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Rising Strong: Brené Brown on the Physics of Vulnerability and What Resilient People Have in Common

“If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.”

“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.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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.

Brown writes:

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.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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.


Brené Brown on Vulnerability, Human Connection, and the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy, Animated

“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better — what makes something better is connection.”

In 2010, shame and empathy researcher Dr. Brené Brown gave us the wonderful and culturally necessary The Gifts of Imperfection, exploring the uncomfortable vulnerability and self-acceptance required in order to truly connect with others. In this charming short film, the folks of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, better-known as the RSA, put a twist on their usual live-illustrated gems and take a page out of the TED-Ed book, teaming up with animator Katy Davis to bring to life an excerpt from Brown’s longer talk on the power of vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy, based on her most recent self-helpy-sounding but enormously insightful and rigorously researched book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (public library).

The truth is, rarely can a response make something better — what makes something better is connection.

And that connection often requires mutual vulnerability. Brown writes in Daring Greatly:

Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.


Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.

Watch Brown’s full RSA talk below:


Brené Brown on the Building Blocks of Wholeheartedness

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.”

Happiness is something I’ve been intensely interested in, both from a research and from a cultural perspective. And one thing that consistently co-occurs with true happiness is the notion of authenticity — being, as the contrived but universally accurate saying goes, “true to ourselves.” This inevitably necessitates a degree of vulnerability with which most of us are conditioned to be uncomfortable.

Brené Brown’s fantastic TEDxHouston talk deconstructs vulnerability to reveal what she calls “wholeheartedness”: The capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivate courage and compassion, and embrace — not in that self-helpy, motivational-seminar way, but really, deeply, profoundly embrace — the imperfections of who we really are.

It’s the perfect way to start your week — enjoy.

In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.

Brown’s new book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, came out last month and is the most eloquent refutation of the “What will people think?” inner dialogue I’ve ever stumbled across.


Tim Ferriss on How He Survived Suicidal Depression and His Tools for Warding Off the Darkness

“The key is building fires where you can warm yourself as you wait for the tempest to pass.”

Tim Ferriss on How He Survived Suicidal Depression and His Tools for Warding Off the Darkness

Most people know Tim Ferriss as the amicable, quick-witted, high-energy writer, adventurer, and interviewer, who has devoted his life to optimizing human performance across the full spectrum of physical and mental health. But few know that, in addition to nearly dying at birth and growing up with no material luxury, Ferriss survived a period of suicidal depression that nearly claimed his life — the kind of suffocating grimness which William Styron so unforgettably described.

Ferriss discusses that dark episode for the first time in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (public library) — his compendium of learnings from more than two hundred interviews with entrepreneurs, artists, writers, scientists, and other titans of achievement, including philosopher Alain de Botton, musician Amanda Palmer, mindfulness and meditation teacher Tara Brach, neuroscientist Sam Harris, writer Malcolm Gladwell, social scientist Brené Brown, and writer and former firefighter Caroline Paul. In a chapter dedicated to the darkest period of his life, he shares the most any of us ever can: his subjective experience and his personal coping strategies, in the hope that they might help others who are also struggling.

Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Benjamin Sklar)
Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Benjamin Sklar)

Reflecting on why he kept his suicidal depression a secret for many years, Ferriss distinguishes between two kinds of secrets — those we keep because we fear fleeting mortification, like accounts of embarrassing things we’ve done in sub-optimal moments, and dark secrets that paralyze us with deep shame, “the shadows we keep covered for fear of unraveling our lives.”

Noting that a number of his closest friends in high school and college had killed themselves — and, lest we forget, there is perilous social contagion in suicide — Ferriss outlines the downward spiral which he himself barely escaped. He writes:

In hindsight, it’s incredible how trivial some of it seems. At the time, though, it was the perfect storm. I include wording like “impossible situation,” which was reflective of my thinking at the time, not objective reality.

Ferriss goes on to trace his downward spiral, precipitated by his failing senior thesis at Princeton — a pinnacle of education for which he had labored to transcend his humble beginnings since childhood. As it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to process the hundreds of pages of original Japanese research, in Japanese, in order to complete his ambitious East Asian Studies thesis in time, Ferriss realized that he wouldn’t graduate with his class — something his hostile thesis advisor made abundantly and abrasively clear. Feeling betrayed by the system he had worked so hard for, he spiraled into dejection.

Just then, his longtime girlfriend severed the relationship on account of his “neediness,” which she felt was compromising her varsity season. He rented a lonesome apartment off campus to continue working on his thesis as he watched his friends gleefully graduate. Trapped in isolation that only amplified his despair, he began to feel like a useless burden on the world and ceased to see a reason for being.

One day, wandering aimlessly through the bookstore, he chanced upon a book on suicide.

Ferriss picks up the story:

It’s important to mention that, by this point, I was past deciding. The decision was obvious to me. I’d somehow failed, painted myself into this ridiculous corner, wasted a fortune on a school that didn’t care about me, so what would be the point of doing otherwise? To repeat these types of mistakes forever? To be a hopeless burden to myself and my family and friends? … The world was better off… What would I ever contribute? Nothing. So the decision was made, and I was in full-on planning mode.

Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Martin Schoeller)
Tim Ferriss (Photograph: Martin Schoeller)

But despite his meticulous planning of the act, something thus far outside his scope of considerations occurred: He received an unexpected phone call from his mother, precipitated by a fortuitous mishap. He had ordered the suicide book from the Princeton library, but had forgotten that the address on file was still his parents’ home, which meant that as soon as the book became available, his parents received a postcard from the library announcing that the suicide book was available for pickup. His mother, alarmed, immediately called him. Ferriss transports us to what it was like to have that seemingly serendipitous conversation and considers its life-saving effect:

I am snapped out of my own delusion by a one-in-a-million accident. It was only then that I realize something: My death wouldn’t just be about me. It would completely destroy the lives of those I cared about most. I imagine my mom, who had no part in creating my thesis mess, suffering until her dying day, blaming herself.

Motivated by this momentary glimpse of the circle of love beyond his locus of personal agony, Ferriss decided to take a few months to restore his physical and mental health — perhaps the seedbed of his lifelong emphasis on the indivisibility of the two. In a sentiment that calls to mind Aldous Huxley’s insistence on mind-body integration — Ferriss is, after all, Huxley’s contemporary counterpart in certain ways — he recounts the vitalizing effect of this embodied approach to his sanity:

Months later, after focusing on my body instead of sitting around trapped in my head, things are much clearer. Everything seems more manageable. The “hopeless” situation seems like shitty luck but nothing permanent.

From this newfound place of perspective, Ferriss was able to find greater stability as he faced life’s fleeting perturbations. In a testament to Henry Miller’s notion that “on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” he returned to Princeton and was able to withstand his advisor’s merciless takedown of the thesis on which he had worked so hard. In an aside that further demonstrates just how mutable even our bitterest resolves are, Ferriss notes that the thesis takedown made him vow to never write another word again; this 700-page tome is his fourth book.

With a sensitive and self-aware eye to the disconnect between how all-consuming such setbacks can seem to the depressed person and how trivial to someone judging from the outside, he writes:

Some of you might also be thinking “That’s it?! A Princeton student was at risk of getting a bad grade? Boo-fuckin’-hoo, man. Give me a break…” But … that’s the entire point. It’s easy to blow things out of proportion, to get lost in the story you tell yourself, and to think that your entire life hinges on one thing you’ll barely remember 5 or 10 years later. That seemingly all-important thing could be a bad grade, getting into college, a relationship, a divorce, getting fired, or a bunch of hecklers on the Internet.

Likening suicide to “wearing a suicide bomber’s vest of explosives and walking into a crowd of innocents,” Ferriss considers the far-reaching ripples of grief and sorrow which the act sets into motion:

Killing yourself can spiritually kill other people. Your death is not perfectly isolated. It can destroy a lot, whether your family (who will blame themselves), other loved ones, or simply the law enforcement officers or coroners who have to haul your death mask-wearing carcass out of an apartment or the woods. The guaranteed outcome of suicide is NOT things improving for you (or going blank), but creating a catastrophe for others…

A friend once told me that killing yourself is like taking your pain, multiplying it by 10, and giving it to the ones who love you. I agree with this, but there’s more to it. Beyond any loved ones, you could include neighbors, innocent bystanders exposed to your death, and people — often kids — who commit “copycat suicides” when they read about your demise. This is the reality, not the cure-all fantasy, of suicide.

Drawing on his own experience, Ferriss offers — only after covering the basic necessity of crisis hotlines and other resources for professional help — an arsenal of tools and tricks that he uses for “keeping the darkness at arm’s length” to this day. One strategy he suggests for those enduring intolerable psychic pain is making a “non-suicide vow” with a friend. He writes:

As silly as it might sound, it’s sometimes easier to focus on keeping your word, and avoiding hurting someone, than preserving your own life. And that’s totally okay. Use what works first, and you can fix the rest later. If you need to disguise a vow out of embarrassment … make it a “mutual non-self-hurt” vow with a friend who beats himself or herself up.

Make it about them as much as you. If you don’t care about yourself, make it about other people.

Another strategy revisits the importance of mind-body integration:

Go to the gym and move for at least 30 minutes. For me, this is 80% of the battle.

But his most powerful technique has to do not with the self but with other selves — or, rather, with mooring the self to the existence of goodness by modeling and extending it to others:

If you can’t seem to make yourself happy, do little things to make other people happy. This is a very effective magic trick. Focus on others instead of yourself. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line (I do this a lot), compliment a stranger, volunteer at a soup kitchen, help a classroom on, buy a round of drinks for the line cooks and servers at your favorite restaurant, etc. The little things have a big emotional payback, and guess what? Chances are, at least one person you make smile is on the front lines with you, quietly battling something nearly identical.

In a passage that calls to mind Rilke’s abiding wisdom on how winter bolsters the tenacity of the human spirit, Ferriss concludes:

My “perfect storm” was nothing permanent. But, of course, it’s far from the last storm I’ll face. There will be many more. The key is building fires where you can warm yourself as you wait for the tempest to pass. These fires — the routines, habits, relationships, and coping mechanisms you build — help you to look at the rain and see fertilizer instead of a flood. If you want the lushest green of life (and you do), the gray is part of the natural cycle.


In the remainder of the voluminous Tools of Titans, Ferriss goes on to offer many more fire-building tools for resilience, productivity, happiness, and self-transcendence borrowed from such varied masters of achievement as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, music renegade Derek Sivers, comedian Margaret Cho, investor Chris Sacca, tech legend Kevin Kelly, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, actor B.J. Novak, and dozens more. Complement this particular portion with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul and Galway Kinnell’s beautiful poem “Wait,” written for a friend contemplating suicide.

Ferriss discusses his own story, including his struggle with depression and his life-tested strategies for overcoming fear, with unprecedented candor in this revelatory Design Matters interview by Debbie Millman:

It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.


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