If there was ever an audience primed to hear Brené Brown’s message of staying true to yourself, even amid the chaos and the toxic negativity in today’s political and social media landscape, it was the SXSW badge-holders embarking on ten days of networking, partying, and navigating brand activations. So popular is the University of Houston research professor and author that when the Austin Convention Center ballroom quickly hit capacity for her kickoff keynote on Friday, hundreds of people filed into a nearby room just to watch the simulcast.
Brown’s books and TED talks on vulnerability, shame, and courage have created a passionate following for a reason. For the next hour, the social scientist (and fifth-generation Texan) gave one of her signature speeches, full of humor, deep insight, delightful Texas references, and of course, vulnerability. Although she recently published Dare to Lead, Friday’s talk pulled from another of her best-sellers, Braving the Wilderness, which focuses on our need to belong while staying true to who we are.
“We are in the wilderness—it’s hard,” Brown said. “You can’t belong when you are betraying yourself.” Before advising the crowd on how to navigate through that unknown territory, she described our current culture as “the high lonesome,” a phrase often associated with bluegrass music, and played what she called “what lonesomeness sounds like”: a snippet of Roscoe Holcomb’s yearning “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Here’s some of the advice shared by the expert on vulnerability, bravery, and finding one’s path.
How to handle hate
It’s hard to hate someone when you really start to see him or her, so Brown encouraged the crowd to “move in closer” and watch differences melt away. She cited how Houstonians came together after Hurricane Harvey, regardless of beliefs and backgrounds (in her own neighborhood, all but four of 48 homes were destroyed). She gave this advice with a caveat, though: If someone’s words or actions dehumanize or diminish you in any way, then it’s not safe for you and not your problem. “It’s not our jobs to build the table so that people can come together,” she said, to great applause. It’s important to create your own safe space. As an example, Brown, a frequent flyer, says that when she feels like a man on an airplane is going to be argumentative, she tells him: “I study shame and the patriarchy.” They then stop talking and go straight to Candy Crush.
Tell it like it is, nicely
“Speak truth to bullshit, but be kind,” she said. We waste a lot of energy on negative emotions. “I choose to be civil, not for you, but for me. You don’t get my hate, you don’t get my health.” To help make her point, she shared a photo of a longhorn alongside “Alberto Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle: The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
We need each other
We are wired to connect at the most basic level. Brown urged her audience to recognize the moments of collective joy—country music concerts, the Astros World Series win in 2017, and Longhorn games—as well as collective sorrow. She told a story about driving on FM 1960 in Houston the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Drivers pulled over in shock as they heard the news on the radio. Brown described how, when they pulled back on the road, they all turned their headlights on, as if in a funeral procession for their NASA neighbors.
Conference anxiety is real
With pressure on everything from having fun to finding the best food trucks to making a good first impression, SXSW is full of social landmines. When you’re trying to fit in and not being true to your essential self, you’re bound to feel shame. “Just be you. You are going to suck at being anyone else,” urged Brown.
We all need some Townes Van Zandt
There is no better way to start off SXSW than with a Townes Van Zandt singalong. Brown ended her talk with everyone on their feet—even those in the simulcast room—belting out the words to the late Austin singer-songwriter’s heartbreaking “If I Needed You” (she displayed the lyrics on the screen). There is nothing like hearing 2,000-plus voices from around the world singing, “If you needed me I would come to you/I would swim the seas for to ease your pain.”