Listening only to criticism from others who have “dared greatly”

A wildly popular TEDx talk by Dr. Brené Brown is worth watching -- not just for her research on vulnerability, authenticity and courage but for the way she has responded to the sometimes malicious criticism.

Since being posted in December 2010, Dr. Brené Brown’s TEDx talk has been watched by more people than live in the Commonwealth of Virginia, ranking it among the top 10 most watched TEDx talks in the history of the online offerings.

This straight-talking Texan, who serves as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, is now popularizing a field of academic research, headlining conferences (I heard her in San Diego with a group of Episcopal priests), and challenging the way we have come to think about ourselves, our relationships and our institutions.

Brown’s research, often described as liberating and groundbreaking, appears in three books in addition to the TED talks: “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t),” “The Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly.”

In each, her topics are vulnerability, authenticity and courage -- virtues that institutional and congregational leaders are often told they should embody. Her research has captured the interrelationships between these practices and revealed how, without confronting one’s own sense of shame, they remain elusive.

The research is fascinating and well-worth reading, but equally of interest are the lessons that might be learned from Dr. Brown’s reaction to the reactions her research has received.

When a TEDx talk has been viewed more than eight million times, it is safe to imagine that there will be extensive online conversation and, as of writing, 1,190 comments have been posted to the TED website and another 830 on the YouTube mirror site.

These comments range from fawning to flattering to mean-spirited to belittling (all reactions that institutional and congregational leaders experience, if on a smaller scale). Knowing what sort of uninformed rants litter the web, one might wonder why Dr. Brown would even begin to read these comments, but she did.

Initially, she was pained by the malicious words of some posters, but over time, the experience helped her identify one simple criterion for listening to feedback. It is that famous quotation from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; 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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

-- From “Citizenship in a Republic,” delivered at the Sorbonne, 1910

Today, Dr. Brown will only listen to criticism that comes from the women and men who have done their own time in the arena, who understand what it is like to “dare greatly.” It is a simple assessment, but it is a wise lesson for all of us who lead and are subjected to the judgments of others.

There is no need for criticism to shame in and of itself.