Data-driven research professors usually aren’t household names, but Brené Brown – leadership consultant, podcast host, TedTalk royalty, Netflix star and author of five New York Times bestsellers – is a notable exception. Her work on vulnerability, courage, shame and empathy has helped thousands of people show up more fully – and lead more fulfilling lives.
Brené holds the Huffington Foundation-Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the University of Houston; she is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. As a doctoral student, she combined her love of storytelling and qualitative research with the power of data and statistics. This methodology, called grounded theory, develops theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing one. In other words, it meets people where they are – and doesn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach to life.
We spoke with Brené about the link between joy and gratitude, her love of office supplies and what she’s learned while quarantining with her family during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joy and gratitude are inextricably linked throughout your work. In “The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto,” you write: “I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.” Tell us about the connection between the two – what experiences in your own life support this belief?
In the research we learned that the most effective way to cultivate joy in our lives is to practice gratitude. The key word here is practice. It’s not just about feeling grateful, it’s about developing an observable practice. So often we think that joy makes us grateful, when in reality it’s gratitude that brings joy. The data supporting this finding were so persuasive that we started a daily gratitude practice in our home. We now go around the table every night before dinner and share one thing for which we are grateful.
In the KonMari Method™, we encourage people to ask the question, “Does it spark joy?” in all areas of their lives. Is there a question or concept that you apply in making important decisions?
Yes! We built our organization around one question: “Does this serve the work?” When bright, shiny opportunities come around – or when we need to make difficult decisions – we focus on whether or not we’re truly serving the research and the community. It’s never failed us!
In your first TedTalk, you said that before researching shame you avoided mess and discomfort: “I’m more of the, ‘life’s messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box’ [type].” How do you deal with life’s messiness now?
I start by acknowledging that my default will always be wanting to organize, control and put a bow on it. Once I acknowledge that, I can lean into the messiness and do the next right thing without spending energy on controlling the uncontrollable.
Do you see a connection between physical and emotional clutter – and if so, what is it?
Absolutely! I may see this connection because both of my children attended Montessori education so the idea of “cluttered spaces leading to cluttered minds” is ingrained in me. On the other hand, I can also have experiences when I’m organizing and cleaning too obsessively to avoid engaging in the mess of life. It’s a balance.
“So often we think that joy makes us grateful, when in reality it’s gratitude that brings joy.”
The KonMari Method™ advocates going through your belongings to realize what matters to you. How do you determine what’s worth keeping and pursuing in your life?
I actually use your method. I’ve found thanking a favorite skirt that hasn’t worked in years or an old pan that belonged to my grandmother allows me to connect with important memories. Once I’ve done that, I give it away with a whole heart.
A tidied space makes it hard to avoid going deep within; without clutter to distract you, you’re forced to examine the root of what’s troubling you. Yet, non-physical distractions abound – how do we reside in pain and vulnerability if our impulse is to look the other way?
We underestimate how little we know about identifying emotions and experiencing them in a mindful and productive way. The more we avoid feelings, the more they own us. The quicker we own our feelings, the more able we are to move through them. It’s ok to be uncomfortable. Love, joy, creativity, trust, belonging – these are all born of vulnerability. We have to practice being uncomfortable.
At the time of this interview, most of the world is observing shelter-in-place orders. What has this experience illuminated or clarified for you?
That people are their best and worst selves when we’re in uncertainty and vulnerability. And, that being our best selves when we’re afraid or unsure requires intention. I believe people are inherently good. But we’re not good to ourselves or others when we’re afraid.
How has your relationship with your home – and the objects in it – changed after spending so much time there?
Beauty, design, and art matter to me all of the time; however, during quarantine these feelings and needs are heightened.
There’s a misconception that the KonMari Method™ is about limiting the amount of possessions you own, when in fact it’s about surrounding yourself with ones that spark joy. You’ve copped to having a stationary and office supplies addiction. What is it about that sub-category of komono (miscellaneous items) that sparks joy for you?
It’s less about the items for me and more about what they represent. Office supplies give me the same feelings of possibility that school supplies used to give me when I was little. It’s about new starts and aspirations.
Is there anything else you collect – or have a lot of?
Photos. I have framed photos all over my house. I like to be surrounded by the people I love.
If you could offer our readers one piece of wisdom, what would it be?
Give more energy and time to how you feel and what you want, and less time to what people think. We’ll never control how we’re perceived, but we’re likely to betray ourselves in the process of trying.