creative courage: resist the right things: an assay

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Brene Brown grew up with gritted teeth and a tart tongue.

Armored, that is. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, the fellow multi-generation Texan comes clean about her lifelong resistance to being emotionally vulnerable. Brown’s situation as a Texan, a professor, a conversation leader, and an author illuminates some qualities about what it takes to have creative courage in the most ordinary and unheralded moments.

I’ve been observing the many ways that faces of fear impede the authors, business artists, and entrepreneurs I interview, meet, and work with.

In fact, while drafting this piece out in my yard, one of my neighbors – an artist from the city – stopped by and asked, “How does depression and fear fit into your tracking wonder schemata?” Good question. So, I want to essay here a few ideas through Brown’s example as well as through two other entwined books about ordinary creative courage. You may recognize yourself and your own situation – or that of someone you care about.

What is it you must resist to be brave?

From the first page, Brown puts us in her therapist’s office and shows her own “character’s” fears of losing control. It is, of course, this empirically driven University of Houston professor’s very vulnerability with her character on the page that draws in this fellow Texas-bred-and-raised reader and makes a chink in his own armor.

Brown’s TED Talk on shame made the “v”-word vogue and catapulted Brown as the conversation leader on vulnerability as an act of courage or, per her title, of daring greatly. The title comes from a speech by Teddy Roosevelt. The subject of many critics, Roosevelt reminds us,

It is not the critic who counts – not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….

What follows in Brown’s asterisks, by the way, becomes equally illuminating for ordinary courage as we’ll see. Here’s Brown’s call out to all ordinary heroes:

Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be – a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation – with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.

As for Brown’s own daring greatly as an author, she couldn’t just write a book about vulnerability. To have integrity, she had to show her character’s own vulnerability without being self-indulgent or manipulative. Brene Brown had to resist her own resistance to vulnerability – as a professor, as a mother, as an author. To have creative courage, I’m realizing, means you must resist the right things for the right reasons.

To author a book with integrity means you make tough choices about what matters –

how you spend your time, how you spend your thoughts, what dreams you choose to dream.

Author a memoir, and you must not only be naked and real on the page. You also must finesse how to do so without being an exhibitionist. Author a novel, and you risk exposing the most sacred inner citadel we human beings possess, the imagination. Author a trade nonfiction book with integrity, and you risk giving your best ideas to the world and hoping they land with the fervor you’ve felt them for years.

You resist worrying so much about what others think and care more about what must be imagined and told. You resist listening so much to the stories buzzing in your head and more to the Story burning in your body. You resist complying with the voice that tells you you’re foolish.

Ultimately you resist what you see remains wrong in the world, and you’re not afraid – in these relativistic times – to call wrong “wrong” and imagine another way through Story.

This is what it is to be brave, I’m thinking, as my videographer pal Dom and I tried to capture in this poem-film Be Brave to honor the ordinary heroes, the quiet warriors who take risks on the page every wee morning or late night or carved pocket of time.

Bravery appears in unexpected places. Quiet places. Like behind a desk at Stanford Financial.

Less than ten miles from where Brene Brown teaches is the Galleria Office Towers, an exclusive set of buildings in Houston’s Financial District. Leyla Wydler used to office there as a financial adviser. In fact, she received a finance degree from where Brown teaches.

Wydler had become a financial adviser not primarily to fill her own pockets but more because she believed, like first-immigrant Americans, that American capitalism and its financial institutions could further hard-working, honest people’s dreams. She savored advising such people to invest honestly and wisely that they might further their station in life.

Wydler came to the illustrious Stanford Financial firm in 2000, shortly after the dot com bust. She brought with her numerous clients who had trusted her hardworking ethos and credible tips.

And then an odd thing happened. Stanford executives kept pushing Wydler to recommend a suspicious offshore CD that was not backed by the FDIC among other things. At first she simply ignored them. Then she asked questions about why this particular risky CD investment was being pushed on the advisers to push on their clients. In 2007, she got “dismissed.”

Confused, Wydler didn’t stop asking questions. She was confused because she was certain that Stanford’s executives would want to do right. She was confused because she was certain that the industry she loved was being responsibly regulated. The more she and a colleague found out, though, the more disillusioned she became.

Wydler is one of four people featured in journalist Eyal Press’s intimate profiles of ordinary courage, Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.

When Wydler’s colleague Charles Rawl resigned the same year out of suspicion of wrong doing, his wife was not proud. She thought he was crazy. “And in a way, “ Press notes, “to give up a fine paycheck, to risk losing your clients, to alienate your colleagues, to disrupt your family, to pick a fight with a billion-dollar company, was nuts, particularly if you weren’t exactly sure you were right and they were wrong, or even what exactly they were wrong about.”

Ultimately, Wydler’s relentless pursuit of the truth led to the Galleria office being seized by the feds in 2009 and the CEO being charged with fraud with the likes, in the feds’ words, of a Ponzi scheme.

Press identified two traits in Wydler’s profile that contributed to her bravery: curiosity and idealism. It turns out that many whistle blowers lack cynicism. It’s the confusion if not disillusion between their idealistic view toward institutions and authority and the reality they face that leads them to take risks, stand up, and be heard.(1)

Everyday heroes resist compliance. They resist being muted. They resist cynicism. They resist on conviction and principle.

The rest of daring greatly has to do with timidity.

Attend a symphony live, and you can be utterly transported by sheer collective virtuosity. Yet, you might be surprised that 7 of 10 symphony performers suffer from or have suffered from performance-impeding anxiety.

That reference (from a survey of fifty-six orchestras performed in 1998) comes in documentary filmmaker Polly Morland’s book The Society of Timid Souls or How to be Brave(Crown 2013). The title comes from such a society so-named in New York City in 1942 – an ominous year for fear in American history. Roughly 20 or so musicians comprised the society.

A confident teacher named Bernard Gabriel rounded up the group with the intent to show them how to be brave. With rather innovative and unorthodox methods, reported on in The New Yorker, Gabriel met with success in teaching these quiet, timid souls how to act as if  they were brave so they would feel brave enough to perform well.

Morland, whose career has taken her to war-torn jungles and into the dens of murderers and terrorists, was curious about what she perceived as her own lack of bravery in an age that seems fraught with anxiety. Here’s what she set out to explore:

[W]hen someone who seems apparently small and ordinary is brave, it gives us all hope. … [W]hat [the Society of Timid Souls] discovered was that being brave can be as infectious as being afraid. Moreover, as a group we can be taught to help ourselves. Together we can learn to identify our enemy, or our fear. We can rehearse being brave, a kind of training that inoculates us against the most debilitating apprehensions.

And it should be noted that Gabriel’s use of “timid souls” comes from the same speech and same passage that Brene Brown took her title (except Brown left off the reference to “timid souls”). Here’s the rest of the quotation:

who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

What Morland discovers in story after story is not unlike what introverted lawyer and speaker Susan Cain advises: “Fake being an extrovert.” When you need to. When it matters. When you have potent creative medicine to dispense. When you not only have a story to write but a Story to share.

Another lifetime ago, I left a comfortable full-time teaching position. What I perceived as self-serving leadership and a broken system mixed with my own existential callings led me to resign from working full-time for anyone but my best self. When I try to piece together the marvelous circumstances that led to that moment and the extraordinary challenges I’ve faced head on since then, I am a little astonished, the least of which is because I, like Morland, do not perceive myself as especially brave.

But our daily actions and decisions mixed with the connections we forge with one another do build a repository for bravery.


What is it you must resist to be brave? How do you do so? Whom and what do you call upon? Offer your insight in the comments section below and share this note with a friend who might need some encouragement. Thanks for running with me,


(1) Almost all of the information from Leyla Wydler’s story comes from Press’s book Beautiful Souls.

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