A Q&A With Brené Brown
On September 13, Brené Brown, a fifth-generation Texan and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, will publish her third book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books). Her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability has been watched more than five million times on YouTube.
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What kind of name is “Brené”?
Growing up, every time we drove from San Antonio to Houston, going to Stuckey’s—all these places where you buy monogrammed shirts and glasses—I was so put out because there was never a “Brené.” So I think I made up in my head that it was French. And then I hitchhiked across Europe after high school and I got to France and I was like, “Je suis Brené!” And they were like, “What kind of name is that?” They’d never heard of it. My parents just made it up. I had a whole narrative in high school—”When I bust out of this suburban Spring, Texas, high school I’m going to go back to France where my people are!” But, no, it’s not French—it’s south side San Antonio.
Can you tell me a bit about your family history in Texas?
Very German. I think my great-grandparents had the first beer garden in San Antonio. I’m not so sure that’s a great claim to fame. I’m a San Antonian, born and raised, and then I went to high school in, I guess it’s called Klein now—it was Spring when I was growing up, but now it’s Klein. I got my hair cut at the same place as Lyle Lovett—maybe also not another claim to fame. Then I came to Houston to go to graduate school and my husband did his residency in Houston.
So you’re a deep, dyed-in-the-wool Texan. Are those classic Texas virtues of stoicism and self-reliance in tension with a willingness to be vulnerable, which is what your book is about?
Yes. I think the reason why my TED talk has gone viral is because I don’t come to the subject of vulnerability with an open embrace. It goes against the way I was raised. Our family motto was “Lock and load.” Vulnerability isn’t something I come by easily, it’s something that I have to wrestle with; when I feel vulnerable my first reaction is to punch somebody in the face. But growing up being a Texan is also the source of my resilience. I’m very resolute in my work and very passionate. And bullheaded! So those Texas virtues don’t have to be tossed out the window? No. The way I define vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Self reliance and bootstrapping are Texas virtues, but so is moral courage. And I think vulnerability is the hardest courage. To show up and let yourself be seen, to speak out, to stand up for something you believe in, that takes a lot of vulnerability in this culture because we’re so cynical and we’re so critical.
It’s funny, we did an exercise in graduate school that was kind of a political identity exercise, and people would put race and gender and things like that [as their identity], and my first identifier was “Texan.” I very much identify as a Texan. This culture has shaped me.
Maybe the pioneers who settled Texas couldn’t be vulnerable. It just wouldn’t have worked in those circumstances—if you were really open to your own life you’d probably break down and cry and never get back up, because that life was so hard.
I think, in fact, that showing up to help your neighbor, getting involved, having an opinion, being part of a community, and putting yourself out there—I think those are basic Texas values. Maybe early Texans had no choice but to be vulnerable; coming here, by virtue of the definition, was a vulnerable choice, it opened you up to uncertainty. The thing about being a pioneer is that it usually means you’re first on the trail. And that, by definition, is vulnerable. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean that you lack fortitude or resilience, it just means you’re willing to step into uncertainty. And that’s certainly a quality of Texans before and today. Oh my god, I sound like a crazy Texan. I sound like, “Secede!”