How a story about a Shell oil-rig began a deep-dive into vulnerability and self-awareness…
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Part 1: How a story about a Shell oil rig began my journey of exploration into vulnerability:
There are tough workplaces and then there are tough workplaces. Offshore oil rigs are one of the most high-risk workplaces there is. Mining, commercial fishing, heavy equipment operators, and construction workers all qualify in the top-10 of most dangerous workplaces. Imagine combining all of these into one and you have the environment in which offshore oil rig employees work every day. It’s a dangerous environment and the (mostly male) workforce has evolved to be equally tough.
Tommy Chreene began working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico when he was only fifteen years old:
"Back then, it wasn't unusual to see someone die on an oil rig." Chreene remembers the death of one man who had just finished a shift. He was standing before an enormous pipe that the workers twisted into the ground and held in place with a handle. The man kicked the handle, and the tension on the pipe released. It caught the man's ankle as it whipped around.
"In about three seconds, it spun him around about 80 times," Chreene says. "A few feet from the man was a post, and his head was hitting that post like a rotten tomato."
They got 15 minutes to mourn after watching their friend and colleague die, but that was it. "I mean, that hole cost a lot of money," he says. "We got to go to work." (excerpt from NPR article, 2017)
In 1997 Shell began building ‘Ursa’ which at the time would be the world’s largest deep-water platform oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. When completed it would stand 45-stories high and cost US$1.45 billion dollars (or in today’s equivalent: US$2.5bn, nearly $4bn AUD).
Rick Fox was in charge of the monumental project for Shell, a daunting enough task for anybody, even a seasoned veteran like Fox. One day, while still grappling with the monumental scale of this project, his phone rang. It was a lady from California, Claire Nuer, holocaust survivor, part-time hippie, and self-proclaimed leadership consultant. She suggested to Fox that of all the seemingly difficult tasks he had to address, the biggest and most important one was one that he had been yet to consider: his Fear.
The oil-rig workers, over generations, had by necessity developed a culture of bravery, strength, and tenacity. Unwittingly they had created a culture which was not only unhealthy but also highly dangerous. They had shut out their vulnerability and with it created a toxic culture. Fox and his son attended seminars with Nuer, and over the course of the next two years, hundreds of his key executives and workers, as well as their partners and families would undergo similar therapies.
The result? The men were more likely to express themselves in a healthy way, they felt safe and secure in expressing sentiments such as ‘I don’t feel safe doing this.’ Or ‘Wait, this situation is becoming unsafe. Let’s re-think this before we try again.’ As a result; Shell saw a drop of 84% in accident rates while simultaneously improving productivity past all previous company benchmarks.
Part 2: How a story about Shell oil rig workers led me to discover Brené Brown
In 2010 an effectively unknown research scientist named Brené Brown was asked to give an address at TEDx Houston. Brown is a charismatic and engaging talker, however, her area of expertise was always considered unpalatable for mainstream audiences. She is a shame and vulnerability researcher. Brown often recounts stories of times when she was asked to give a talk, but once the organizers discovered her areas of specialty, hurriedly urged to talk about anything except for shame or vulnerability.
At TED, Brown spoke to a room of a few hundred people and, in a speech which was both authentic and inspirational, told her true and heartfelt story about her research into vulnerability. Research which led her to discover how damaging and toxic is a lack of empathy, a feeling of belonging, or a sense of connection can be. How it damages our personal and professional lives and can stop us from achieving our dreams.
Today her TEDx talk has been viewed over 43-million times, though Brown herself says that she still cannot bring herself to watch it. Since 2010 she has written several books on vulnerability, highlighting its intrinsic relationship to courage, leadership, and risk-taking. She’s been interviewed by Oprah, Russell Brand, (and many others) and is frequently requested to speak at conferences and seminars worldwide.
Brown teaches us that vulnerability stems from shame and shame equals fear.
Brown’s research into vulnerability took six years and involved thousands of participants. When she was finished she divided the participants into two groups:
The Wholehearted and… well, everybody else...
When I reflect on the wholehearted I see a childhood of validation, and encouragement. Encouragement to take risks, take chances, make mistakes. Say “I love you” first. Dare to be different. Put yourself out there.
Your might think, that there are probably some over-confident assholes in this group as well, who strut with an inflated sense of self-worth. Perhaps they belong to a third group 'ignorant obnoxious oxygen thieves'. But I think Brown would make the distinction that this type of person is not wholehearted, that they are over-compensating and in severe denial about their own vulnerability. 'We criticize in others that which we are most afraid of in ourselves.'
Many many people carry the invisible scars of childhood abuse or neglect, and scar tissue can be a funny thing. It can be hard and insensitive with weird prickly hairs, or the complete opposite. It can be extremely sensitive, tender to the touch, shameful to let others see.
Russell Brand notes: ‘Trauma is the gateway, childhood abuse is the gateway, molestation is the gateway, neglect is the gateway. Drug abuse, violent behavior, hyper-sexuality, and self-harm are often symptoms (not the cause) of much bigger issues. And it almost always stems from a childhood filled with trauma, absent parents, and an abusive family.’
Brown makes the distinction that vulnerability is inextricably linked with courage. We often perceive vulnerability as weakness and for most of us it is excruciating. So many of us naturally develop alternative skills; work hard, prepare for the worst. Don’t allow yourself to get blindsided. We learn to not experience joy. Because happiness can just as swiftly be snatched away. I’m reminded of my favorite Doctor Who quote: “Why should they be happy now when they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course: Because they’re going to be sad later.”
Brown would go on to say in her TED talk (and this is the part which floored me):
'When we numb vulnerability, grief, shame, fear, disappointment-we numb everything. We numb joy, gratitude, and happiness.'
Part 3: In Conclusion: So what does this all mean? And why are you sharing all this touchy-feely hippie-dippy do-da any way?
Because I feel that there is a wonderful authenticity to this work. For me it was an epiphany moment, a ‘sudden realization of great truth’.
The wholehearted are not afraid of risk-taking. Nor are they foolhardy. They accept that risk, and failure, is a part of life and are not deterred by it.
In the allegorical business/personal development book “Who Moved My Cheese?” the author poses a question, in my opinion possibly the most frightening question of all time: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’
Great leaders are not adverse to risk, they embrace it. They also do not listen to the haters and the jealous mud-slingers. I recall a story of when Google Vice President Sheryl Sandberg had to admit to founder and CEO Larry Page that she was responsible for making a mistake that cost Google several million dollars:
“God I feel really bad about this” said Sandberg to Page. However, instead of disciplining, punishing or penalizing her Page responded, “I’m so glad you made this mistake because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.” Sandberg is now COO at Facebook.
Highly innovative companies and leaders are not risk-adverse. Without risk there would be no innovation.
For me, embracing wholehearted courageous living, is an all-pervasive theology. This is the kind of human I want to be. As a father, as a role-model to my kids, husband, manager, and leader in my community.
Brené Brown’s most recent book ‘Daring Greatly’ borrows it’s title from an inspirational speech by Theodore Roosevelt, and I will leave you with this thought:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
(I owe a debt of gratitude to my sister Amanda (social worker and good human) and someone who never ceases to surprise me, for introducing me to the story of Shell, Fox & Nuer, and Brené Brown).