Reviewed: Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Okay, let’s get something out of the way right now – I am a Brené Brown fan. A friend recommended that I read her book Daring Greatly a few years back and since that point, I can’t get enough. You might know Brené from one of her TED talks. Or maybe you know of her because her book Daring Greatly hit bestseller lists. Or maybe because you have a fan girl like me in your life that won’t shut up about her (#sorrynotsorry).

Before my gushing takes on what some might call sickening quality, let’s pause for a quick synopsis from the publisher:

Social scientist Brené Brown has ignited a global conversation on courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Her pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall.
 
It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people—from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents—shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.

Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged.

Why do I love Brené Brown? A perfectly reasonable question:

  1. She is a Ph.D., LMSW, and research professor that studies human behavior and is particularly well-known for her observations about how shame and vulnerability shape our lives and our culture…and how we can use that knowledge and embrace those scary topics to be more brave and live a whole-hearted life. I personally relate to this because as someone who studied counseling in college, human behavior is endlessly fascinating to me. For me, Brené’s style was a refreshing change of pace from the emotionally-driven self-help books out there – Daring Greatly is primarily research-driven. She wasn’t trying to manipulate me into taking her 41 day challenge or anything of the kind. She simply presented her findings and tried to relay the principles of those facts clearly and concisely. What I did with the information was my business. I found myself in her research.
  2. Brené manages to put into words feelings that I’ve long harbored but never quite been able to pin down. She not only identifies those things in a quantifiable way, validating my experiences, but goes one step further. By teaching me how those feelings translate into action and how to keep from being sabotaged by them or how to leverage them, frankly, I felt empowered. I believe people at their core really just want freedom. Freedom from the things that hold them back and freedom that allows them to move forward in confidence. Rising Strong represents those truths to me.
  3. One thing about Brené is that she doesn’t like to deal in vulnerability. Oh, sure, that’s what she’s known for. But if she had her way, she would have stayed on the clinical research side of things rather than handle the messy aftermath of what her research would mean for her own life. She’s not only the research professional, she’s also one of us. And as such, she’s uniquely gifted to speak to both sides of the issues at hand in a sometimes-bracing-but-always-authentic way. Whole paragraphs (or sometimes just one line) of this book have been highlighted, underlined, and/or are accompanied by one of my notes in the margins.

That’s a lot of prelude, I know. But stick with me, okay?

Here is what’s different about Rising Strong from Daring Greatly: It’s a lot less research-y. That’s right. The thing I loved so much about her first book is not so much what I found in the second. But Rising Strong relies more intensely on Brené’s personal narrative, along with those in her circle of people. And even though I was a tiny bit nervous about this change in format, when I turned the last page I was not disappointed.
RisingStrong_QuoteHere’s the book’s purpose in a nutshell from Brené’s introduction: “While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for – love, belonging, joy, creativity and trust to name a few – the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.” (p. xi)

There are so many things I could say about this book, but I’m going to keep it relatively brief. Rather than unpacking the whole structure of the book, I’m going to go a different way. You know how after you read a book you remember quite a bit, but the longer time passes you by the more you only remember one or two crystalized thoughts? These are mine from Rising Strong.

  1. Stay curious. Put simply, the concept is this: we all experience emotion. Some is in relationship to a specific scenario (i.e. I cry because Kris Allen won American Idol), but some emotions come out of nowhere. Brené’s point is that we need to stay curious about those feelings and where they come from and how they ultimately connect with the way we think and behave. This might mean asking questions like “Why am I being so hard on everyone around me today?” or “I can’t stop thinking about that conversation at work. Why not?” (p. 41) As someone that is an expert avoider, this was something that really resonated with me.
  2. Chapter 6. This chapter completely wrecked me. I’m serious. I won’t go into depth here, but the chapter poses this question: Do you generally believe that people are basically doing the best they can? Gosh. I wrestled with this question in my heart – about myself and about others. I play judge and jury often in determining whether other people’s actions are appropriate and I often assign motives to them, too. It’s a little like being incensed at the car that cut you off and almost drove you into a ditch but then you learn that the man is driving like that because his wife is in labor and he’s trying to get her to the hospital. Still, not an okay thing to do but so much more understandable from a human perspective. My problem is that my default is always on “jerk face” in those kinds of situations. My self-righteousness gets triggered on a regular basis and it’s become a way of life. So this chapter rocked my world in that way and set a higher standard for me to reach for.
  3. Perception is reality: the story you tell yourself about any given situation is real and needs to be based in truth. The overarching principle in this book is that we all play thoughts in a loop in our heads. We tell ourselves a story. She gives an example early on where she and her husband are out swimming in a lake. She tries to have a meaningful conversation with him and gets shut down. Immediately, her thoughts go to “does he not find me attractive anymore? why is he rejecting me?” The story she told herself was that she wasn’t enough and that was the reason for her reaction. Instead, at the end of the swim, when she pressed him he admitted that he was frightened in the middle of the lake and was focused on just getting through the swim and back to shore. It really had nothing to do with her at all, but in her head she made it a “thing”. Women do that all the time. I know because I am one. So, this concept really stuck with me.

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Here are some additional quotes that I just adored (page numbers might be a bit off because I’m looking at the manuscript version):

“Music always makes me feel less alone in the mess.” (p.3)

“The most difficult part of our stories is often what we bring to them – what we make up about who we are and how we are perceived by others.” (p. 66)

“People aren’t themselves when they’re scared.” (p. 93)

“We don’t judge people when we feel good about ourselves.” (p.99)

“Disappointments may be like paper cuts, but if those cuts are deep enough or if there are enough of them, they can leave us seriously wounded.” (p. 122)

“Perfectionism is not healthy striving.” (p. 167)

“…running from the past is the surest way to be defined by it.” (p. 214)

If you’re interested in reading this book (or any of her others), I should tell you one thing: Brené uses a language/terminology in Rising Strong that she develops in previous books. Because of that, I’d definitely recommend reading at least Daring Greatly before this book. But that’s your call!

Bottom line: If you’re interested in being a better version of yourself and always seeking to be more self-aware, this book will push you to new heights. Intensely relatable and endlessly inspiring, I’d be shocked if you didn’t wear your highlighter out while reading this book. Highly recommend!

Reviewed: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogsFirst, just in case you’re wondering, this is not a book that sheds any light on care and keeping of hedgehogs. If you’ve been long harboring a desire to keep a hedgehog as a pet and pick this book up for insight, you’ll be very surprised in the first few pages. Fair warning.

First, a brief summary to bring you up to speed, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renee: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renee lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company.

Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbors will dramatically alter their lives forever.

The book’s New York Times bestseller moniker is deservedly earned. The writing is beautiful and the concept of the book is charming. Originally the book was written in French, but let’s not kid ourselves, I read the English translation. A little honor where honor is due: The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been praised by The Washington PostLos Angeles Times, The New York TimesChicago Sun-TimesPublishers Weekly and Elle (Italy), to name a few.

I’ll be honest, I found the book fairly dense. The cadence of the writing was hard to enjoy, even though the chapters were all short. To be fair, the accounts of Renee and Paloma’s lives are actually quite interesting, if difficult to relate to. However, in between snippets of the story we as readers are “treated” to long soliloquies about their thoughts on philosophy (who cares about phenomenology?) and the mundane (how much can one say about a rugby player?) for pages and pages. At times I thought, “This writing is really beautiful.” But most of the time, I found myself so tangled up in verbiage that I could not have recounted what was happening for any amount of money.

The back cover copy makes it sound as though the book is a tale of an older concierge and the younger charge’s friendship. In reality, very little of that happens until the last several pages. The last 60 pages or so did keep me riveted but I wouldn’t have made it that far without the desire to keep myself from bringing shame to my family’s name by flunking out of book club.

On a positive note, because so much of the book is the rambling thoughts of these two articulate characters, The Elegance of the Hedgehog certainly is quotable. I made notations of words and phrases that stuck out to me as delicate thoughts that I’d like to remember. Here are a few of them:

The title phrase:

From Paloma’s POV: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.”

Paloma on grammar:

“Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or written a fine sentence…But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.”

“And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”

Renee on reading:

“I have read so many books…and yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, wearing together all the disparate strands of my reading–and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.”

Bottom Line: If you’re a person who likes a literary read and your bookshelves already have your fair share of translated, acclaimed works of fiction you’ll appreciate the refined turns of phrase. However, if you feel as though life is too short to read discourses on phenomenology and poetic musings on rugby players, better to pass on this book altogether.