Brené Brown on Why Everyone Needs a ‘Brain Trust’

Whether they’re real or imagined.

Brené Brown. Image courtesy of the ideas festival Summit LA17.

When Brené Brown is stuck, the social worker, speaker and Daring Greatly author calls on real-life and quasi-imaginary friends alike. These are the members of her “brain trust,” she said onstage at last weekend’s Summit conference in Los Angeles; the people who exemplify some aspect of your personality—a beloved writer to bring the storyteller out of you, for instance—that you’d want to call on to get you through a trial or task.

These are the people whose “courage feels contagious,” she writes in her new book Braving The Wilderness, and you don’t even need to know them personally. Her list includes J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, and Oprah Winfrey, who helped launched her into stardom, in addition to eventually introducing her to someone who was, through her many poems and writings, at the head of the brain trust table—Maya Angelou. With each of these figures, Brown tracks down every interview, essay, lecture, or book they’ve done. “I do this so that when I need them, when I’m living in my fear, they come to sit with me and cheer me on,” she adds.

When Brown is trying to introduce a new set of ideas that’s emerging from her research, Rowling, that most notable of world-builders, whispers in her ear, advising that her can’t just present facts and figures about Hogwarts; to really reach the muggles, she has to tell tales. “I imagine her telling me: New worlds are important, but you can’t just describe them,” Brown writes. “Give us the stories that make up that universe. No matter how wild and weird the new world might be, we’ll see ourselves in the stories.” The term tracks back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose Brain Trust—originally a handful of law and economics professors—helped him chart a legislative path through the Great Depression that came to be known as the New Deal. Brown’s imaginal spin serves as a practical example of what psychologists call a parasocial relationship: you might not know an author, athlete, or leader personally, but they can still have a big influence on your life. 

Brown got the idea from spending time with Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, who taught her about gathering people around you to give you feedback and encouragement. In his book Creativity Inc., Catmull credits the Pixar Brain Trust with stabilizing Toy Story 2 when the movie was on the brink of falling apart and the bold decision to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. These were five storytelling experts within the company who all made a point to be as candid as possible, giving directors the feedback needed to make the company’s movies work. “Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, ‘from suck to not-suck,’” Catmull writes. “Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.”

In her presentation, Brown emphasized that she never felt like she was completely a part of one pre-existing group. She cussed too much for the church crowd, and talked about faith too much for the business leadership clique. But with your brain trust, Brown shows that there’s always a team with which you belong. 

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