“If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.”
By Maria Popova
“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”
In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.
To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.
While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.
Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:
Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.
Although we live in a culture of perfectionism where our idealized selves become our social currency, we know, at least on some level, that risk-taking, failure, and success are inextricably linked. Brown captures this elegantly:
If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.
Brown considers the trifecta of resilience her research has uncovered:
The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.
Another common denominator Brown found across those able to rise strong from their facedown moments is an active engagement with the creative impulse, whatever the medium — a physical practice integrating the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual:
Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being… The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”
Yet another commonality among the resilient is some form of spiritual life rooted in love and belonging — be it communion with nature or a meditation practice or the reverence of art or the divinity of solitude. Brown, who comes from “a long line of folks who believe that fishing is church” and had her first taste of spiritual transcendence in the wilderness of Lake Travis as a child, writes:
Our expressions of spirituality are as diverse as we are. When our intentions and actions are guided by spirituality — our belief in our interconnectedness and love — our everyday experiences can be spiritual practices. We can transform teaching, leading, and parenting into spiritual practices. Asking for and receiving help can also be spiritual practices. Storytelling and creating can be spiritual practices, because they cultivate awareness.
In the remainder of Rising Strong, Brown goes on to explore the principles and practices of psychoemotional resilience through a tapestry of research findings and real human stories. Complement it with Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the wholehearted life, Cheryl Strayed on the art of living with opposing truths, and David Whyte on the true meaning of heartbreak, then treat yourself to this magnificent On Being conversation with Brown about her work and the insights it has furnished:
Hope is a function of struggle.