SXSW with Brene Brown

How to deal with criticism, failure and a brain that is constantly tricking you


Dr Brene Brown, qualitative research professor and TED talk extraordinaire, gave Saturday’s keynote at SXSW Interactive. The subject: Daring Greatly. As in, how to be brave, fall down and get back up again.

What does that actually mean and why should you care? Brown’s research is essential for anyone working in a creative field. And it’s all about vulnerability.

The lightbulb moment for her research, and subsequent book Daring Greatly, came when Brown sat down and read every comment on a recent TED talk she’d given. The good and the bad. The bad comments cut deep, ranging from those questioning the validity of her career and life’s work, to those criticising her appearance. However, it was this moment that inspired these three pieces of advice:

  • Be brave with your work. Anyone who is doing brave work, creative or otherwise, will get their ass kicked. When putting your work (or yourself) out there, choose courage over comfort. It’s worth it.

  • The idea that vulnerability is a sign of weakness is A MYTH. Being vulnerable connects us with others, and actually opens us up to creativity and empathy.

  • There are a million cheap seats in the world. Meaning there’s plenty of space for those who want to self-protect and hurl criticism at others. Ignore these people and their feedback. Better yet, draw up a shortlist of people you love and respect, and take feedback from only the people on that shortlist.

  • Everyone will fall down at some stage, whether it’s a personal disappointment or a failure at work. In fact, Brown argues, there can be no creativity and no innovation without failure.

So when the inevitable failure happens, what does it take to get back up again?

When something difficult happens to us, our emotions kick in and have that first crack at trying to make sense of it. Humans are wired for survival and for that reason, the brain perceives emotional vulnerability as a threat. Your brain loves a narrative and it’s hardwired to recognise a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. So when you’re dealing with a difficult situation, or are challenged in some way, your brain begins to fill in the gaps and creates a story, however inaccurate: “My work is not good enough”, “I let down my colleagues”, “I dropped the ball on this project.” In the absence of data and facts your brain will always make up a story.

So how can we overcome this? Learn to recognise when you have been snared by an emotion, whether it’s anger or embarrassment. Know when you are confabulating a story. Remember that failure is an imperfect word. The second you start to learn from it, it is no longer a failure.

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