Braving the Wilderness

In case you missed last Thursday's article, I'm taking a minor left turn from how we typically think about work around here. While I recognize that there's more philosophy built in here than usual, I promise that the detour will slowly lead us back to the work highway. In fact, these ideas have been bubbling inside me because I've been thinking so much about "scale" - mostly in a business sense, as it is certainly the buzzword du jour. If you're unfamiliar. Scaling is often synonymous with growing fast and impersonally. Through technology we can grow faster and reach more users from a distance.

However, there are other important contexts for scaling too. And when I consider the idea through a non-business lens, I'm convinced that its role in our everyday lives can no longer be ignored. 

The person who most recently weaved the connections together for me was Dr. Brené Brown. I sat in her audience in Nashville a couple weeks ago, listening to her discuss findings from her new book Braving the Wilderness. While I wouldn't have scalped tickets to see her live (as I watched others do??), I wholeheartedly admire her data-driven approach to "squishy" topics. She launched a brave movement in 2010 and has been giving academic legitimacy to feelings ever since.

In her newest research, she moves from the vantage of the individual to the collective. Braving the Wilderness holds us citizens accountable to do difficult work in our offices, communities, and societies.


"Braving the wilderness" is a metaphor for one's confidence to stand alone in a vast, unknown land. But listen carefully: "alone" in this case actually means belonging. But belonging only to oneself. Which is not the same as fitting in. Confused? Me too. The definition is a little heady, so let's try it another way...


True belonging means that people want "to experience real connection with others- but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power." People who have true belonging and are able to forge real connection with others have boundaries, and they're not afraid to use them. And sometimes this means that they end up alone in the wilderness - belonging to no one but themselves.


From the 200,000+ data points collected, Dr. Brown's research team found just four key elements of true belonging. You can read about all four in the book, but to debunk the popular everything-must-be-done-at-scale temptations of our current age, I want to focus on the number one way to belong:


People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.


Sit with this for a moment. What images comes to mind? Fear and sadness from acts of hate? Bubbling anger from articles in your Facebook feed? Perhaps it's not so dramatic. Maybe you were stung by a curt email in the office yesterday - a simple, everyday occurrence that someone inflicted upon you from a distance. All it took was a colleague trying to get through his pile of to-do's, a dash of keyboard courage, and a sender who felt bold because there was a screen between you and him. 


So what is the solution to the problems caused by distance and scale? Zooming in. 


"The women and men I interviewed, who had the strongest sense of true belonging, stayed zoomed in. They didn't ignore what was happening in the world... 

They did, however, commit to assessing their lives and forming their opinions of people based on their actual, in-person experiences."


Again, pause. Does this finding make you nervous? It makes me nervous because it takes a lot of work. Just thinking about it right now overwhelms me. I try to live and work by this principle, and the amount of effort it takes that others sometimes don't reciprocate is exhausting.


I recognize that here, I'm advocating for a point of view and behavior modifications that contradict the standard by which our society and workplaces now operate: do more things, quickly, reaching more people - from a distance. 

I'm not a cave woman. In some respects scaling is just awesome. But there are times and places, like during conflict, where operating from a distance through an instrument of scale (think: social media) will create far more polarization than the connection that Facebook claims. Remember last week's article? It feels more wrong to harm someone by physically touching him than by flipping a switch from a distance. Cowards without connection do things at scale, from a distance.

I will leave you with one request - one ask - to practice zooming in: the next time you're faced with someone at a distance (figuratively or literally), for whom you feel the tension rising, have a coffee or pick up the phone and ask one simple question:

Why? Why does (s)he feel this way? What experiences have led him or her to this belief?

Then, unpack it with three more whys and really listen to the answers. Do not listen to respond. Listen to understand. Get up close and personal.


Those who truly belong to themselves move in to connect in meaningful ways.  And sometimes this means being alone in the wilderness.


Wilderness watercolor available on Etsy