Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking > Psychology

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | 250 pages ex-notes

Blurb/Description: in a world that discourages vulnerability, how can we shed our ineffective suits of armor, live authentic lives, and empathetically encourage others to do the same?

Summary: Brene Brown – who I found via her hilarious (and famous) TED Talks (12) – played almost as important a role in my personal development as Shawn Achor (author of “ The Happiness Advantage – THA review + notes).  I read both “ Daring Greatly and her previous book, “I Thought It Was Just Me,” the year before I launched ACM.

Much of Brown’s research resonated deeply with my own personal experience and that of people I know, and helped form a lot of life philosophy that I still utilize to this day (including my complete rejection of the “pretend to be someone/something you’re not” mantra so pervasive in business culture.”

How does it stand up on a reread?  Like Achor, surprisingly well.

Highlights: Brown describes herself, on occasion, as a “researcher-storyteller,” and her qualitative “grounded theory” approach is a fresh and new perspective, giving storytelling life to topics that might otherwise slip into statistical invisibility.

Brown drives home the importance of  social connection

 and the mechanisms by which it drives our behavior as individuals, communities, and organizations.  This is as important a book for personal development as it is for parenting, friendship, or managing a team.

Lowlights: Although the way Brown phrases things is usually very impactful, many of the concepts are non-unique – for example, a lot of times, I found myself saying “oh, that’s a different spin on Shawn Achor” or “I’m pretty sure Stephen Covey said that two decades ago in “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes).”

That’s not to take away from Brown’s work, of course – I’m just pointing out that some of the value here can be found in other books as well.

Finally, although I have to give Brown credit for recognizing that her previous outing, “I Thought it Was Just Me,” was blatantly sexist against men – “Holy shit, I am the patriarchy,” observes Brown at one point – I still think that she doesn’t do a good enough job of recognizing that at least some men have more than, as Hermione Granger might put it, “the emotional range of a teaspoon.” 

Brown acknowledges not wanting to put her son in a box, but the way she presents her research still puts most men in the macho-caricature box, making them out to be the standard unfeeling Cro-Magnons who either get mad or withdraw, and whose emotional struggles can be boiled down to a single reductionistic mantra of “don’t be perceived as weak.”  (Women, of course, get complicated, nuanced, intricate “shame webs.”)

I do generally think that guys have lower emotional range than girls and are less expressive, and that often frustrates me greatly (as an unusually empathetic and high emotional-range guy), but I know that at least one of my red-blooded male friends got a lot of out this book, and Brown’s previous one.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points:  social connectioncontrast biasproduct vs. packaginglocal vs. global optimizationculturerationality, in-group vs. out-group behavior, growth vs. fixed mindset,feedbackzero-sum games, schemabottleneckshindsight biasempathymindfulness / cognitive behavioral therapymargin of safetystress / humor / gratitude, structural problem solving, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, overconfidence / intellectual humility

You should buy a copy of Daring Greatly if: you want a practical guide to becoming more aware of your own need for social connection, how it’s driving your behavior, and how you can use that knowledge to more effectively interact with others.

Reading Tips:  none.  this is an easy read.

Pairs Well With: 

The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor (THA review + notes).

The Lonely American” by Olds/Schwartz (TLA review + notes).

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey (7H review + notes).


Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.


Pages 1 – 2: The book’s title is derived from the famous “Man in the Arena” speech by Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts… the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

Brown argues against perfectionism, noting that:

 “perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.” 

I think this was in “I Thought It Was Just Me” and not “Daring Greatly” – but I loved Brown’s analogy (class exercise, actually) about having students construct the “perfect body” from magazine cutouts – this person’s hair, that person’s eyes, that gal’s torso, that other girl’s butt, etc.

The obvious lesson/takeaway is that even among actresses or supermodels, there’s nobody who looks like what you actually want to look like… it’s a complete illusion.

Pages 5 – 6: Brene Brown wants you to know that she does not naturally like being vulnerable.

What is vulnerability?  Anything that opens you up to criticism and judgment.

Pages 8 – 9: Brown notes that:

“The surest thing I took away from my Ph.D in social work is this: connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”

This echoes the findings of the Harvard Men study, via Shawn Achor in “ The Happiness AdvantageTHA review + notes).  Achor cites George Vaillant, who directed the Harvard Men study, who finds that “love – full stop” is one of the keys to happiness.

Social connection.  Anyway, Brown also notes contrast bias here:

“We humans have a tendency to define things by what they are not.  This is especially true of our emotional experiences.”  

Brown set out to find the common ground between people who were the most resilient to shame and believed in their worthiness.

Pages 10 – 11: Brown notes, counterintuitively, that the only thing separating those who feel love and belonging from those who don’t is whether or not people:

“Believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  They don’t have better or easier lives… they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and joy.”

Kind of  mindfulness  agency.

Page 12: Ahahahaha I like this bit too.  Brown:

“Very early in our training [as researchers and academics], we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you’re too relatable, your credentials come into question.  

While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we’re taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.”

See product vs. packaginglocal vs. global optimizationculture.  Also cross-reference Richard Thaler in “ Misbehaving (M review + notes) – who, in a completely different field (economics) from Brown (social work), has similar conclusions:

“Few [academics] enjoy the writing, and it shows.  To call academic writing dull is giving it too much credit.  Yet to many, dull writing is a badge of honor.

To write with flair signals that you don’t take your work seriously and readers shouldn’t either.”

Page 15: Interesting bit on being multidisciplinary here; Brown notes that her publisher inquired about a business book, parenting book, etc, but Brown realized:

“There only needed to be one book because no matter where I went or with whom I was speaking, the core issues were the same.”

Brown notes perfectionism is particularly challenging when it comes to parenting.

Pages 19 – 21: In-group vs. out-group behavior and self-serving bias: Brown here notes the tendency of much of her audience (and herself!) to interpret things in a way that:

“conveniently makes us feel better about ourselves and places the blame on ‘those people.’”

Brown also notes that we don’t fix narcissism and shame by cutting people down to size; that just perpetuates the problem. ( Feedback.)

Pages 22 – 23: Clear growth mindset orientation here; Brown notes that it lets people off the hook if you make the problem about who they are vs. the choices they make.

She also notes here the dangers of social media and wanting to matter.

Pages 24 – 26: Brown discusses the idea of scarcity here (see zero-sumgames).  It’s the idea of Never (blank) Enough.  She raises the idea of contrast bias again – we’re constantly “assessing and comparing” our lives against those of others.

She notes the dangers of “our own fictional account of how great someone else has it” ( schema bottleneck) as well as the dangers of nostalgia (hindsight bias and possibly positive affect bias.)

Brown argues that scarcity is a modern, post-9/11 phenomenon; I’d disagree.  Compare what she says here to Stephen Covey, decades prior, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes):

The third character trait essential to win/win is the Abundance Mentality, the paradigm that there is plenty out there for everybody.  

Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as only having so much, as though there were only one pie out there.  

And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else.

The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life.”

Page 29: Brown disagrees about abundance being the counterapproach to scarcity, although I think she’s defining it differently from Covey.

Pages 33 – 34: Brown notes that vulnerability is not weakness; she defines it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Pages 40 – 41: Also an interesting bit here: Brown cites research from psychology/persuasion researchers who found the less you thought you were vulnerable to advertising, the more you were actually vulnerable to it.

See also Peter Thiel in “ Zero to One ( Z21 review + notes).    

“In Silicon Valley, nerds are skeptical of advertising, marketing, and sales because they seem superficial and irrational.  

But advertising matters because it works. It works on nerds, and it works on you.  You may think that you’re an exception; that your preferences are authentic, and advertising only works on other people.

[…] but advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away; it exists to embed subtle impressions that will drive sales later.  Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived.” 

As I reflect back on the totality of PAA, I’m struck by how much awareness is half the battle.

Brown also notes that we like seeing openness in other people, but not in ourselves.

Pages 43 – 46: Brown argues that nobody gets a “get out of jail free” card on vulnerability, no matter profession or gender.  She quotes the band Rush – “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

She also differentiates vulnerability from oversharing and TMI.

Pages 48 – 49: She also makes an analogy to a Marble Jar that’s a bit like Covey’s emotional bank account.  You build marbles by displaying empathy.

Pages 50 – 52: Powerful bit here: Brown notes that while we often think of betrayal as an event like cheating or lying, sometimes the more important bit is a nonevent:

“the betrayal of disengagement.  Of not caring. Of letting the connection go.  Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship.”

Again on  empathy and  social connection.  See others (like Olds/Schwartz in “ The Lonely American ( TLA review + notes)) about it not being about being left out, but rather about feeling left out.

Page 53: Brown raises (like Olds and Schwartz in “ The Lonely American the idea of “going it alone” being revered in our culture.  SeeTLA review + notes.

Page 55: Not being vulnerable takes a lot of work and is exhausting.  Brene notes that you can’t really control things all the time.

Page 56: on saying “no” – she hasn’t regretted it a single time.  (this is a thing I’ve been working on!)

Brown also notes that it’s a:

 “waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of people in the stands.”

Pages 60 – 62: Harry Potter reference!  The point being, basically, the growth mindset – there’s good and bad in all of us; it’s our choices that make us who we are.

Pages 63 – 64: so there’s a bit here about separating our ego / identity from our work, and it’s mostly in the context of art, but I think it matters as an investor too.  You have to have enough detachment between “who I am” and “what I do” such that “what I do” doesn’t matter so much that you make bad decisions.

Page 65: Brown here, in a business context, talks about the need to embrace “sensible risks” and not be afraid of failure… see also Thaler’s “dumb principal” discussion in Misbehaving (M review + notes), and contrast with Kip Tindell’s commentary in Uncontainable (UCT review + notes).


“we understand that people make mistakes.  That’s why we create a warm, safe, nurturing workplace that allows employees to take chances without fear of reprisal when they fail.”

Pages 68 – 69: Brown states:

“shame is the fear of disconnection… the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.”

Pages 71 – 74: Her discussion here of shame vs. guilt vs. humiliation vs. embarrassment is actually really useful.

Pages 75 – 76: Brown notes that self-awareness and empathy are important.

She also cites a two-track model of the brain and discusses the prefrontal cortex vs. the limbic system.  See, of course, Laurence Gonzales’s “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes) and Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes).

Pages 79 – 81: some interesting coping strategies here, a lot of which are found in the CBT playbook – see Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy – CBT review + notes.

For example, Brown recommends talking to yourself the way you’d talk to a loved one, as well as becoming aware of the physical symptoms.  

Mindfulness / cognitive behavioral therapy.

I also like this bit:

“If you own this story, you get to write the ending.”  

I really really like that.  Agency..

Page 82: Brown cites research by UT psychologist James Pennebaker, who found that:

“The act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event.  

Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.”

Again on  mindfulness and  social connection.

Pages 83 – 85: Props to Brown for realizing she was excluding men the last go-around…

Pages 91 – 94: Brown notes that she stopped reading anonymous comments.  There’s research on this: Sunstein/Thaler note in “ Nudge” ( NDGE review + notes) that social proof fades when anonymity exists.

Also: I still think Brown is sexist.  She states that

“men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: do not be perceived as weak.”  

Women, of course, get complex and multifaceted shame webs.

Two thumbs down… men have more complex emotions than that.

Page 95: In fairness, Brown does remain open to experience – she notes,

“Holy shit.  I am the patriarchy.”  

(Referencing womens’ tendency to keep men in their emotional box.)

Page 96: Kind of an interesting bit here… I don’t know where to box this, but I’ve felt this too.  I guess the answer is not making people feel like they’re not enough, and understanding tradeoffs.

Also, I again disagree with Brown “pissed off” or “shut down” is not the sum total of how I feel.  Jesus. Reductionistic much?

Pages 99 – 100: Brown notes (seems totally true) that we judge people in areas where we ourselves are vulnerable to shame.

Again, on agency: Brown notes we can choose to either join in the bullying, or help people to their feet and tell them they’re not alone.

Pages 101 – 103: Brown on men and sex, noting “rejection is deeply painful.”

Pages 104 – 105: I highlighted this because I thought it was important but I don’t really know what to write down here, other than don’t be mean to your spouse…

Page 106: Back to the Covey emotional bank account idea – Brown states:

“Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”

She also notes self-love is a “prerequisite to loving others.”

Page 113: masks and identities as armor, so people can’t see who you really are

Pages 120 – 121!: Brown here goes against the idea of defensive pessimism, although the examples she cites are extreme.

Of course, Shawn Achor would agree with her – see Before Happiness” (BH review + notes).  I personally disagree – see the margin of safety mental model.

Pages 123 – 125: More Achor parallels: Brown’s research found that gratitude was incredibly important.

“Practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.”

See the stress / humor / gratitude model, as well as Shawn Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes).

Page 127: Brown’s daughter’s “picture memory” idea is really quite good; actually.  

My approach is trying to have a few funny stories that I laugh at when I need to – like the scientists poking the sleeping worm, or this one line (I forget where it was from) about megavitamins that went “the human body wasn’t designed to eat 14 cantaloupes at one time” which for some reason made me giggle endlessly.

Pages 128 – 130: some good work on perfectionism… which I don’t have a model on but feel like I should.

Page 131: Brown cites Dr. Kristin Neff, who researches self-compassion at UT Austin; Neff states there are three components to self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Page 133: Citing Gretchen Rubin:

“The dinner party of take-out Chinese food is better than the elegant dinner that I never host.”

Kinda the startup MVP thing; I’ve struggled with that with PAA for sure.  😛

Pages 137 – 141: Brown talks about busyness as a form of addiction/numbing.

I also love her framing of addictive behavior here as not just a problem with alcohol, but anything that “takes the edge off.”  Food… etc.

Also, again on social connection, quoting researchers Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver from the Stone Center at Wellesley College:

“We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation… a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation.  People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.”

Squares up with Gonzales on being lost in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes).

Pages 143 – 144: Note that Group B here is using structural problem solving and implicitly focusing on utility.  See also Cal Newport’s “ Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes), particularly the bit where the BCG (Bain?) team was less connected and more preoductive.

Pages 146 – 147: again on addiction: the difference between enjoying a treat and doing it to get away from something…

Page 149: be nice to your waiters.  See also Kip Tindell.

Pages 152 – 153: Again on zero-sum, Brown raises the idea of “Viking or Victim” – either you’re in power or you’re being taken advantage of – which is how some people live their lives; Brown disagrees (obviously).

Pages 159 – 160: the difference between vulnerability and oversharing

Pages 167 – 169: interesting bit here about how to avoid being vulnerable to criticism while still being open to feedback

Page 171: again on not trying to win the haters

Page 175: interesting bit on how Brown assesses a culture

Pages 180 – 181: I highlighted this bit because it’s very similar to McArdle talking about the importance of consistent feedback in “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes).

Page 187: on letting people ask questions

Page 191: on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation… negativity in the workplace is probably not the answer.

Page 200: on normalizing discomfort, and also trait adaptivity – Brown points out there are strengths contained in many of our faults or limitations

Page 202: sitting on the same side of the table is both a metaphor and a literal best practice for empathy

Pages 206 – 207: saying “I don’t know” is important for other reasons, of course – overconfidenceintellectual humility

Page 217: on being a role model. Brown cites Pearce:

“what we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”  

this is a pretty common (and true) insight.  Pretty sure it’s in Covey too.

Page 221: on the hedonic treadmill; substitute “worthy” for “happy” and it’s the same deal.  See “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).

Pages 223 – 225: This bit is educational, touching, and hilarious at the same time.  Brown’s young son:  “Daisy is a good dog who made a bad choice!”

But more seriously, again here on growth mindset – talk to people about their choices rather than who they are – and the importance of not constantly nagging and rather finding nice things to say and expressing appreciation / joy

Page 228: this bit is awesome

Pages 232 – 233: on belonging vs. fitting in; you can intuit the difference (eighth graders got it)

Pages 239 – 240: interesting –

“hope isn’t an emotion, it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process”

Again on  mindfulness.

First Read: 2015

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 3

Planning to Read Again?: maybe


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018