Every amazing story has an Act II, a phase during which the would-be-hero is knocked down, face in the dirt, hurt or frustrated to the point of giving up then ultimately rising to the challenge. The lives of the best leaders among us often follow the same parable.
But how exactly do we pick ourselves up? That question set off a research exploration by Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston and one of the world's most-watched TED speakers. Her new book, “Rising Strong,” examines how we move past such failures, setbacks and hard times, both in our professional careers and personal lives. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Whether a small confrontation at work or a big personal loss, what do these moments of feeling knocked down have in common?
A. On the surface they don't seem like they would have much in common. I mean, a sideways glance from a co-worker seems very different than heartbreak. But what was pretty surprising to me in the research is that falls — regardless of their magnitude and circumstance — are always things that emotionally hook us. Any time we experience struggle, whether it’s a small conflict in a meeting or a personal loss, our emotions get the first crack at making sense of what’s happening.
Q. What are the key things you found differentiate the people who can rise out of those “facedown” moments to reach a stronger, better place?
Going through the research, what became clear to me is that if you’re brave enough often enough, you’re going to fall. It’s not a question of if you might fall. You will definitely fall. If you’re innovative enough, you’re going to experience failure.
So one of the things that I saw across leaders who can rise after a fall was the capacity to tolerate discomfort. They were also highly, highly aware of their emotions — and they weren’t afraid of them. They were also very aware of emotion in other people. We know now from change management research and behavioral research that if you want people to change, you have to speak to their emotions.
Q. What would you say to the person who didn’t necessarily have one horrible moment but who feels chronically unhappy at work, or feels stuck in a prolonged facedown moment, and is at a loss for how to write a better story for him or herself?
A. Those moments we can point to that are really definitive, where you know you're facedown and everyone around you knows you’re facedown, in some ways are easier to deal with because the toughness of them is not ambiguous. It can be harder when you’re like, “I don't know when and how I got down here, but I’m down and I just can't get back up.”
But it’s the same process, either way. First you just need to acknowledge that you’re emotionally hooked, or stuck, or triggered by something. For me, I get a loop in my head, and I keep playing things over and over. Others want to punch a wall, or we find ourselves in the pantry when we’re not even that hungry, or we can’t sleep. Once you recognize that you’re emotionally hooked by something and you see how it’s affecting your behavior, then get curious about it. Curiosity emerged as one of the most important constructs in this research.
Then — and this is the really important piece, which for me has been the most life-changing — understand that when we face pain or hurt or something tough, our brain is wired to scramble to make sense of it. And what our brain really loves in those situations is a story, a quick story that helps us make sense. If we can give our brain that, it rewards us chemically.
So if you and I walk out of a meeting together, and I say, “See you later,” and you sigh and roll your eyes, my emotion is going to come to the surface. And my brain, before it does anything else, is going to scramble to make up a story: I knew that you never liked me and thought that idea I pitched in the meeting was bad. I just knew it.
The problem is, whether it’s true or not, our brain goes: Thank you, we get it now — that person doesn’t trust us, and she’s not to be trusted. Then that story shifts our behavior, often in toxic ways.
What we need to do is really dig into these stories we tell ourselves and say, “How much of what I’m making up in this story is true? What do I know for sure? I know she rolled her eyes, but I don’t know for sure that she doesn’t trust me and thought my idea was stupid.” Think about the difference it would make if instead of letting these narratives dictate our behavior, I just walked up to you and said — and this is the phrase that changed my life from the research:“The story I'm making up is that you're disappointed about something I did. What's going on?”
Then you'd likely look back at me and say, “Oh my God, no. I didn't know the meeting was going to go that late and I missed a conference call.”
Q. I love the way you phrase some of this in the book—that we're conspiracy theorists about our own lives and the things that happen in our lives. That's such a useful way to think about it.
A. The definition of a conspiracy is a story with limited factual data points, where we fill in the rest based on our own ideals and values. You have to start rumbling with the true story, and get vulnerable enough to check things out.
Q. How are we supposed to emotionally and rationally wrestle our way out of bad falls that we truly didn’t bring about ourselves, like an illness or being laid off?
A. We all have those really tough falls in our lives where we didn’t stumble or trip; we got shoved down. But we still have to own that story as ours. Otherwise we stay characters in a story that someone else is telling. If we want to become the authors of our own lives, if we want to control how these hard stories end, we have to own them regardless of how they happened.
And owning a story doesn't mean assigning blame, it doesn't mean saying: “It was my own fault.” It just means recognizing that this is where I am, and this is a hard part of my story, but it's part of my bigger narrative and I'm going to own it, because I'm going to decide how it's going to end.
Q. One thing you also write about is how thinking we're better than other people often goes hand in hand with thinking we're no good — that self-righteousness and self-loathing are two sides of the same coin. How is it possible those two concepts are so intertwined?
A. It goes back to some fundamental research we have on judgment, which found we only judge in areas where we're the most susceptible to shame. So we only judge and put value on people's behaviors in areas where we believe sometimes we're not enough, which is why things like parenting are judgment minefields — because every single one of us who's doing it knows we're screwing it up everyday.
When we feel good about what we're doing, and how and why we're doing it, we don't need to rank-order people. But when we are in that slippery place of not believing we're good enough, strong enough, beautiful enough, skinny enough, rich enough, promoted enough — that is when we're most likely to start comparing and rank-ordering. And once you enter that minefield, it’s one quick slip between “I’m better than so-and-so” and “I'm a worthless piece of crap and everyone's better than me.”
Once you start thinking comparatively, you stop focusing on what your own internal striving for excellence looks like. Now everything is outwardly calculated based on what people will think, and if you’re better or worse than another person. That’s when we've lost total control and total values alignment.
Q. How do we stop comparing ourselves against other people?
A. It’s so hard. I’m an ex-competitive swimmer, and I posted a picture on Instagram of the lane where I swim in the mornings. On top of it, I wrote: “Stay in your own lane. Focusing on what’s next to you, or who’s next to you, takes away your joy.”
Because sometimes still, if I happen to sync up to the stranger swimming next to me when I’m pushing off the wall, I’ll find myself racing this person. And when I do that, my swim is completely ruined. Swim is my meditation, therapy and exercise. And when I start racing people, I’m not focused on me anymore and what I need from that experience.
Q. What are some of the best tools for navigating disappointments, say being passed over for a promotion or a job you thought you should get?
A. There’s a powerful relationship between expectation and disappointment. Disappointment is often expectation not realized. Sometimes we feel disappointment because we had clear expectations, and maybe even made ourselves vulnerable and let people know we were excited about something, and then we didn’t get it. When that happens, we need to remind ourselves: That’s why the boldest among us will be disappointed, because they were brave enough to want something even though they had no control over the outcome. We have to understand that what makes us brave about that ambition is being willing to live through the potential disappointment of it.
Where things get tricky, and where people really struggle with disappointment and shame, is when we're not even aware that we have expectations around something. My husband Steve and I would get into a lot of arguments about stealth expectations. We would go into a weekend and by Saturday afternoon we'd both be super mad because the weekend wasn't turning out how we both wanted it to, but that was because we never discussed our expectations.
We try to now. One time we were going to Disney World and he sees me packing three big books and says, “What's going on with those books? We're going to Disney with five kids for seven days. You're going to be able to read the sign that says ‘You have to be this tall to ride.’ That's it.” It helped me reality check my expectations, so I didn't get there and end up resentful or upset or disappointed.
Q. Then there's also regret, which you say we can actually use constructively. How do we do that?
A. People have said, “We can't believe you think regret is a good thing, because you are all about daring and courage.” I don’t think the whole no-regrets style of living is brave. I think it means you’re living a life of no reflection.
I have regrets. And I think regret is a very fair but tough teacher. There’s a power in leaning into discomfort and saying, “I do regret this decision. What can I do differently? How can I grow? How can I change?” It is an uncomfortable but really important reminder to learn to do things different next time.
Q. What’s one of the most important implications from this research for how to be an effective leader?
A. Leadership is all about integrity, which I define as choosing what's right over what's fun, fast or easy. Practicing our values, not just professing them. Choosing courage over comfort. To me, that means having hard conversations, making tough decisions, and paying attention to the emotional lives of the people who work around us and paying attention to our own emotional life. If you can't have tough conversations, you can't lead.
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