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Book Review-Rising Strong (Part 1)

Perhaps the greatest challenge with life is that it’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. My wife isn’t perfect. My kids aren’t perfect. That means that at times we’ll all fail. We’re all going to miss the mark. We’re all going to experience bitter disappointment. The trick isn’t in getting things to perfect because that’s an impossible goal. The trick is to learn to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed. That’s what Brown’s book Rising Strong is all about – trying, failing, learning, and trying again. Because there’s a great deal of content I want to share about Rising Strong, I’ve broken this review into two parts. This is the background.

The Progression

Brown’s work is on shame and guilt. I’ve read and reviewed her previous book Daring Greatly in the context of preparing for my Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy post. She focused on being completely engaged in life. She touched on wholehearted living. However, one particular focus of Daring Greatly was on the concept of vulnerability and that being vulnerable is a strength not a weakness. In my review I made the point about weak vulnerability and strong vulnerability (the kind that Brown is focused on.)

Her previous book – which I’ve not yet read – The Gifts of Imperfection – she describes as about learning to be you. While I’ve not read the book, I have studied what it takes to be you – the real you. While I generally don’t often find myself in the must-be-seen-as box (see The Anatomy of Peace for more on the box), I do recognize that it’s difficult to be the authentic you that you’re meant to be.

So we go from being yourself (The Gifts of Imperfection) to being wholehearted or all in (Daring Greatly) to the awareness that being all in means you’re going to fail – and what you have to do about it (Rising Strong).

The problem is that failure isn’t an option. It’s a requirement. It’s a requirement if you’re willing to try something new or to expand yourself and your world. Edison is the classic example of failure and persistence. 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb is a lot of failure still he categorized it positively and from the perspective of learning.

I mentioned in my review of Changes that Heal that a friend of mine has told me once that I never fail and that I roared with laughter because I fail all the time. I’ve got conversations and entire relationships that I’ve flubbed. I’ve got more failed commercial attempts than I can remember. I have no idea of how many failures I’ve racked up in my life because I’m not all that interested or focused on them – I’m focused on the next attempt.

Put Out the Fire

Learning from Failure

The goal isn’t failure though we may end up there frequently. The goal is success. That takes hard work and learning. Learning about ourselves, our character flaws, our blind spots. We all have blind spots both figuratively and literally. (See Incognito for more on our literal blind spots.) Our ego doesn’t want to allow us to realize our faults. (See Change or Die for a discussion of The Ego and Its Defenses)

Josh Waitzkin speaks of his need to learn from his failures in The Art of Learning. The child prodigy of chess explains how he used his setbacks to grow and become a better competitor both at chess and at martial arts. It wasn’t that the folks whom we believe are greats are immune to failure. Rather they need failure to learn how to grow and become better than they were.

Brown is clear that we need to be willing to get into the arena to try and fail – and get back up again.

Integrated Self Image

Jim Collins speaks of the Stockdale Paradox in Good to Great. The idea is that on the one hand you have to have unwavering faith in what you’re doing and on the other you need to accept and integrate feedback from others. This is two views of what you’re doing. The honorable one – the one which is right and correct. The other view is the vulnerable view. It’s the view that wonders if there’s a better answer or fears that there is. The Stockdale Paradox is integrating these two views of the initiative so that they’re fused together into one thing.

I’ve spoken about an integrated self-image and its importance in my reviews of Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. It’s a recurring concept. I believe developing an integrated self-image is at the heart of Brown’s work and writings. The process that she describes as the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution is the process of integrating different views of ourselves. It’s recognizing our goodness and acknowledging that we do bad.

The Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang shows this struggle. It describes how we see forces in ourselves to be disconnected when really they’re connected, complementary, and interdependent.


A sanctuary is where you go to rest and recharge. It’s a spring of life giving peace. It’s a place where you can relax your guard and know that you’re OK. The original meaning of sanctuary included sacred. The need to rest and recharge is built into the biblical calendar – and on the seventh day God rested. There’s observing the Sabbath in both Judaism and Christianity.

However, sanctuary can have a different – interpersonal – meaning. In this context, sanctuary is someone with whom you can let down your guard and be who you are. You know that they’ll accept you. You know that they understand you and your situation. They’ve walked a path similar to yours and they understand the self-doubt, the fear, and the fury. (They exhibit the five As from How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)

We all need people who can be a sanctuary for us. We need to be connected to others and to feel safe with them. In High Orbit – Respecting Grieving I spoke extensively about Robin Dunbar’s work and the idea that we have different “rings” of relationships with people. The people in your “inner five” should be people with whom you can have sanctuary. As How to Be an Adult in Relationships observed, we shouldn’t get more than 25% of our nurturance from another person. It’s not that you should be able to create a sanctuary with every one of your inner five in every situation but rather that you can generate the healing and restorative properties with the people who are the closes to you when you need it.

Gold Plating Grit

When I recount most stories I neglect and leave out entirely the failures that occurred along the way. I may be good at building computers but that’s from many upgrades over the years that didn’t add the value that I had hoped that they would. In my video editing computer, I have two NVidia graphics cards connected via the SLI interface that is supposed to allow the cards to work together. I’ve found that even though I have software that supports the NVidia cards CUDA standard they won’t use more than one card in the system. Effectively I’ve wasted a few hundred dollars on the second video card. When I talk about building the computer, I typically leave out this detail.

There are many situations where we end up skipping over the hard parts. We skip over the places when we didn’t know if it was going to work. The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for me has been very profitable over the years – but it wasn’t for the first 18 months and I was wondering if it was going to be a success or not. I don’t share that much – but even one of the most profitable things that I’ve ever done – I didn’t know if it would work or not.

While suppressing some of the self-doubt and struggle may be helpful from the perspective of allowing us to try the next thing, when we do this with our successes we rob others of the awareness of the great effort necessary to try, fail, learn, and grow. This is gold plating grit – making our successes sound like they were easier than they were.

As I stand in the midst of launching our Kin-to-Kid Connection brand of products, I can tell you that I am wondering if I should be putting more energy into that project. I still am committed to it – but also vulnerable as people share their thoughts about why it can’t or won’t work.

Discomfort and Emotions

Most of us know what it’s like to be hungry. If you’ve ever been on a diet you know that your goal in the diet – at some level – is to lose weight while not feeling hungry. Hunger is discomforting. It’s not something you want to feel – but sometimes in the service of a greater goal – getting to or maintaining a healthy weight – it is the right answer. The interesting thing about hunger is that although it’s uncomfortable it’s not a warning sign from the body.

Hunger sometimes precedes a loss of blood sugar that people can recognize through irritability or other means. However, hunger itself means very little more than your digestive system is bored and has nothing to do. Yet as was pointed out in Willpower, it’s very difficult to be on a diet at least in part due to hunger as a signal.

We’ve been taught that hunger is a bad thing that it means we need to eat. We’ve also been taught to clean our plate – ostensibly because children are starving in Africa. However, never once do I remember Sally Struthers stopping by our house to pick up food or my family creating a care package for these children that my mom kept talking about.

We’re not taught to lean into our discomfort or as John Gottman would say to step into those sliding door moments. (See The Science of Trust for more on sliding door moments.) Instead we’ve been allowed to – and thus learned – not to confront our uncomfortable emotions. Few of us have been forced to rumble with the way that we feel and to truly feel it.

The result is that the saying “hurting people, hurt people” from 12 step programs is all to true and because too many of us were never taught how to deal with our hurt we take a long time to heal and thus hurt many people along the way. Instead of accepting our pain we deflect it and in the process inflict pain on others.

The people Brown has interviewed that she calls the “badasses” are those people who are curious about the emotional world and who face discomfort head on.

Comfort, Fear, and Courage

All of us want to be comfortable. We want to avoid our discomfort. As a result, we will avoid our fears – our fears of making a mistake of causing damage to a relationship, our fears of ruining some situation or product. Avoiding our fears is understandable. After all we call the physiological response to fear “fight or flight.” However, the people who can look past their fear and move forward in courage are those who rise strong.

Courage requires fear. To proceed forward isn’t courage. Courage is only what it is when we acknowledge our fears and move forward in spite of them. That is courage. (See Find Your Courage for more on the meaning of courage.)

Ultimately the place that takes the most courage to explore is the depths of our souls and our most intimate relationships. Our ego gets nervous when we start digging around because it realizes that some of the defenses that it uses will fade in the light of day. When we’re willing to challenge our assumptions and beliefs we’ll discover the lies that our ego has told us.

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