Daring Greatly [CHAPTER 1]

To Steve

You make the world a better place

                                                 and me a braver person.


Scarcity: Looking Inside
Our Culture of “Never Enough”
Debunking the
Vulnerability Myths
Understanding and
Combating Shame
The Vulnerability Armory
Mind the Gap: Cultivating Change and
Closing the Disengagement Divide
Disruptive Engagement:
Daring to Rehumanize Education and Work
Wholehearted Parenting:
Daring to Be the Adults
We Want Our Children to Be
About the Author





After doing this work for the past twelve years and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on “What should we fear?” and “Who should we blame?” We all want to be brave.

  YOU can’t swing a cat without hitting a narcissist.”

Granted, it wasn’t my most eloquent moment onstage. It also wasn’t my intention to offend anyone, but when I’m really fired up or frustrated, I tend to revert back to the language instilled in me by the generations of Texans who came before me. I swing cats, things get stuck in my craw, and I’m frequently “fixin’ to come undone.” These regressions normally happen at home or when I’m with family and friends, but occasionally, when I’m feeling ornery, they slip out onstage.

I’ve heard and used the swinging-cat expression my entire life, and it didn’t dawn on me that more than a few of the thousand members of the audience were picturing me knocking over self-important folks with an actual feline. In my defense, while responding to numerous e-mails sent by audience members who thought animal cruelty was inconsistent with my message of vulnerability and connection, I did learn that the expression has nothing to do with animals. It’s actually a British Navy reference to the difficulty of using a cat-o’-nine-tails in the tight quarters of a ship. I know. Not so great either.

In this particular instance, the cat-swinging was triggered when a woman from the audience shouted out, “The kids today think they’re so special. What’s turning so many people into narcissists?” My less-than-stellar response verged on smart-alecky: “Yeah. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a narcissist.” But it stemmed from a frustration that I still feel when I hear the term narcissism thrown around. Facebook is so narcissistic. Why do people think what they’re doing is so important? The kids today are all narcissists. It’s always me, me, me. My boss is such a narcissist. She thinks she’s better than everyone and is always putting other people down.

And while laypeople are using narcissism as a catchall diagnosis for everything from arrogance to rude behavior, researchers and helping professionals are testing the concept’s elasticity in every way imaginable. Recently a group of researchers conducted a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs. The researchers reported a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. In line with their hypothesis, they found a decrease in usages such as we and us and an increase in I and me.

The researchers also reported a decline in words related to social connection and positive emotions, and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior, such as hate or kill. Two of the researchers from that study, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, authors of the book The Narcissism Epidemic, argue that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder has more than doubled in the United States in the last ten years.

Relying on yet another fine saying from my grandmother, it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Or is it? Are we surrounded by narcissists? Have we turned into a culture of self-absorbed, grandiose people who are only interested in power, success, beauty, and being special? Are we so entitled that we actually believe that we’re superior even when we’re not really contributing or achieving anything of value? Is it true that we lack the necessary empathy to be compassionate, connected people?

If you’re like me, you’re probably wincing a bit and thinking, Yes. This is exactly the problem. Not with me, of course. But in general…this sounds about right!

It feels good to have an explanation, especially one that conveniently makes us feel better about ourselves and places the blame on those people. In fact, whenever I hear people making the narcissism argument, it’s normally served with a side of contempt, anger, and judgment. I’ll be honest, I even felt those emotions when I was writing that paragraph.

Our first inclination is to cure “the narcissists” by cutting them down to size. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to teachers, parents, CEOs, or my neighbors, the response is the same: These egomaniacs need to know that they’re not special, they’re not that great, they’re not entitled to jack, and they need to get over themselves. No one cares. (This is the G-rated version.)

Here’s where it gets tricky. And frustrating. And maybe even a little heartbreaking. The topic of narcissism has penetrated the social consciousness enough that most people correctly associate it with a pattern of behaviors that include grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t “fix it” by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure.


Diagnosing and labeling people whose struggles are more environmental or learned than genetic or organic is often far more detrimental to healing and change than it is helpful. And when we have an epidemic on our hands, unless we’re talking about something physically contagious, the cause is much more likely to be environmental than a hardwiring issue. Labeling the problem in a way that makes it about who people are rather than the choices they’re making lets all of us off the hook: Too bad. That’s who I am. I’m a huge believer in holding people accountable for their behaviors, so I’m not talking about “blaming the system” here. I’m talking about understanding the root cause so we can address the problems.

It’s often helpful to recognize patterns of behaviors and to understand what those patterns may indicate, but that’s far different from becoming defined by a diagnosis, which is something I believe, and that the research shows, often exacerbates shame and prevents people from seeking help.

We need to understand these trends and influences, but I find it far more helpful, and even transformative in many instances, to look at the patterns of behaviors through the lens of vulnerability. For example, when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose. Sometimes the simple act of humanizing problems sheds an important light on them, a light that often goes out the minute a stigmatizing label is applied.

This new definition of narcissism offers clarity and it illuminates both the source of the problem and possible solutions. I can see exactly how and why more people are wrestling with how to believe they are enough. I see the cultural messaging everywhere that says that an ordinary life is a meaningless life. And I see how kids that grow up on a steady diet of reality television, celebrity culture, and unsupervised social media can absorb this messaging and develop a completely skewed sense of the world. I am only as good as the number of “likes” I get on Facebook or Instagram.

Because we are all vulnerable to the messaging that drives these behaviors, this new lens takes away the us-versus-those-damn-narcissists element. I know the yearning to believe that what I’m doing matters and how easy it is to confuse that with the drive to be extraordinary. I know how seductive it is to use the celebrity culture yardstick to measure the smallness of our lives. And I also understand how grandiosity, entitlement, and admiration-seeking feel like just the right balm to soothe the ache of being too ordinary and inadequate. Yes, these thoughts and behaviors ultimately cause more pain and lead to more disconnection, but when we’re hurting and when love and belonging are hanging in the balance, we reach for what we think will offer us the most protection.

There are certainly instances when a diagnosis might be necessary if we are to find the right treatment, but I can’t think of one example where we don’t benefit by also examining the struggle through the lens of vulnerability. Something can always be learned when we consider these questions:

  1. What are the messages and expectations that define our culture and how does culture influence our behaviors?
  2. How are our struggles and behaviors related to protecting ourselves?
  3. How are our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions related to vulnerability and the need for a strong sense of worthiness?

If we go back to the earlier question of whether or not we’re surrounded by people with narcissistic personality disorder, my answer is no. There is a powerful cultural influence at play right now, and I think the fear of being ordinary is a part of it, but I also think it goes deeper than that. To find the source, we have to pan out past the name-calling and labeling.

We’ve had the vulnerability lens zoomed in here on a few specific behaviors, but if we pull out as wide as we can, the view changes. We don’t lose sight of the problems we’ve been discussing, but we see them as part of a larger landscape. This allows us to accurately identify the greatest cultural influence of our time—the environment that not only explains what everyone is calling a narcissism epidemic, but also provides a panoramic view of the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that are slowly changing who we are and how we live, love, work, lead, parent, govern, teach, and connect with one another. This environment I’m talking about is our culture of scarcity.


A critical aspect of my work is finding language that accurately represents the data and deeply resonates with participants. I know I’m off when people look as if they’re pretending to get it, or if they respond to my terms and definitions with “huh” or “sounds interesting.” Given the topics I study, I know that I’m onto something when folks look away, quickly cover their faces with their hands, or respond with “ouch,” “shut up,” or “get out of my head.” The last is normally how people respond when they hear or see the phrase: Never ________________ enough. It only takes a few seconds before people fill in the blanks with their own tapes:

  • Never good enough
  • Never perfect enough
  • Never thin enough
  • Never powerful enough
  • Never successful enough
  • Never smart enough
  • Never certain enough
  • Never safe enough
  • Never extraordinary enough

We get scarcity because we live it.

One of my very favorite writers on scarcity is global activist and fund-raiser Lynne Twist. In her book The Soul of Money, she refers to scarcity as “the great lie.” She writes:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enoughoccurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of.…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack.…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.…(43–45).

Scarcity is the “never enough” problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning “restricted in quantity” (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.

What makes this constant assessing and comparing so self-defeating is that we are often comparing our lives, our marriages, our families, and our communities to unattainable, media-driven visions of perfection, or we’re holding up our reality against our own fictional account of how great someone else has it. Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare ourselves and our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed: “Remember when…? Those were the days…”


Scarcity doesn’t take hold in a culture overnight. But the feeling of scarcity does thrive in shame-prone cultures that are deeply steeped in comparison and fractured by disengagement. (By a shame-prone culture, I don’t mean that we’re ashamed of our collective identity, but that there are enough of us struggling with the issue of worthiness that it’s shaping the culture.)

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. I’ve seen it in the data, and honestly, I’ve seen it in the faces of the people I meet, interview, and talk to. The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved. And when it comes to the staggering numbers of those now unemployed and underemployed, I think every single one of us has been directly affected or is close to someone who has been directly affected.

Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats. It’s not just the larger culture that’s suffering: I found the same dynamics playing out in family culture, work culture, school culture, and community culture. And they all share the same formula of shame, comparison, and disengagement. Scarcity bubbles up from these conditions and perpetuates them until a critical mass of people start making different choices and reshaping the smaller cultures they belong to.

One way to think about the three components of scarcity and how they influence culture is to reflect upon the following questions. As you’re reading the questions, it’s helpful to keep in mind any culture or social system that you’re a part of, whether your classroom, your family, your community, or maybe your work team:

  1. Shame: Is fear of ridicule and belittling used to manage people and/or to keep people in line? Is self-worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance? Are blaming and finger-pointing norms? Are put-downs and name-calling rampant? What about favoritism? Is perfectionism an issue?
  2. Comparison: Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity been suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions? Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used as measurement of everyone else’s worth?
  3. Disengagement: Are people afraid to take risks or try new things? Is it easier to stay quiet than to share stories, experiences, and ideas? Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening? Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?

When I look at these questions and think about our larger culture, the media, and the social-economic-political landscape, my answers are YES, YES, and YES!

When I think about my family in the context of these questions, I know that these are the exact issues that my husband, Steve, and I work to overcome every single day. I use the word overcome because to grow a relationship or raise a family or create an organizational culture or run a school or nurture a faith community, all in a way that is fundamentally opposite to the cultural norms driven by scarcity, it takes awareness, commitment, and work…every single day. The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default becomes a state of scarcity. We’re called to “dare greatly” every time we make choices that challenge the social climate of scarcity.

The counterapproach to living in scarcity is not about abundance. In fact, I think abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of “never enough” isn’t abundance or “more than you could ever imagine.” The opposite of scarcity is enough, or what I call Wholeheartedness. As I explained in the Introduction, there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.

If you go back to the three sets of questions about scarcity that I just posed and ask yourself if you’d be willing to be vulnerable or to dare greatly in any setting defined by these values, the answer for most of us is a resounding no. If you ask yourself if these are conditions conducive to cultivating worthiness, the answer is again no. The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.

After doing this work for the past twelve years and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We all want to be brave. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on “What should we fear?” and “Who should we blame?”

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the vulnerability myths that fuel scarcity and how courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.







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