Brené Brown has a Ph.D. in social work and is a professor at the University of Houston. For her research on human behavior and emotion, she has conducted tens of thousands of interviews with study subjects and amassed reams of data. She could easily have spent her career in the academic ivory tower.
But Brené Brown chose to do something that's rare and dangerous in academia: she made her work popular, translating very rigorous scientific research into very human stories about relationships, parenting, and leadership. She just launched a popular podcast, and every one of her books is a best seller. Her plain-spoken lessons have particular resonance in these days of anxiety and disconnection.
Bill Whitaker: Your books would be in the self help section, I think.
Brené Brown: That bugs the crap outta me.
Bill Whitaker: That bugs the crap out of you?
Brené Brown: It totally does.
Bill Whitaker: Why?
Brené Brown: I don't think we're supposed to help ourselves. I think we're supposed to help each other. I mean, I don't think we're supposed to do it alone. We all wanna be better. Right?
Bill Whitaker: Isn't that what you're helping people do?
Brené Brown: Yes. But my message is clear that you don't have to do it alone. We were never meant to. We are neuro--
Bill Whitaker: So it's not self help.
Brené Brown: --no, we are neuro-biologically hardwired to be in connection with other people.
Brené Brown spends a lot of time building connections. To her huge social media following – millions follow her on Facebook and Instagram – and now through a new podcast called "Unlocking Us."
Brené Brown: And I'm not sure about you, but this is my first effing global pandemic.
She launched the podcast just over a week ago, as impacts of the coronavirus swept across America.
Brené Brown: We don't know how to do this. And by this I mean, we don't know how to social distance and stay sane, we don't know how to stay socially connected but far apart. We don't know what to tell our kids. We're anxious, we're uncertain, we are a lot of us afraid. And let me tell you this for sure, and I know this from my life, I know this, from again, from 20 years of research, and 400,000 pieces of data. If you don't name what you're feeling, if you don't own the feelings, and feel them, they will eat you alive.
Within a day, "Unlocking Us" became the most listened-to podcast in America. Millions of people are feeling very vulnerable right now, and vulnerability is what Brené Brown has been studying for decades.
Brené Brown: We asked thousands of people that question, like, "What is vulnerability to you?" The first date after my divorce, trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage, starting my own business. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
Bill Whitaker: A lot of people associate vulnerability with weakness.
Brené Brown: Definitely. Bad mythology. Vulnerability is not weakness. It's the only path to courage. Give me a single example of courage that does not require uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. No one, in 50,000 people, not a person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not include those things. There is no courage without vulnerability.
That message has found a receptive audience in an interesting place: the United States military.
Col. Dede Halfhill: Sometimes I'll say, "Have you heard of Brené Brown?" And they'll say, "No." And I'll say, "Let me kinda walk you through this."
Air Force Colonel Dede Halfhill, who's currently the spokeswoman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, first encountered Brené Brown's work when she was a squadron commander in Iraq. She's now been trained and certified to teach Brown's techniques to other military officers.
Col. Dede Halfhill: Society is changing. And what society needs from its leaders is changing. It needs leaders who can have really hard conversations around things like race, sexual assault, suicide. So to say you get to be a leader who doesn't talk about feelings, that's not possible anymore.
Bill Whitaker: I can hear people saying, "An-- an officer in the air force, someone who's, you know, fighting a war, is not supposed to feel vulnerable. You're not supposed to talk about your feelings."
Col. Dede Halfhill: Vulnerability is the birthplace of courage. And courage is not doing something because you're fearless. Courage is doing something because you may be afraid and you do it anyway.
Brené Brown: The most vulnerable people I know are the toughest people I know.
Bill Whitaker: Hmmm.
Brené Brown: They're just not posturing, blustery, tough. They're real tough.
Bill Whitaker: So finish this sentence for me. If you are courageous, there's a 100% chance that?
Brené Brown: There's a 100% chance you'll get your ass kicked. You will know failure and setback and disappointment. S--
Bill Whitaker: It's guaranteed?
Brené Brown: Guaranteed.
Brown says she has plenty of proof from her own life, particularly early in her academic career.
Brené Brown: I could fill this room with rejection letters. Like, I couldn't get anything published.
She had to self-publish her first book, titled "Women and Shame," in 2004. But longtime friends Karen Walrond and Laura Mayes remember that Brown's confidence and ambition were always ferocious.
Laura Mayes: I said, "What do you want to do in five years? What's your end goal?" And she was like, "What I really want to do is start a global conversation on shame and vulnerability." I was like, "Well, I want to be an astronaut ballerina." (LAUGH) That is how crazy it sounded to me. That, anyway. Never before or since have I ever asked the question and someone came back with such a out--
Karen Walrond: Decisive answer.
Laura Mayes: Decisive and outlandish answer.
BRENÉ BROWN ON STAGE AT 2010 TEDx: I want to talk to you and tell some stories.
Something happened in 2010 to help make Brené Brown's goal less outlandish: she was invited to speak at TEDx in Houston, a small satellite conference of the now-famous TED Talks.
BRENÉ BROWN ON STAGE AT 2010 TEDx: Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No.
In that 20-minute talk, Brown displayed some of the humor and humility that have since become trademarks.
BRENÉ BROWN ON STAGE AT 2010 TEDx: You know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they kind of surrender and walk into it? A: That's not me, and B: I don't even hang out with people like that. (LAUGHTER)
Karen Walrond: And I remember afterwards, she came and sat down and she said, "How'd I do?" And I said, "I think you just changed your life."
She had. In a Netflix special last year Brown remembered that when the TEDx talk was posted online, it immediately caught fire.
BRENÉ BROWN IN NETFLIX SPECIAL: So I watch it, and it's like, three people, four people, five million, six million… [man whoops] And there's this day-- Like, yeah. You're like, "Whoo!"And I'm like, "S***!"[audience laughs] Um, that's the difference!
That TED Talk became one of the most-watched ever, now viewed nearly 50 million times. Just after giving it, Brown says she came across a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, which still hangs in her office.
Brené Brown: It's not the critic who counts. It's not the person who points out how the strong person stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done it better. The credit belongs to the person who's in the arena.
Bill Whitaker: Why is that so profound, to you?
Brené Brown: Because there are so many cheap seats in the world today. Full of people who will never, never go into the arena.
Bill Whitaker: Like, online critics?
Brené Brown: Yeah. Faceless, nameless, who will never start their own business or try to do something.
Col. Dede Halfhill: When I met Brené, I showed her a card I'd been carrying in my wallet for, at that time, 22 years. And it's the Theodore Roosevelt quote. And I received that card from a wing commander when I was a second lieutenant. And that card represented for me everything I wanted to be as a military officer. I wanted to do the hard things. I wanted to step into the arena. But I wasn't. And getting into her work and understanding that work allowed me a language to know why.
Bill Whitaker: So what is the biggest lesson, not just military leaders, but-- say, corporate leaders should learn from Brené Brown?
Col. Dede Halfhill: That this is teachable. That courage is a teachable skill. And we need it.
She may not like the description, but this fifth-generation Texan has become a brand. All the best selling books and the podcast. Legions of devoted fans, a new center at the University of Texas, her alma mater, to teach her leadership lessons, and endless speaking engagements.
When it's a talk to NASA employees, she does it for free. For a big company, she charges up to $200,000 a speech.
Bill Whitaker: Why you? What-- what has clicked? Why are people listening to your message?
Brené Brown: I think it's just being truthful.
Bill Whitaker: Your lessons, your message, is based on data. It's not just you sitting up there saying, "Oh, I think this, I think that." This is all data-driven.
Brené Brown: It is. It's frustrating, 'cause I don't, the data don't say what I wanna say. (LAUGH) I want vulnerability to be an intellectual pursuit. I don't want it to be about feeling and emotions and vulnerability.
Bill Whitaker: And the data says?
Brené Brown: It's about feelings and emotions and vulnerability and self-love and how you talk to yourself and self-kindness and self-compassion, and stuff that I'm not great at, naturally.
Brown and her husband Steve, a pediatrician, have been married for 26 years. Also a native Texan, he wasn't interested in an interview, but was happy to show us around Lake Travis, where they have a vacation home. On that boat ride, Brown told us about a momentous decision she made not long after they were married.
Brené Brown: I was in my last semester of graduate school and I had to do a geneogram, which is like-- it's like a map you draw of your family where the lines mean different things. And-- and so I call my mom and I was like, "Hey, can you help me with this geneogram over the phone?" And she's like, "Dead, cirrhosis of the liver. Dead, alcohol--" you know, it was like, oh, my God, shake my family tree and the drunks fall out. Like, what's happening here? So I just said that's it. I just, you know, I quit smoking and quit drinking and--
Bill Whitaker: On the same day.
Brené Brown: Same day.
Brené Brown speaks and writes very openly about her sobriety, her marriage to Steve, and how they have parented their daughter and son, who are now 20 and 14. But especially as her fame grows, there are limits, too. Brown calls them "boundaries." Comedian Amy Poehler gave that idea a funny twist when she invited Brown to do a cameo in the movie she directed, "Wine Country."
AMY POEHLER: You're not gonna believe who's in this restaurant.
RACHEL DRATCH: You'll never guess.
PAULA PELL: Cher?
RACHEL DRATCH: No, no, no. Ready?
AMY POEHLER AND RACHEL DRATCH: Brené Brown!
ANA GASTEYER AND MAYA RUDOLPH: Brené Brown!?!?!
Of course they can't resist interrupting her dinner.
EMILY SPIVEY: How can I be generous in my assumptions of others when I hate most people?
MAYA RUDOLPH: Mmm – Good one.
BRENÉ BROWN: Here's the thing. We can't be generous toward other people without boundaries.
MAYA RUDOLPH: Yes, Brené, yes.
PAULA PELL: Boom. Boom on the boundaries.
BRENÉ BROWN: So, (DRAWS CIRCLE WITH HER HAND) Boundaries.
VOICES: Boundaries. Yes, oh my god, message received.
It's easy to miss, but the two women sitting to Brown's right in that scene are her real-life friends Laura Mayes and Karen Walrond.
Bill Whitaker: Do people actually come up to her, like she's their best friend?
BOTH: Yeah. Yeah. (LAUGH)
Bill Whitaker: She gets that a lot?
Karen Walrond: She gets a lot of-- "I was afraid to come up to speak to you, but Brené Brown would tell me to be (LAUGH) courageous, so I'm-- this is me being courageous to come up and speak to you."
Laura Mayes: Yeah.
Karen Walrond: Yeah.
Bill Whitaker: And--does she go, "Boundaries"?
Laura Mayes: Yes. (LAUGH)
Brené Brown: You know, I've been thinking a lot about why the work resonates. And I think what people want the most is they-- they-- they don't want the lessons. They wanna see me struggling with the lessons. Because--
Bill Whitaker: Are you still struggling?
Brené Brown: Oh, God, yes. Yeah.
Bill Whitaker: The teacher is learning still?
Brené Brown: Oh, g-- yes. I am the worst poster person for vulnerability in the world. Like, yes I'm still struggling. I try to be honest about how hard it is. You know, and-- and that I think it's worth it.
Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov. Broadcast associate, Emilio Almonte. Edited by Sean Kelly.