Utterly Unthinkable – As You Were

As You Were – looking for connections between the work of Brené Brown and Daniel Quinn as I revisit them in book clubs. See the introductory post for what this is all about. In this post, I look at:

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Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure

Part Three: Walking Away from the Pyramid

“It’s not the quitters who are extraordinary and mysterious, it’s we, who have somehow managed to persuade ourselves that we must persist in our misery whatever the cost and not abandon it even in the face of calamity.” Quinn poses something relevant to Brené’s work as well — it is deeply strange that shame culture should exist, and that strangeness is not address by Brené.

“Natural selection is a process that separates the workable from the unworkable, not the perfect from the imperfect. Nothing evolution brings forth is perfect, it’s just damnably hard to improve upon.” Compare Brené on the Gifts of Imperfection.

“Tribes exist for their members — and for all their members, because all are perceived as involved in the success of the tribe.” Brené and Quinn criticize power-over — and Quinn points out that it’s a matter of social structure, one (hierarchy) in which power-over is inherent, and another (tribe) in which power-with is inherent.

“I mean that they don’t keep the circus going in order to make money; they make money in order to keep the circus going.” Compare Brené’s Guidepost on the importance of meaningful work.

“A tribe is a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living. A tribe of tribes is a coalition of tribes working together as equals to make a living; each tribe has a boss, as does the coalition as a whole.” Again, compare Brené critiquing hierarchy, valuing power-with instead of power-over, and valuing leaders, which per her definition are “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

“The circus,” he told Grossman, “is like a little tribe of nomads. Once initiated, you don’t drop out…”
“Here, we’re a family. We all work together, perform together, eat together, and, yes, bitch and moan at each other…”
“You have a total community here. I grew up in the suburbs, and I couldn’t tell you the name of the people who lived next to my parents, and I lived there for fifteen years. Here you not only live in the neighborhood, you’re also working together for a common goal. You’re part of something.”
“People here are willing to do anything. In the real world, people demand a ten-minute break after working three hours, but here people are just devoted to what they do.”
Compare Brené on the importance of connection, belonging, meaningful work — tribes are structures that by their design inherently provide these things instead of them being things to work hard for, against a current, as they are in hierarchy and shame culture.

“As things get worse and worse for us, we’re going to need more and more of all the things that give us relief and oblivion and all the things that get us revved up and excited. More religion, more revolution, more drugs, more television channels, more sports, more casinos, more pornography, more lotteries, more access to the Web — more and more and more of it all — to give ourselves the impression that life is nonstop fun.” Compare Brené on the prevalence of numbing in shame culture.

“The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity… People like the tribal organization because it works equally well for all members.” Combined with what he said earlier about the tribe being imperfect but damnably hard to improve upon, Quinn is literally saying that the tribe is a Gift of Imperfection, one that provides connection, belonging and power-with.

“Every civilization brought forth in the course of human history has been a hierarchical affair. The thing we call civilization goes hand in hand with hierarchy — means hierarchy, requires hierarchy.” Quinn is getting at the inevitability of power-over within civilization.

“Despite all the indicators of misery we live with — the ever-growing incidence of social disintegration, drug addiction, crime, suicide, mental illness, child and spousal abuse and abandonment, racism, violence against women, and so on — most people in our culture are thoroughly convinced that our way of life simply cannot be bettered by any means whatever… They’re sure that living in a sustainable way must be about ‘giving up’ things. It doesn’t occur to them that living in an UNsustainable way is also about giving up things, very precious things like security, hope, lightheartedness, and freedom from anxiety, fear, and guilt.” Compare Brené’s list of the ills of shame culture and her intention to create a Wholehearted revolution to counter shame culture.

“To consult, in our time of deepest crisis, with the unqualified success that humanity enjoyed here for more than three million years is quite simply and utterly unthinkable.
“That, finally, is my purpose in this book: to think about the utterly unthinkable.” Quinn is pointing to exactly what counters shame culture, addressing things Brené has yet to.

Daring Greatly

Final Thoughts

“Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive.” Echoes Quinn’s non-zero sum thinking and intention to definitively subvert an inherently dysfunctional culture.


“Traveler, there is no path, the path must be forged as you walk.” The grounded theory approach Brené uses resonates with Quinn’s notion of living in the hands of the gods.

“I know how people experience and move through shame, but what are people feeling, doing, and thinking when shame doesn’t constantly have a knife to their throats, threatening them with being unworthy of connection?” Brené and Quinn both look to people who are counterexamples to dysfunctional culture. The difference is Brené is looking at the few people who have managed to be exceptions within shame culture, while Quinn is looking outside shame culture to something that by design runs counter to it.

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