057: The Key to Innovation

In This Episode: Two episodes ago I talked about the “diffusion” of innovation. The next episode was about where innovations occur: they happen in forward-thinking companies perhaps as much or more than in entrepreneurial startups. But what is innovation really? And, more importantly, how do you get it, especially if you’re a creative type and maybe don’t think of yourself as brave? The answer may surprise you.

057: The Key to Innovation

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  • To help support Uncommon Sense, see the Patron’s Page, or the form in the sidebar.
  • Note: This is the third of three episodes on innovation. They don’t need to be listened to in order. Part 1 is 055: Resisting Uncommon Sense, and Part 3 is 056: Running with An Idea.
  • Dr. Brown’s several highly recommended TED/TEDx talks include The Power of Vulnerability (2010, from which many of the points of this episode comes from, and is embedded below), and Listening to Shame (2012).
  • Her books include: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” (2007), The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (2010), Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012), Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2015), Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (2017). That’s a lot, so if you’re not sure what to start with, I’d recommend Daring Greatly, and then seeing what resonates with you after (or instead of) that.
  • Prof. Brown’s web site is here.


Two episodes ago I talked about the “diffusion” of innovation. The next episode was about where innovations occur: they happen in forward-thinking companies perhaps as much or more than in entrepreneurial startups. But what is innovation really? And, more importantly, how do you get it, especially if you’re a creative type and maybe don’t think of yourself as brave? The answer may surprise you.

I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.

Innovation, creativity, success. Many grasp for it, and most fail. Worse, even more don’t take the risk to go for it, and maybe bring something new, useful, or entertaining to change the world. Innovation means “a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method” — the application of better creative solutions that meet needs, whether that need was anticipated or not. The iPhone? That was an innovation, a creative solution that met a need even though that need was not anticipated by the public at large.

So that sounds great. How is it that only a small subset of people are brave enough to try?

I think it’s in part because they push away the very thing that actually enables it all. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Brené Brown is a social researcher at the University of Houston. She began as one of the leading researchers of — get this — shame. She joked that if she didn’t want to talk to her seatmate on an airplane, when they asked her what she did she would reply “I study shame. How about you?”

057: The Key to Innovation
Social researcher Brené Brown (Photo by Maile Wilson, via Dr. Brown’s press kit).

Doesn’t sound very exciting. Her first book probably wasn’t a best-seller: it was titled “Shame Resilience Theory”. Don’t worry, though: in addition to being a much-sought-after public speaker, she now has five New York Times best-sellers under her belt, because her research led her to some startling conclusions about something else: innovation, creativity, and change.

Before I move on, you may wonder what “shame” really is. She says that it’s “really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it.”

Intriguing, isn’t it? By studying shame among hundreds and hundreds of people who even let her read their journals, she had a revelation. So much so that she had a breakdown and needed to go to therapy to understand it. “Something was not OK,” she said, “and what it was is that, if I roughly took the people I interviewed and divided them into people who really have a sense of worthiness, they have a strong sense of love and belonging.”

But wait: how did they get there? “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it,” she continues. “And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

OK, then how do you get there? After digging through her data, she found that what they had in common was, “a sense of courage.”

Oh boy: how do you get there? Courage, she says, is from the Latin word “cor,” meaning heart; you know it from the word “coronary”. The original definition, she continued, “was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect.”

You know my next question already: how do you get there?!

What she found was one other thing that they all had in common. “They fully embraced,” she said, “vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. … They thought this was fundamental.” That’s when she had her breakdown and went to therapy, because she couldn’t believe what she was seeing in her data when she dived in.

“I could not believe I had pledged allegiance to research,” she said, “where our job — you know, the definition of research is to control and predict, to study phenomena for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting.”

She realized that while vulnerability “is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” she found, also was “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

These quotes are from her 2010 TED talk, and I highly recommend you listen to the whole thing. There’s a reason that it’s one of the top 5 TED talks ever in terms of views. That 20-minute talk has been viewed more than 45 million times. I’ll embed it on the Show Page.

It’s only by embracing vulnerability, she says, that humans get to courage, creativity, and change. While Americans, in particular, think of vulnerability as a weakness, the truth is it’s the key to strength, and innovation, and creativity, and success. Worse, Americans (in particular) try to numb their bad feelings like shame, grief, fear, and disappointment with alcohol and drugs.

And here’s why that doesn’t work, based on Prof. Brown’s decades of research into these uncomfortable emotions: “You cannot selectively numb,” she says. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”

And not just for yourself, for the world. The other thing we try to do, she said, “is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.’ That’s it. Just certain.”

But that’s a trap, and not just because trying to make the uncertain certain by pretending you have the answer. She continues: “This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.” And remember, this is from 2010, and I think you’ll agree that it’s gotten a lot worse since.

OK, last question: how do we embrace vulnerability? Well, that’s what Prof. Brown’s best-selling books are about. I’ll link to those on the Show Page too. But the bottom line is, the more we push away our vulnerability because it feels uncomfortable, the more we push away innovation, creativity, and success, and all of our best emotions we want to feel. It really is that simple, yet most still resist this truth. And that is why I call this idea …Uncommon Sense.

By the way, did you wonder why Prof. Brown would admit that she had a breakdown when she was confronted by the truth of her research? She had to go to a therapist for over a year to get help with getting her thoughts straight and embrace her conclusions, which were contrary to how she wanted her life to be. Figure it out? Simply, she embraced her own vulnerabilities, and it helps those who listen to her understand she’s human, just like us. See what she did there?

For links, Dr. Brown’s TED videos, a photo of her, and a place to comment, the Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast57. I’ll also recommend one other video resource: Dr. Brown is the first researcher to have one of her talks picked up by Netflix for streaming. “Brené Brown: The Call to Courage” is an hour-long exploration of all of this, and it was totally fascinating: she’s a great storyteller, and it’s all very easy to understand. I urge you to take these ideas farther by at least watching that, and picking up her books if you don’t feel fully confident to do what you want to do in life. And, maybe, listen to this episode a few more times to fully absorb it: there’s a lot packed into these few minutes.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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