brown: Whether we deny it around race, around gender, around transphobia, around homophobia, whether we deny it around a hard meeting and we guzzle the glass of red wine that everybody thinks is great because you’re the wine connoisseur and all that other bullshit, whatever. Our lack of self-awareness and ability to be in pain constructively is directly proportional to the amount of pain we cause in the world.
Amy Elisa Jackson: And I think only social media exacerbates that, right? Because you’re able to turn it off, you’re able to curate your feed, you’re able to just ignore certain things, only tune in to certain media outlets. You don’t even have to deal with the pain. You just have to kind of like push it aside and click on something else.
Brené Brown: Or you can use social media as we see. As I see my feet often as I’m sure a little after this podcast. People using social media like their cigarette, like their Bud Light to discharge pain.
Brené Brown: Look, you cannot be brave — if you can’t be brave, you can’t lead. And you can’t be brave if you’re tapping out of hard conversations about painful, hard topics. That’s what it means to lead. That’s why there are so few courageous leaders. Coming back to Dare to Lead, that’s why brave leaders are never silent about hard things. You either own the story or, as you can see in organizations and our country today, the story owns you.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s interesting because … And you mentioned this earlier in our conversation around sort of how you don’t shy away from sort of social justice topics. And your commentary on social media is really powerful and seemingly very rare these days, right? Public figures, leaders, CEOs, anybody shies away from embracing the pain or saying the tough thing or having the tough conversation around whether it’s race, whether it’s pay inequality, whatever it might be, but you dive in.
Amy Elisa Jackson: When the Twitter trolls abound, do you have to sort of remind yourself that you are being courageous and that you are leading and you are being brave? Or do you just say, “F it. I don’t even care what the naysayers say.”
Brené Brown: I try with F it, but it doesn’t usually work because I’m usually in tears. So that’s not very convincing to people who are like, “Oh, that’s it.” I mean I think I take my inspiration from people who are a hell of a lot braver than me because I have a lot of privilege on a lot of dimensions that I have the ability to tap out of.
Brené Brown: When I sign up to take on race or even when I sign on to take on gender, I’m from a really privileged perspective around both. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m a straight woman and I’m an educated straight woman. I have a whole list. And so I think I really am inspired by people who are much braver than me, and I try to follow their lead, support them, yield to them. That’s where I take my inspiration from.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Brené, when you look at your career, what’s been your best detour? What’s been the best pivot that you’ve made? Because you’ve been strong in academia, but what was the left turn? Because I also understand you wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, which I secretly love.
Brené Brown: Oh, totally. I’ve only had two aspirations growing up. I mean, I’m a fifth-generation Texan. I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader married to a quarterback, or I wanted to drive an eighteen-wheeler and have my own CB. Like, “Breaker 1-9. This is Brené Brown. Like that.” Like that’s the only two things … That’s your ambition when you’re a girl growing up in Texas at least 40 years ago.
Brené Brown: I’ve had nothing but detours. I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree when I was 29 and I absolutely believe. I mean, if there’s one mantra that I live by, it’s nothing wasted. I learned more about empathy and people in that 12-year journey of bartending and waiting tables and hitchhiking through Europe than I ever could in classrooms.
Brené Brown: And so I live in like beta. I think pivoting is the norm. Steady is not. Steady is always like, “Hmm.” Right now, we’re in a big pivot, I guess. We’ve been in a big pivot for a year where we thought we would produce this great research and then we would scale it, and then I hated that.
Brené Brown: Because I don’t want to walk in and 150 people work here. Like 25 or so is my sweet spot. So what we decided to do is continue creating world-class research and IP and then partner with people who scale for a living like the Netflixes and Random House and people who can get the word out there, because that’s what they do well. I’m better, slower, closer.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s a really a key takeaway that you’re better, slower, closer because a temptation, again, for success is to scale, right? It’s like bigger, better. Can we be global? Can we be international? Can I hire mini me’s?
Brené Brown: Oh God, yes. That whole thing you just did. I lived that for three years. The last three years. It was the hardest three years professionally in my life. I wouldn’t undo it. Maybe I’d undo some of it just because it was so painful in places.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Brené, we’re approaching a new decade. It’s 2020 in like five months, three months, two months, whatever. It’s crazy. What are you in pursuit of for 2020? You’ve hit some major career milestones. You’ve gotten a kid off to college. You’re living your best life. You’re still maintaining an introvert, down-home, Texan vibe you’ve got going. That’s a big accomplishment. What are you in pursuit of for 2020?
Brené Brown: Discernment.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What does discernment mean to you?
Brené Brown: It’s my version of the serenity prayer. So God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and define the holiness and those things. That’s my add-on. Give me the courage to change the things I can and then grant me the grace or wisdom to discern the difference between what I should take on and what I should not take on. So discernment is really my thing.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s super powerful. I think that’s something that we can all really learn from. Again, it’s not about more, more, more. More isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more.
Brené Brown: Sometimes more is just more and, God, I am so bad at leaving any potential or possibility on the table. It was at last year or this year, I think it was last year. My word of the year. Oh, it was this year. I see it’s ironic. It was focused and it was Steve Job’s definition of focus where focus is not just the things you do, it’s being proud of the thousand things you turned down and don’t do as well. And so I’m really trying to work on discernment.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We are just appreciative of you taking the time and excited to see where you are and what happens in 2020 and read the next book. We really do appreciate it. So have a wonderful blessed day.
Brené Brown: Thank you. You too.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s our show, everybody. Thank you for listening to In Pursuit by Glassdoor. This episode was produced by Lee Schneider and Alison Sullivan. Music by Epidemic Sound, production by Red Cup Agency.
Click to listen now. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. IN PURSUIT features candid, personal reflections from guests who are looking for answers and evolving to meet the challenges life throws at them. You’ll get inspiring conversations about life and career. If you have a question or feedback for us, message us on Twitter (@glassdoor, using the hashtag #InPursuitPod).