Mastering your emotions is old school. Jocko Willink won’t teach you how to do it, but he will tell you how important it is. He seems to have inherited a respect for emotional control and so he has no recommendation beyond what Nike prescribes. Willink is, however, very open about his emotions and it is not rare to hear him breaking into tears as he is reading something or recounting a story that involves great loss. He is a person who has found the ability to feel deeply and to remain operational. I think that Jocko is a national treasure for the way he devotes himself to teaching leadership skills. His love of literature and his experience in war make him one of the most dynamic speakers and thinkers we have today. I learn things from listening to and reading Willink. He is a very smart guy with a lot of experience to draw from in his discussion of management ideas and all things war. I have learned a lot from listening to Willink, but nothing about how to deal with your emotions, only that you have to somehow some way.
One of the only public intellectuals I can think of who is maybe more badass than Jocko Willink is Brené Brown and it is because of her commitment to understanding emotions. She is an intellectual firebrand, an advocate for feeling deeply, an enemy of shame and a friend to all who struggle with feeling vulnerable gracefully. I found Brené Brown when I needed her most: as a new father struggling to adapt to the new emotional experience of being vulnerable. The experience of having someone you love unconditionally who depends on you for their survival and well-being opened me up to feelings of vulnerability I had never even imagined.
There is a logic to Brown’s work. You can read it or listen to it in a sequence that will make a lot of sense, but you might need to hear her words more urgently than you need to understand her theory. This is a time for embodying the spirit of her book Rising Strong. We are at a crossroads. We can choose cynicism or caring deeply. Both Jocko Willink and Brené Brown advocate for caring deeply, they just have different techniques for how to do so effectively. Willink prescribes early rising, physical therapy, and doing the work to stay on the path to protect your people and to win the day. “Discipline equals freedom.” There are thousands of techniques he gets into, but the core mission behind all of his ideas is to be there for your people, to do the work. Make good decisions that put you in the position to have leverage. Jocko is a Navy Seal, and he is teaching us about relationship skills. That is the core of his leadership philosophy.
Brown teaches us how to own our emotions. Her main thesis is that shame is a horrible management strategy that has been used over time excessively and has created a culture of shame that stunts our emotional growth and limits our experiences. Through confronting the feelings of shame and giving voice to the experience, she points to a path of greater self-awareness and self-actualization. When people talk about doing the work, they are pointing to the same process. Doing the work, emotionally, is rewriting your own motivations to shift from a shame-based set of ideas to a more human and accepting model of behavior.
I can remember going through my Brené Brown education vividly. I listened to Rising Strong one spring season not too long ago while I would go on these long hikes in Nisene Marks forest. Being in a wild setting is therapeutic to me and so is exercise and I was using the two together to help me to process my feelings. I would eat some edibles, put on my headphones and head out into the woods.
If you listen to Brené Brown, you will most likely have some breakthroughs. What she is teaching us is so simple, but so incredibly important and valid. Our culture has a lot of problems with how we teach people how to be valuable members of society. Brown is especially powerful for people who have been raised to be strong and to avoid showing weakness. Being vulnerable is unavoidable, but lots of us try our hardest to out-maneuver whatever threatens to make us feel exposed. But we are all members of the human family and we will all experience devastating losses. Running from the feelings of vulnerability, hiding behind the armor of shame only makes the whole experience that much more chaotic and potentially dangerous.
It is only when we own our feelings by giving them a place, by voicing them, that we regain the leverage we need to work with and through our emotions. As a proud Texan, Brown offers a wonderfully rich contrast of things. It would be very difficult to mistake her discussion of vulnerability for a watering down of masculinity or toughness. She is not attempting to demonize masculinity or to attack men. Brown is a friend to men. She can teach us how to be more human. Women too, of course. But men need friends in this process of learning how to be more human. If we want men to change, then we should celebrate the people leading the charge.
Through listening to Brown and walking through the woods feeling the grace of cannabis moving through me I have several memories of the most painful epiphanies, of just sobbing and crying with nobody around to see or hear and all of the bottled-up pain inside of me would just come out in these awful roars of grief for what I couldn’t change, for what I couldn’t forget. The loss of friends, the loss of love, the fear of failure, all of it, everything I was ashamed of came rushing up out of me like a stampede of buffalo shattering the underbrush of my heart as I stumbled with tear filled eyes deeper into the dark and wild.
Some people will try to shame you for who you are. In a world where almost anything we do seems to be criticized by someone who feels superior, it is so important and refreshing to have people like Brené Brown and Jocko Willink who can remind us how to be more human, who can help us to find the courage to continue fighting despite inevitable loss. The human condition is absurdly beautiful and impossibly fragile. We are all walking our own paths through these woods and thankfully there are friends who can help to remind us that it is ok to feel pain, it is ok to feel vulnerable and that the only way to get stronger is by doing both.