On this episode of Dare to Lead
A heartfelt and honest conversation with writer, creator, and former tech entrepreneur Chad Sanders on Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph. Chad shares his stories and interviews from 15 leaders across industries on transformative leadership. There are critical teachings here for all of us—in fact, it’s our organization’s first group read of 2021.
Listen to the episode
Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph, by Chad Sanders
Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph is a powerful exploration of Black achievement in a white world based on honest, provocative, and moving interviews with Black leaders, scientists, artists, activists, and champions. In moving essays, Chad dives into his formative experiences to see if they might offer the possibility of discovering or honing this skill. He tests his theory by interviewing Black leaders across industries to get their take on Black Magic. The result is a revelatory and very necessary book. Black Magic explores Black experiences in predominantly white environments and demonstrates the risks of self-betrayal and the value of being yourself.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. Today, I get to have an amazing conversation with Chad Sanders on his new book, Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph. I met Chad, interestingly, online. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. I thought it was important and powerful. I think I retweeted it. We started talking in DMs, and I got to read an early copy of Black Magic. I was blown away. I wrote an endorsement for it. It is a combination of Chad’s story about navigating whiteness at work, specifically. It’s also an interview with 15 Black leaders, scientists, artists, activists, just folks from all different industries across the world about their story, about how their experiences of navigating Blackness taught them how to be strategic, empathic, transformative leaders. What an incredible conversation, and what a really just formidable person. I love this conversation. Thanks for being here.
BB: So Chad is a writer, director, actor, and musician based in New York City. He has spent time working at Google and YouTube, and he has been a tech entrepreneur. He has written and co-written TV series and feature films, along with collaborators like Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, and Will Packer. Chad’s op-ed pieces have appeared in the New York Times, SLAM magazine, and Teen Vogue. Before living in New York, Chad lived in Berlin, London, Oakland, and Atlanta. He is a graduate of Morehouse College, and he was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. And we get to learn about and hear about his parents in this podcast, which is really, truly one of my favorite parts. Let’s talk to Chad Sanders about Black Magic. Chad Sanders, welcome to the Dare to Lead podcast.
Chad Sanders: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
BB: I’m really excited. You sent me an early copy of your new book, Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph, and I read it and wrote an endorsement for it, fell in love with you, and was completely moved by your book. So let me just start by saying thank you.
CS: Thank you. I think there’s even a little more context to that story, which is that you amplified my message before you read the book, which was that you read something that I wrote for the New York Times last June, and—
BB: Oh, I did.
CS: Yeah, and you tweeted it out. And just to speak to the power of the universe, but also social media, I just took a Hail Mary and jumped in your DMs and said thank you, and you were basically like, “I love this piece, and I think you’re a dope writer.” I’m paraphrasing. [Laughter] “And I’ll support you however I can.” And I took you up on it, and you were real. You really meant it. So I’m very grateful as well. And this is sort of mind-blowing for me. Thank you.
BB: Well, let’s get started, because Black Magic will be the next organizational book read for us in my organization. I think I wrote for the book endorsement, “Urgent, necessary, critical, and universal.” They’re stories and learnings that we all need. So let me actually start with the first line of the book. We’re on Zoom, so Chad can see that I have a really battered and highlighted and bookmarked copy of it from reading it, but I want to read something to you from the introduction, if that’s OK. I have a lot of things I want to read back to you and get some thoughts from you. Is that weird?
CS: No, it’s so tight. I was hoping you’d do that.
BB: OK. First paragraph in the introduction. I was 23 and working at Google in lily-white Silicon Valley. I was wearing a blue checkered button-up shirt and khakis.” I would love to hear your story of growing up through your interview at Google. So let’s just take 10 or 15 minutes and walk us through—you grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, right?
CS: I did, yeah. It’s so funny to hear you even read through the line about the checkered button-up and whatnot. Nobody can see me, but I’m wearing overalls and a chain right now, which feels so liberating, but—I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. Honestly, it borders on the District of Columbia, so it’s right on the wall of D.C. My parents were professionals. Both of them had graduate degrees. My mom was an executive at Verizon for 30 years and retired there about 10, 15 years ago. My dad was a securities lawyer. He started off at the SEC, and then he eventually left to go start his own practice, where he helped developing countries build stock markets, which is, like, a whole conversation in itself. But I say all that to say that I, in a lot of ways, was the image of Black privilege growing up, such that it is. I changed schools just about every other year to track against the gifted and talented programs there in Silver Spring, Maryland. Every couple of years, they take all the kids, they throw them into testing rooms, they decide who are the gifted and talented ones.
CS: And I do think that I am smart, I do think I’m gifted and talented, so to speak, but I also know that—we had books in the house and my parents read to us every day, and my parents had this very structured—almost every 30 minutes of the day was accounted for in terms of, you’re going to practice your piano, you’re going to go to Cub Scouts, you’re going to go outside and shoot free throws for an hour, you’re going to write, you’re going to read, and you get this 30-minute—which is crazy because I eventually became a TV writer—but you get a 30-minute window to watch TV, but only these channels are allowed. It was such a regimented structure that my parents provided for my sister and I—my sister is three years older—to grow as children. And I eventually came to learn—at the time, it was honestly very challenging for us to have such intense structure, to the point where if kids in the neighborhood would come knock on the door to ask if I could come out and play, sometimes my parents would just next to slamming the door in their faces and saying, “No, the kids aren’t coming out.”
CS: And the neighborhood that I was born into—the first house that we lived in was a town house in a very diverse, probably middle-class, lower-middle-class neighborhood. We eventually moved into, when I was 6 years old, the cul-de-sac with the single-family homes and the two-car garages and sort of the American Dreaminess, but that also placed us, as a Black family, into a higher volume of whiteness. And I later came to learn that what my parents were doing by providing that structure was not only just enriching us to make us creative, thoughtful, sophisticated human beings, but also walling out some of the cultural influences that could be toxic for our little developing brains, that could come in from people who might not totally look at us as equal human beings to them. And I shouldn’t equivocate. People who don’t look at us as totally equal human beings to them.
BB: So, whiteness.
CS: Whiteness, yeah, yeah. To be specific, yes. For high school, I tracked that gifted and talented program from preschool all the way till the end of middle school, and then the question of—as I started to grow into an adolescent body and probably became a little bit scarier, I realized, to my neighbors and police and common society—and also as my parents realized I had some significant gifts. One of them was writing. Another one at the time was, I was an actor. I had acted in plays. I had been on a kids’ TV show called Adventure Camp on Discovery Kids, on the Discovery Kids channel. I was starting to show some abilities, as I think kids at that age do. You start to see who they are and what they’re good at. And the question of private school or public school for high school came up.
CS: And I don’t even really go into this in the book, but my parents eventually came to make the decision to send me to one of the prestigious private schools in Washington, D.C. And I couldn’t have been there longer than a month. And I remember the conversation with my mom in the car when we pulled up in front one day. I didn’t want to get out, and I was really upset, and I just told her, I hate it here. The kids treat each other bad, there’s such a hierarchy, and I don’t know how people interact with each other. And I’m not even—I’m talking about Black kids, white kids, Latin kids, Asian kids, everybody. There’s such a distinct hierarchy here, and I don’t understand it, and I feel like I’m at the bottom of it. And I think some of it has to do with money, access to resources, but also just this pretentious layer on top of all of it.
CS: And it was then—I sort of knew this about myself before, but I came to learn that I have problems with authority. I have problems with power imbalances. And I’m not able to swallow down those problems when I see them, when I experience them, and when I feel them. And my mom listened, and it was really good parenting, I thought, and my parents pulled me out after that freshman year, and they sent me to the public school in my home county, and it was the public art school as well. And I go into such specificity in the book talking about the things that were—can I curse here?
BB: Oh, yeah.
CS: OK, cool. I talk a lot about the things that were fucked up at that school, especially racially, but I would also like to say that that was when I first started to understand myself as an artist. That was when I first started to understand myself, really understand myself as a writer. And I felt empowered, by having art classes in that school to express what was such a dense phenomenon in my life, which was racism. You know, I’m 15 years old. I didn’t have fancy language or fancy descriptions of feelings. I had never been to therapy. Brené Brown existed, but I didn’t have access to her writings at that time, you know what I mean? I didn’t know how to say, “It sucks to feel like less than,” or, “It sucks to feel like other,” except then to just say it just like that.
CS: And when I started to write that down and share that in classrooms with white kids and white teachers and just feel like they just started to look at me a little bit differently, they just started to pay attention to me a little bit differently and value me, frankly, a little bit differently, then I realized, “Oh, here is a weapon to combat this shit. This writing thing is different.” This is different than just telling somebody how you feel one-on-one or freaking out or whatever the mechanism is. When you write it and it’s just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, I found it to change the way people dealt with me.
BB: Let me back you up here. First of all, several of us on the team read your book in preparation for the podcast, and a couple of us have 15-year-old sons. Laura and I both do. And when we got done reading the book, we had a conversation, and I said, “First thing that this changed for you?” She goes, “Oh, man, my dinner table’s changing.” We were both like, “Chad’s parents don’t play at dinner.”
CS: No, they don’t. They still don’t.
BB: They still don’t?
BB: Oh, God. I really love them. Well, your dad was ex-military, right?
CS: My grandfathers on both sides were military.
BB: Grandparents, yes. Yeah, so your parents both got some military upbringing.
CS: Yeah. And that was an influence definitely in the structure and regiment. Beyond that, my dad was a Division I basketball player. My dad came from—it’s funny, it’s on the tip of my tongue to say, “My dad came from a tough place,” but my dad, he’s very proud of where he came from, which is Detroit in the ’50s, around the time of the Detroit Riots, around the time when Detroit was a bustling, booming city that obviously also had some very intense racial dynamics. So he had to be so disciplined to get from that life to the life that he eventually was able to provide my sister and I. And my mom came from a military family from the South, deep South. Our family is from—we have roots in South Carolina; Mississippi; and Bolivar, Tennessee; and nobody knows where Bolivar, Tennessee is. We’re rooted in the country. We are some Southern Black folks.
CS: So to just pierce through those circumstances, a lot of people had to develop a certain regimen, and that was how our family was. So to speak to the dinner table, it was—at the time, phones were just becoming really the distraction that they are today. It was the Nokia phone with the snake on it, so that wasn’t so crazy. But my sister is an absolute bookworm—she’s a writer as well. She would always bring books to the table and try to hide them underneath so she could read them while we were having family discussions and whatnot, but my parents just would not go for it. It was like front door is locked. Cutco salesman comes, he’s getting the door slammed in his face. Maybe some light music. We’re going to sit here, the four of us, and we are going to get into it. And it made me a bad small talker later in life, because those conversations would go deep fast.
CS: “What did you learn in school today?” “Oh, we learned about the Middle Passage.” “Well, what exactly did they say?” And I’d try to paraphrase. “No, no, no, but what exactly did they say?” And I would regurgitate something that was problematic. As an example, there was one teacher in particular who tried to balance out the human crimes of slavery on the same scale, or presenting some sort of equivocation with the economic ingenious of it all. And I told my parents that—
BB: Oh, God.
CS: Yeah. And we would have to slice it all up right there in a very logical way. Some of it would be emotionally founded, but a lot of it would just be, “This is why these theories are broken.” And we would work backward and backward and backward, and my sister and I would ask questions. And then it would move on to the next person, who would be my mom, and she would say, “I’m up for promotion at Verizon. I am up against these three people.” She would describe them. She would explain, “This person has a background in marketing. I have a background in business administration. This person has a background in human resources. These are the pros and cons of these things. Here’s how everyone affects the business.” My sister and I are like 6 and 9 years old when these conversations began.
CS: But the brilliant thing about kids that age is we asked really simple, basic building-block questions that eventually helped us. We have very strong understandings of these concepts now because we were able to ask those silly questions as kids. And I don’t know if my parents were intentional about this, but what that dinner table did was it gave me a curiosity and a rock-solid foundation mentally where if someone wanted to get me to believe in something that didn’t appear to be true, they had to make a really sound and incisive argument to sway me over on that thing.
BB: We need more of that.
CS: We do.
BB: We need more of the rational dismantling of bad arguments. It was so shocking to me when I was reading the book that you said, by the time you’re in high school, you understand the full logistics of layoffs and corporate reorganizations. And your parents—the story I make up, without having been at the dinner table, which I so wish I was so many times, your parents never underestimated y’all.
CS: No. They looked at us as thought partners. They were authoritative as parents, but they trusted our ability to reason, and they made the connection between the importance of what we were talking about, which was their work and our life, very simple and clear. My dad would pull out the check from his client and show it to us and show us the numbers on it and say, “This is how much I get paid per hour to do this skill. This is why I went to law school. This is why I’m still paying back my loans to Michigan Law School today, 20 years later.” They would just make it all fit.
BB: Connective tissue.
CS: And beyond that, they would also explain to us that their way was not the only way to do it. They would make us understand—I understood, probably by the time I was 13, that somebody built Verizon. It didn’t just come to be. It was a person who had this vision for, I guess in the origins, landline telephone structures, and then that evolved into that, and then this is how they raised money, and this is how they found partners, and then they built a board, and this and that. So they made it all feel very accessible to us and—yeah.
BB: Wow, what a gift. Let me ask you this. I just have to ask you this question. I don’t know if you’ll remember it in the book, and I can see if I can find it here, but your dad was kinda no joke. He was a pretty serious man growing up. He would sometimes follow the bus.
CS: Yes, he would.
BB: Yeah. And there was a moment on one of those bus rides where the cool kid—you described him as a kid who wore his hair slicked back; I don’t know exactly where it is in here—but the cool kid said, “What, does your dad think the bus is going to forget how to get to school?” But you had a very heartbreaking answer to that in your mind.
CS: Yeah. I eventually learned what the answer was to that. To be clear, at the time, as a kid, it was annoying and it felt overprotective. It made me feel like I was always under supervision, which is not a totally free way for a kid to develop. But I eventually came in adulthood, when it really struck me was when Trayvon Martin was killed in his dad’s neighborhood. And it really hit me when I looked at the picture of Trayvon Martin, and I thought to myself, “That looks just like me when I was that age.” And all of this creeping around behind the school bus and sitting outside at my basketball practices, and it was my dad who was from a different place than this suburban upbringing where he was raising me, it was him not trusting that place and the people in that place and feeling like, “I’ve got to get this Black boy to become a Black man. I’ve got to get him there alive, to the point where he’s able to make these decisions on his own and have some savvy about how he moves about the world.” And that was why he was following the bus around. It wasn’t just for kicks.
BB: Yeah. We could do a whole podcast on the talk and the protection mechanisms that white folks don’t even understand have to be in place for Black parents. And I think, in many ways, you speak to this same invisible network of staying-alive strategies throughout the book. Tell me about the decision to go to Morehouse.
CS: Yeah, the staying-alive strategies, that’s good wording for it. It’s such a tightrope, and there’s this pressure that you feel. And it’s like the fish in the story. Racism is the water. It’s all around you. You don’t even necessarily always pay attention to it or know that you’re swimming in it, but you’re always—your little fins are flapping and you’re darting around trying to avoid it and trying to stay afloat, but that’s what it is. That’s the water. And going to Morehouse felt for the first time like it was gone. It’s crazy to think about racism at that point became something that we talked about in theory, in this room full of Black people, on this campus full of Black men, beside a campus, Spelman College, full of Black women, and another just right beside it, Clark Atlanta University, full of Black people. So thousands of us, right, 18 to 22 years old, smart, vibrant, diverse Blackness just everywhere. Free. So free that you can’t even—if you haven’t been there, you can’t even picture what I’m talking about. You don’t even know what kind of freedom I’m talking about it, because it’s the over-rotation away from oppression. It’s so free that—nothing else looks like it.
CS: The decision to go there was—in a way it was inertia for me, which was that my mom had gone to Spelman College, and my whole life I could not get this person in my life, not that I tried, but I couldn’t get her to stop—my mom, you still can’t get her to stop talking about Spelman. She still talks about Spelman as if it were yesterday. My mom graduated in, I want to say, 1978. So it had that profound an effect on her to spend those four years immersed in Blackness, that by the time I was 18, her son, I had spent 18 years just hearing about this amazing, beautiful, special, surreal environment. And then I went on a trip down there when I was applying to colleges. I applied to, I want to say, four colleges: Columbia, Harvard, University of Maryland, and Morehouse. Maybe Hampton, maybe Howard. I can’t remember. I wasn’t going to go to Howard, though, because it was too close to home. And when I went down and visited and I saw it with my own eyes, I don’t even remember if those other schools let me in, Brené. It was like, “I’ve got to go here.”
CS: This is crazy, this is like—there’s this energy and it’s like we have an edge about us as a people. We have an edge that comes from survival and a cool and a vibrance and just a spectacular energy. And it was like, “I just want that.” I didn’t even—again, I’m a kid, so I didn’t have—I couldn’t intellectualize it. I was just like, “Man, I just fucking want that,” and then I went.
BB: I felt so—“whiplashed” is the word that comes to my mind—on this journey with you. You are such a compelling storyteller. God, you can write a story.
CS: Thank you.
BB: So I felt really upset with our mutual decision to leave Morehouse for Silicon Valley. Here we are in this—or here you are—but as a reader, I was like, “All right, we’re going to continue this journey of deep Black excellence and vibrance.” And then all of a sudden you’re at Google and all of that vibrance comes into question. You ask yourself in the book, “I wasn’t Googly enough.” Tell me about your interview, which I have to say was like—I know it was—oh, God, it was so good. You could just see it when you’re reading the words.
CS: Thank you. I was still a senior in college. By senior year, you’re not trying anymore. I’m wearing sweatpants around all the time. I’m just going to be honest, I’m barely going to class at this point. I’m like—I’m checked-out. It’s a weird combination of—I was definitely scared. I was so safe at this point at Morehouse. I was so comfortable with the social dynamics, the campus, the faculty, the beautiful, wonderful Blackness of this campus and this city, Atlanta, Georgia, which is unlike any other. Although you’re from a pretty cool city, too, New Orleans. You are from New Orleans, right?
BB: I was raised in New Orleans, but I’m a Texan. So Houston and Austin.
CS: Yes. Well, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston are, I know, to be the holy triumvirate for cool Black cities in the South.
CS: Anyway, I met a recruiter on campus, a Black woman named LaFawn Bailey, whose name I have to say out loud because she absolutely changed my life and I love her. She was a recruiter. She was probably younger than I am now, now that I think about it. She was recruiting at Morehouse. The first class of Morehouse kids to work at Google was the class ahead of mine, and they had had a good experience with those kids. There was one in particular, one of my best friends who is in the book, who was a superstar there. His name is Jason Crane, and he would come back to campus and help recruit people to come work at Google. A lot of the recruiting took place at the business center, which is where many of the resources at Morehouse get poured into because we have a great business program. I was an English major. For all intents and purposes, I was like an arts kid.
CS: And I met LaFawn in the hallway on her way to go interview some business kids, and I think I helped her find her way to where she was going or something. There was some weird interaction. And more or less, she was like, “Why don’t you come interview? You seem smart, you seem charismatic.” And I think Google at that time had a very open-minded way of looking at talent, and also I think LaFawn was just trying to give as many Black kids a shot as she possibly could. She felt like, “I have access to this amazing opportunity. I need to shell this thing out.” So LaFawn ended up going out with me and Jason that night, like out, into the city, into Atlanta, and we went out almost every night. And so she got to really get to know me on a personal level, not just as some kid who stumbled into an interview. And I asked her some questions, really silly questions, now that I think back on it.
CS: I didn’t even know what Google did as a business. I had no idea how Google made money. I now know they make money from advertising and a hundred thousand other ways now. They’re Google. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t have a really good suit to wear to an interview. I just felt so underprepared. I went to the on-campus screening. Honestly, LaFawn kind of walked me through it. She helped me be good at it, and then the company invited me for the on-campus at Mountain View. So this was—I went from playing a home game with LaFawn on my campus to playing an away game at their campus.
BB: Silicon Valley.
CS: Silicon Valley. I had been to California once for a family reunion in high school. I flew from Atlanta to Oakland Airport for my on-campus interview. A Google bus picked me up at that airport, and from the moment I got on that bus to Google’s campus down in Mountain View, down the—I guess that’s the 101. From that moment until the same bus dropped me off six hours later, I was in Google Land. There was Wi-Fi on the bus, so I took out my laptop. The first thing that I’m faced with is the words “G-O-O-G-L-E” right in my face. The second I get on that bus, we drive down the 101, the windows are tinted, so I’m just like in this little Google world. There’s a couple of other people on the bus. Other college kids are on the bus. We go down to headquarters, Mountain View, and when we get off the bus, it looks like Disney World for adults. There’s people on these little colorful bicycles. People have pinwheel hats on. They have blue and red and orange and yellow backpacks. There’s self-driving cars buzzing around the lots. There’s people with dogs and puppies. Everybody has food. I’m like, “Where is all this food coming from?” And they walk me through this beautiful—the grass is cut to such an immaculate manicure, and the sky—it’s California. The sky is blue, there’s rolling mountains. It’s surreal to me.
CS: Again, I’m 22 years old, I have no money. I’m a senior in college, don’t have a job, don’t know what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, have this English major that I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with. So they take me to one of the cafeterias. There’s a woman who I ended up working with—she ended up being on my team later—and she takes me through one of the cafeterias. They’re giving me free food and snacks and water bottles and everything I could possibly fill my arms up with. And I can’t even eat because I’m so nervous about this interview, which I haven’t been prepared for. I don’t know what we’re going to do there. And everyone has—this is like the Googly-ness that comes into play. Everybody has on their face this spacey, distant sort of half-smile, which I think the environment is designed to make people feel that way, which is like 75% happy. Do you know what I mean?
CS: It’s like not 100%. Seventy-five percent. Your needs are taken care of. You’ve got food in your hand. There’s dogs, there’s energy. And it does—it made me forget that this is a business. This is a corporation. This is a for-profit capitalist business run by a very small group of people. And we’ll come back to that. But this is all part of the interview. This is the showcase. This is like them walking you through Oz.
CS: This is the culture, yeah.
BB: This is the culture, right?
CS: Yeah. And then I meet a guy in the hallway and, “Hey, buddy.” There’s this cadence of speech, which I now call “bro-iness,” but it’s very much the Silicon way, which is this chipper—I don’t know how else to label it. It feels super white.
BB: Let’s do it. Hi, Chad, how are you?
CS: Hey, how you doing, Brené? What’s going on?
BB: Good. How was your weekend?
CS: Oh, it was so good. I went to a Bon Iver concert. I brewed craft beers in my garage. I built a bicycle. How about you?
BB: Oh, my gosh, I bought some yarn, I’ve taken up knitting, and I’m preparing for a backpacking trip through Croatia.
CS: OK, yours was—yeah, yours was better. Exactly.
BB: No, I know how to do it.
CS: No, you totally know how to do it. So I just start doing it. And I had forgotten how to do it because—I once knew how to do it because I went to school with white kids. I am from a relatively affluent place. That’s how people talk to each other, to an extent, in high school.
BB: Yeah. We’re pretty straightforward. We’re a pretty straightforward meme.
CS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So by the time I get into the interview, I have already been performing for the hour and a half that it took me to get off the flight and into the doors and into this sterile little conference room where the interview takes place. I’m already somebody else by the time I sit down in that chair, and all I have to do at that point to get the job. And I know this somewhere, but I’m not thinking about it, but I’m doing it. All I have to do to get the job is just keep the performance going, hit all the cues, shake hands at a perfect 90-degree angle, seem happy. That’s a big part of it, is seem happy. Because when other people look at you, you want them to feel happy, so you better look happy.
CS: And the interview was actually—I don’t know what kind of legal papers and stuff I’ve signed about talking about this interview, but I’ll say it was mostly brain teasers and shit more than it was, “So how does Google make money?” I did McKinsey interviews back then. They were much more job-specific. They were much more about, How many tennis balls do you think we can sell through this company? or whatever. Google interviews are like, they’re trying to figure out how does your brain work and, Are you smart? Can you make decisions quickly?
BB: Creative thinking.
CS: Creative thinking. Can you navigate ambiguity? Those are the three main pillars. And then there’s this fourth pillar that they’re trying to gauge, which is Googly-ness. And Googly-ness is the nebulous one. That is the one that, frankly, I think, Black people get tripped up on, which is that is this nebulous company culture, which is this vague, happy-seeming, kind of empty, kind of spaciness, is how I could portray it.
BB: Is it conformity?
CS: It is conformity, 100%. It is to present that all your needs are met. Do you know what I mean? It’s like the look of someone who just had a satisfying meal.
BB: Yeah. I keep thinking “not wanting.”
CS: Yeah. Yes. There’s a smugness to it, and it’s just sort of like, “Yeah, I got everything under control. I’m great over here.” And there’s really no space for, in my opinion—which is what the lawyers at Simon & Schuster tell me to say. In my opinion, there was no space for being honest about much. And that goes from how you’re actually feeling that day, which is, as a 22-year-old—now I’m fast-forwarding to when I started working there—as a 22-year-old, who’s never lived in California before, who’s away from everyone they know, who lives in this super white part of the country, and a very, very white company, I feel bad. I feel scared. I feel lost. I feel up a creek. But I am supposed to—I need the people who I work for and the people I work with to not feel those feelings. I need to not give them those feelings, so I’ve just got to look like I got it all together. And people have a hard time with that.
BB: Yeah. And I want to say that I’m in organizations doing work all over the world. This is not a Google problem. This is an organizational, cultural phenomenon across many companies. You write something in the introduction that says, “I was perceptive enough to recognize the premium placed on assimilation, but too naive to see that its returns were limited and presented risk to my mental health and self-esteem. So I flailed, awkwardly, trying to emulate whiteness.”
CS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
BB: I think that could be any organization anywhere, which is why so much that representation matters, and authenticity matters, and vulnerability, and the ability to be as a white woman raised in the “Hey, Chad, how are you?”—raised like that—I would still be scared if I were 22, away from everyone I loved, away from the protection of my family. But I just think that the power of this book is the interstitial weaving of your story with interviews of 15 Black leaders—every industry, every type of organization—talking about what you just walked us into, which is, let me define it, “Black Magic.”
BB: You write, “I believe that a Black experience—often traumatic and made more so by heinous historic and present-day crimes—provides a set of skills and tactics that can lead to victories in business, art, and science. If you can survive your Black experience, you’ve learned so much that’s useful that cannot be taught or bought. I call this Black Magic. This book introduces successful Black business people, artists, entertainers, scientists, and activists to explore this concept of Black Magic. They’ll share what they’ve learned and how they use it to advance in a complex and conniving system. They spoke to me so that others may learn from their paths, so that young Black people who feel stuck will look inward and find what they need to succeed, amass wealth, and inspire the next generation. If you can navigate Blackness, you can thrive in any high-stakes environment. If.”
CS: That’s right. That’s what I believe. And the “if” is important.
BB: The “if” is big.
CS: The “if” is—because it’s so bare and naked right now, the “if” is not guaranteed. The “if you can survive,” the survival of it all is not guaranteed. And the survival doesn’t just mean if you can stay alive. It means if you can keep your freaking head together. It means if you can keep trying. Because the world, it’s going to bludgeon you, it’s going to knock you around, it’s going to make you feel—if you’re like me, you’re going to walk into a company with a big dream. If your first job, your dreams are going to be so super-duper big. You’re going to be like, “I’m going to be the CEO of this company one day.” And if you are like me, you are going to one day see an organizational chart of that company. It’s going to have the board, it’s going to have the C-suite executives, it’s going to have some of the majority shareholders on it, and you’re going to look at those people and you’re going to see white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, chief human resources officer, white woman, and then white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy. To a company, with some variety distributed within.
CS: But every time I have a conversation with a company about this book or a conversation like this, I go—I look up the org chart for the company I’m about to talk to. I went and did it for Spotify, for this conversation, and what I see is an array of faces that do not look like mine, and that gives—the message is like, it’s so stark. It’s smacking you in the face that you are never going to be the boss here. You are never going to set the tone here. You’re playing the lottery, trying to escalate in this organization. You might get to this next level, or you might become a director, or you might become whatever, but at every stop, you’re going to have to shave off a little bit of yourself to reflect what your boss’s boss’s boss looks like.
CS: These are incredibly complex environments that we’re talking about, but there’s a very simple truth underneath most of them, which is that the operating system, the language that everyone is speaking, is determined by a group of white guys at the top. If you’re a Black person and you have even gotten into a seat at the bottom of that type of organization, you have done so navigating an already super-duper complex environment, whatever that might be. For me, that was the suburbs. It’s not like I was from some super hard, scary place, but it was scary. I did see somebody get stabbed to death outside of my high school who looked like me. I just had a friend get shot and killed in front of his house in D.C. three, four months ago. And I’m the kid who is supposed to be from the place that’s safe. So if you just get from wherever you came from as a Black person, whether it looked like my environment or otherwise, and you’re able to get in a seat at McKinsey, a seat at Cisco, a seat at an insurance company, an accounting firm, a legal firm, a sports team, whatever it is, you’re a fucking superhero, but you’re not going to be treated like one. You are going to be treated like someone who was given a favor until you prove yourself over and over and over again to belong there.
BB: Oh, man, let me go into one of these essays. I learned something from every one of these. Shelley Stewart, one of the folks you interviewed, said, “In many environments, there’s a scarce number of Black folks, which comes with its own set of challenges. But on the other hand, if I’m just honest, there’s also a soft bigotry of low expectations.” Oh, my God, just—Jesus. “Once you realize it, you can turn it to your advantage.” It seems to me, Chad, that what you went in and did is you talked to leaders, again, across all these different industries and said, basically the subtitle of your book, “What have you learned from your trauma? What have you learned? What has navigating Blackness taught you that gives us something that can almost resist defining?” It’s a spirit. It’s Black Magic. Let me quote my friend, Chad. “It’s Black Magic.” Your Google story, you assimilate, you conform, you stick to your 75% smile and your 90-degree handshake until it starts killing you. And you can’t do it anymore.
CS: Oh, yeah. One of my—my roommate, when I lived in Silicon Valley, man—all right, AJ, I love you, bro. I lived with my boy, who I went to Morehouse with. God, this feels uncomfortable to share, but I’m going to share it. I didn’t write it because it was so scary to share, and a lot of this shit is scary.
BB: Yeah, it’s hard.
CS: My friend, AJ, and—he’s a brother to me. We went to college together. We lived in the same dorm freshman year. I knew him all four years of college. We were in the same fraternity. This is my guy, this is my brother, and we were roommates in college. We decided to live together. This is so bad, man, this is a betrayal, but not sharing it, but—so we were living together and working at Google. We started around the same time. We both got the job, which was so cool. It was like, “Wow, we’re going to have each other.” And when I got there to Google, I just felt such intense pressure to become a part of the social cluster. There’s an in group and an out group at most companies. It’s like a high school cafeteria.
BB: God, I was just getting ready to say, “It’s a high school cafeteria.” Yeah.
CS: But the stakes are your job, your rent, your livelihood, so I’m staring at that. If it doesn’t work out for me here, I’ve got to move home. I’ve got to go live with my parents again. And for some people, it’s way worse than that. Anyway, I see that this is the setup. I see who’s getting promoted are the people who—it’s not the people who are producing the best work product or hitting their OKRs at the highest clip. It’s the people who go to the after-hours function. It’s the people who clink beers. It’s the people who kiss ass. It’s the people who get in with the bosses and also with their colleagues. Because just like a high school cafeteria table, if you want to be a leader, you’ve got to build some followers. And a lot of the cultural setting is steeped in whiteness. As I’ve said, it’s steeped in—for the entry-level people, it’s these parties and get-togethers and concert hangouts and festivals that I just don’t even understand. I’m not really a part of that world. It’s going to sit outside and watch the band Phoenix. It’s going to a beer garden, which is not a—we don’t go to beer gardens, you know what I mean?
CS: I started getting invited to these things, and I talk about this in another environment in the book, but many environments, you start to get the feeling that when you’re invited, it means you’re invited, which is to say, when Chad’s invited, it means Chad is invited. Don’t come here with two or three of your friends. Come here by yourself.
BB: Oh, my God, yes. Especially two of your friends that look like you.
CS: That’s what I’m talking about, yeah.
BB: Yeah. You’ve got a special invite here. Don’t show up with a whole crew.
CS: Yeah, exactly. In those words exactly, a fucking crew. “Don’t come here with your clique and your posse,” as Phil Jackson would put it.
BB: Yeah, that’s right.
CS: I’m perceptive. I could read the writing on the wall. I started to—this is my brother, AJ, Alexander Smith. I hope he’s listening. And his name is Alexander Smith. We used to call him AJ. He goes by Alexander now. I would be getting ready for the party. AJ would work longer hours than me because he worked in sales, and he was more dedicated than I was, to be honest. He would show up at the apartment as I’m getting ready to leave, and I would find ways to give Alexander the slip. I would find ways to maneuver around him to get out of the apartment and go to these places by myself, because I knew I was the only one allowed to be there. Or even if I didn’t know it, I felt it. I felt like that would be an advantage to me, to be the one. And it took me years—until recently, it took me years to realize I was contributing to the ousting and the marginalization of my own people by accepting that, by praying to that god, by letting somebody else tell me one at a time, for you all.
CS: I’d be like, “OK, great. Pick me.” And I think in the book you’ll find, oh, I’m just ashamed of that for years. To even speak it out loud is scary, but to write it down also was very scary. But I found in the book so many Black people who ascend have had that experience of feeling like, “Only you are allowed. Do not try to bring your friends here.” And I think the real superheroes—Jason Crane is an example as one of them, and LaFawn and Ed Bailey, who are in this book, they were the people who got these opportunities and they were like, “Nope, I’m going back. I’m going back to Morehouse. I’m going back to Howard. I’m going back to FAMU. I’m going to come back here with 10 other people that look like me, and we’re going to try to bust this door down.” I wasn’t brave enough for that as a 22-year-old. I was being a coward.
BB: Oh, man, I have to tell you that I don’t think telling the story right now is cowardly. I would challenge any single person listening to this right now to not find an experience in their lives where they did this. I did the same thing. I was often the first woman at the table. And I’ll be honest with you, because you’ve set a very vulnerable and courageous example here, some of the power I derived from being the only woman at the table when I was young, I thought that power was not only being at the table but shutting the door behind me, because I was too scared that—oh, man, I’m just going to say it out loud, Chad. “Don’t get uppity, Brené, and think that you have inviting powers.”
CS: Yeah, that’s it.
BB: Do you know what I mean?
CS: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: “You’re on thin ice right now.”
CS: Yeah. “You’re lucky to be here.”
BB: “You’re lucky to be here. And if you start doing that hand-back thing and bringing other women along, we’ll just crush all of you. We’ll find a woman who knows how lucky she is to be here, that just keeps her head down and her mouth shut and is grateful. Be grateful, be grateful, be grateful. Don’t ask for more. Don’t ask for more.”
CS: That’s right.
BB: And I think one of the things that’s really powerful to me about the way you write is, you said in the beginning—which I thought was really interesting and ironic—you said in the beginning, as a child, you didn’t have the vocabulary and access to language to explain—I’m paraphrasing here—to explain your internal landscape, what was happening emotionally. Like you said, there was no Brené Brown language back then. Now this whole book is about giving language and words to the internal landscape really of white supremacy in many ways, but I hope the people listening don’t believe that that’s the only lesson here, because every one of us understands what it’s like the moment you realize what you’re doing, and that you’re choosing other people and choosing to betray yourself in order to achieve something. And it’s so crazy to me that, in your story, the moment you were like, basically, “Fuck this. I am who I am,” you started thriving there, at Google.
CS: That’s right. I am blessed to have mentors who used to be superheroes to me. I have been blessed to work with some people who used to be mythological to me. And not to make you blush, but you’re one of them, and I want to share a story about that later. But Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, Mara Brock Akil, freaking Kevin Hart. And they have a bad rap, especially Spike Lee. I think that they have a real clear understanding of how lonely you can be, how profoundly lonely and broken you can be as a Black person if you close the door behind you, ever. It will destroy you. And I won’t name the people on the other side, but I see them, too. I know the people who, when I had no money, took advantage of me. I know the people who knew I was sleeping on a mattress and I didn’t have enough money to pay for health insurance, and they got me to write something for them and they told me how much they were going to pay, and I haven’t heard from them since. Those people pay for that behavior, and I was going to pay for that behavior if I kept on with that pattern of trying to be the one.
BB: Can we just stop for a second and talk about the complex nature of oppression that is designed to do exactly this? The oppression is so beautifully, sublimely orchestrated so it can say, “But look, Chad’s here,” and it forces you to turn on everybody. But then it can say, “But Chad’s here.” And it’s like it is a design of the system to let a few in, teach them that they must shut the door, and then destroy them in the process, and make them more dependent on that system. You know what I’m saying?
CS: Oh, yeah. It’s such fearmongering, to make those people derive all of their self-value from the label that they have that you have bestowed on them. I’ll use a corporate example to paint the picture. I used to wear my Google tag with my little name tag on it accidentally quote-unquote to the bars and stuff because I wanted people to see that that’s where I worked. I think corporations often bully their employees in this particular way that you’re describing, which is to make them feel like the most important thing they have going for themselves in their lives is their affiliation to that corporation, and that corporation’s ability to dangle another LinkedIn title in front of them if they just do X, Y, and Z, and then turn around and bully down the next group of people who are one level beneath them with the same ridiculous incentives. I think it’s pervasive.
BB: Academics is notoriously—oh, man, just—yeah, it’s hazing.
CS: It’s a frat hazing, that’s what I was going to say.
BB: It feels like a frat hazing. In these interviews that you’ve done—be a qualitative researcher with me.
BB: Step back and a thematic analysis of these 15 interviews—which the interviews are as compelling as your story that’s woven in between them.
CS: Thank you.
BB: Tell me, from a thematic analysis perspective, what changed after these interviews for you? What were the big learnings?
CS: OK. I am so glad you asked, Brené. I’m going to start with the top. I hate going in reverse order. Faith. These people in these interviews, these are intellectuals. These are well-read, well-studied, highly degreed. These are big leaders. These people are not talking about stuff they—they’re not saying, “I think. I think this, I think that, I think this.” I went back and reread the language. I have to reread the book a lot now, and it is teaching me. These people, at some point, stopped making decisions based on what they thought, and they started making decisions based on what they believed in their bodies, right?
CS: I don’t know if you saw how many people mentioned that said the actual words, “And then I could breathe.” They say, “I left this space and went to this space, and then I could breathe.” We’re talking about feelings, not thoughts anymore.
BB: Yes. And I wrote one of the biggest—because these are big people, intellectuals, like you said, academics. All Black, all navigating Blackness, and the word that I wrote in the margin when I was reading it to write the endorsement was “suffocation.” So the inverse of that is, “Then I believed this, no matter what I was thinking.” It’s so funny, because I tell people all the time, we so want to believe that we’re thinking beings who on occasion get irritated with emotion, but the truth is we are emotional beings who on occasion think. And that was clear here.
CS: Yes. It’s profound how many times people say—people point to the pivot moment in their careers as to when they stopped listening to what was in their head and just went with what they felt and what was intuitive and what they believed to be true. You interviewed Tim Ferriss recently, who is an inspiration for me, and he said something he tells himself is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And when I reread my book, that is the profound message here, which is racism is going to scare you. It’s going to scare you in your career, and it’s going to make you think that you can’t do certain shit that you need to get done. It’s OK to think that. You’re allowed. But you need to follow what you believe. What you believe is, I can be a partner at McKinsey because I have presence of mind, grit, empathy, savvy, all these 15 tactics that we describe in the book that are “Black Magic.” What I believe is, if 10 venture capital firms turn me down, the 11th one is going to give me the money. You’re allowed to think that it’s not going to happen. You’re allowed to think that you’re going to get crushed and your self-esteem and you’re not good enough in all these things, but you’re not allowed to believe it. That was one of the major takeaways for me.
CS: That’s faith, right? That’s when we start talking about, “Look, man, I’m allowed to think intellectually.” Personally, this is my own philosophy. “I’m allowed to think about, Is God real? Is it not? Is it just this? Is it just that?” Whatever. When people are on their deathbed, they say, “Oh, help me, God.” Many people do. That’s when you find out what somebody believes. When shit gets crazy, when I saw someone getting knifed up in front of my high school, I was praying to myself, regardless of what kind of things I thought intellectually. So, faith. There is so much to be said about isolation in this book and the recountments in this that come from these interview subjects. People talk about just being alone, being alone amongst white people, being alone among Black people, being alone in their heads, being alone in classrooms. Excuse me, I think being alone sucks. It’s weird, I’m an introvert, but I fucking love people. I’ve said the f-word so many times. I’m sorry, Mama. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to take showers because I didn’t want to be away from people that long, you know what I mean? That kind of thing.
CS: But I eventually came to learn to celebrate being alone. I think being alone is where you can hear your own voice. I think being alone is something that’s been taken away from us with technology. We don’t ever get the actual feeling of being totally alone the way that we need to be sometimes. And these people—Jewel is coming to mind. Jewel Burks, head of Google Startups U.S., she talks about being the Black girl who talks like a white girl in her middle school, and she just felt lonely. Couldn’t get along with the Black girls, couldn’t get along with the white girls, couldn’t get along with anybody else, but it helped her find her voice. It helped her realize at a really young age who she was. And she’s going to keep being alone at Google. She’s going to keep being alone in venture capital rooms. She’s going to keep being alone among investors, but she’s used to it. She’s comfortable with it. She knows how to find her gut. She knows how to find what she really truly believes in the midst of loneliness. So that’s the second one.
BB: Did you see how a lot of the Black Magic, the alchemy of that magic, was being forged in a space of solitude where you hear yourself over the noise of the world and the messaging of the world?
CS: Oh, yeah. My moment of coming to grips with Black Magic was—I had left Google. I had quit this tech startup that I went to work at after Google, and I had no job. And I was living alone, tiny little apartment. This is now my little sob story—sleeping on a mattress, canceled my Spotify, canceled my Netflix account. I was reducing, reducing, reducing, because I had no money. And I honestly had no path toward money at that point, or at least I didn’t think I had one. And I just, in that loneliness, in that silent, that quiet, no more colleagues, no one to call, everybody’s working during the day—it’s weird to be alone at home on a Wednesday at 2 p.m. It’s so freaking weird.
BB: It is.
CS: You lose your mental clock. You sleep at weird hours, whatever. And that is where inspiration found me. And it was a voice that I had dulled with corporations, social hierarchies, hanging out, drinking, chronic kicking it, whatever we want to call it. It was just a voice that I had dulled, dulled, dulled down so far, but it was the voice of me as a 3-year-old when I started writing, which was my voice. And it came back and it said, “Here’s a story, a story about a young Black tech entrepreneur who wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” which was like—that was my story at that point. And I wrote it, and this is to me a testament to how the universe starts to tilt around you when you do hear that voice. I wrote it. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for five years at that point. I’ve been living in New York for a decade. I had never met this person before.
CS: I started writing this thing. I’m sitting in front of a computer in Fort Greene, and I look up for a break, and 15 feet away Spike Lee is sitting there. Spike Lee, Morehouse man. Spike Lee, same college, legend of our people, right? And I walk over and introduce myself, and he’s as welcoming and warm as could possibly be, pulls out a chair, tells me to sit down, tell him what’s going on in my life. Two months later, he puts me on my first first-class flight to Hollywood, pitch all over town this show. I eventually sold it. This person just opened up a door to a new life for me, a new career, a new path, all these things, but it started because I was just completely and totally alone. It was silent. I was too proud to call my mom and my dad, and say, “I don’t have any money. I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m everything.” It was just me. But that’s what happens. That’s the magic part. I don’t have any words for it, really. It’s just like—it’s some weird shit.
BB: Talking about a shared favorite person that Tim Ferriss and I both love is Paulo Coelho, who wrote The Alchemist. Have you ever read it?
CS: The Alchemist. I have read it and it is my line name for my fraternity in college.
BB: He writes, “When you’re on the right path, the universe conspires to help you.” And I do think there’s magic in that, and I think—there a lot of takeaways for me as a leader, as an organizational leader, about what I need to do in our culture to make sure that, really, to be honest with you, that no one feels like that who’s coming in. And we have a very diverse group of people, but we still have just a shit ton of work that we can be doing to make ourselves better and more inclusive and foster more of a sense of belonging. So that was one takeaway. The other takeaway for me was really going back to the solitude—and the magic has a hard time getting to you when you’re betraying yourself every day to serve the people who have the influence and power. When you’re hustling for your worth, the magic is just not that interested in showing up.
CS: If it’s there, you don’t even recognize it. My partner, soon-to-be fiancée, if she’ll have me, she mentioned to me a theory recently that there are no geniuses. There are only people who are open to genius passing through them, and I really believe that.
CS: Yeah. But if you’re not looking, and if you’re not listening, and if you’re not available to it, the genius will just walk right past you to the next person. And I get a lot of inspiration as a writer from rappers. Rap is my favorite music genre. Hip-hop is what I love. Those are the people I wanted to be like growing up. And I don’t share all their politics but, God, if they can’t write their asses off. I probably do share a lot of their politics, though, if I’m being honest. Something I love about that particular genre of music is it is so viscerally authentic. It’s as if the wind is just passing through somebody and they’re the whistle. It’s just like, sit in front of this microphone. Let the God come down through your head and straight out your mouth.
BB: You’re the vessel.
CS: You are the vessel. And I think that’s what we, as Black people, have to do is to recognize these things that we’ve already been practicing for decades. Code-switching. You learn how to do that when you’re 6 years old as a Black person, and that’s a really effective tool, if you make it to be one.
BB: Well, it’s interesting because I’m writing a new book and doing new research right now, and I’ve been studying a lot about code-switching, and in some circles it’s called shifting, and the demand for it is a function of white supremacy. The skill set involved in it is very core to empathy. And the people who do it well have the ability to read emotion in others at a level that is almost like—it’s almost like a superpower.
CS: It is. Totally.
BB: The fact that you have to do it is wrong. The fact that you can do it is—it’s an amazing skill set. And the fact that if you don’t get it right, you could die is another function of, I think, white supremacy. But, boy, the skill set itself is—and it’s why—I say this a lot when I teach is. If you look at the four skill sets of empathy by Theresa Wiseman, the whiter, Christian, middle class you are, the less good you are a perspective-taking because it’s not required of you to stay psychologically or physically safe. Do you know what I’m saying?
CS: Oh, 100%. The operating system is whiteness. That’s it. And what you’re talking about, empathy and reading a room, reading an audience, reading a customer, is incredibly valuable to anybody who’s trying to build a business or a product. That is product development. It’s, Do I understand the person who I want to sell this thing to? Can I develop something that I can sell to them? And then can I get them to understand that who or what they can be once they have this thing that I’ve made for them? That’s it. That’s enterprise.
BB: That’s it.
CS: So if you have grown up doing that just to survive, you got it. And on the other side of that is, and why I call this stuff Black Magic, is people notice when you have—these are not soft skills. We have labeled them soft skills, but they’re hard.
BB: We’ve labeled them soft skills so that our inability to do them well is not focused upon, to be honest with you.
CS: Hell, yeah. There you go. Thank you. That’s just way more real than what I said. And I call them Black Magic also because we shun them. We call them names. We call people who have that sort of ability to read a room, we sometimes call them manipulative. We sometimes call them a snake, if they can see the playing field, if they know how to move the pieces on the board, but who wants to have to do all that shit? This is what we’re left with. This is what we got. Just to get through a day, we have to be able to do these things, so we should be able to use these things to our advantage and we should be proud of these skill sets. There’s something that can feel uncomfortable about code-switching in front of somebody. Walking from one room where you speak one way into another room where you speak another way, it’s embarrassing because you’re admitting that there’s a power dynamic here and you are placating somebody, but it’s real and it’s urgent sometimes.
BB: I would argue, too, to be honest with you, that I would argue the skill sets in terms of morality or ethics are neutral. The systems that demand them should be questioned, but the skill sets themselves are also the best skill sets of great leaders, of important faith people. If I couldn’t read a room, I wouldn’t have the career I have right now, because I talk about really hard things. If I use that skill to placate, I wouldn’t have a life right now. It’s about the intention with which you use the skill set. And to me, that was the heart of Black Magic—was there’s a level of lived experience knowing that really cannot be taught. So much power in it. It’s just beautiful. And I hope increasingly unnecessary, but powerful.
CS: It’s power should you choose to acknowledge it, should you choose to accept it. There are going to be people who look like me who say, “Get out of here with this.” That’s just a fact. Of course, there are going to be people who don’t look like me who say, “Get out of here with this.” But there are going to be people who look like me who say, “This is make-believe. This is Disney. This is rationalizing. This is you trying to find hope where there is none.” And I think they need to read the book more than anybody. I think they need to acknowledge their own strength more than anybody. I would be the last to ever say that this is quote-unquote an advantage. It certainly doesn’t tip the scales in our direction in any way, but I equate it to what I now do as a living that I tried to look away from for so many years, which is writing. I started doing that when I was 3 years old. I had 30 years of experience of it. I had 25 years of experience doing it before I decided that I would do it for a living. If you already have this stuff, why wouldn’t you just use it? If you already have these abilities, why pretend not to?
BB: All right, you ready for the rapid-fire questions?
CS: Yeah, let’s do it. Yes.
BB: Because so much of them came up—well, some of them are just fun, but some of them came up for me in the book. Ready?
BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is—
BB: What’s something that people often get wrong about you?
CS: That I’m mad at white people.
BB: What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable you should share it with us or so crappy that you should warn us against it?
CS: I got one that’s super crappy. A friend of mine told me five years ago probably to think about who I’m comparing myself to and aim higher. I thought that was terrible advice.
CS: I think that comparison is the enemy. I think it’s the absolute destroyer of creativity and honesty and joy.
BB: What is your best leadership quality?
BB: OK. I love this question. This is my favorite one. What’s the leadership lesson that you have to keep learning and unlearning and relearning because the universe just keeps putting it in front of you and will not stop until you get it?
CS: Be bolder. Be bolder. If you’re scared, keep going. Sit in the front of the roller coaster with your hands up and just be bolder. It’s good to be scared. Most things that are scary are not dangerous.
BB: Oh, my God, that’s my favorite line from my therapist. [Laughter] Really, it is. My therapist used to say all the time, “Just because it’s scary doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. There’s a difference.”
CS: The danger itself isn’t scary.
BB: Yeah. And I’ve never done anything that’s really been worthwhile in my whole life or career that I wasn’t scared shitless to do, so I love that.
CS: You can see it while you’re doing stuff, Brené. Honestly, we can see that you’re—it gives somebody an electricity when they’re doing something scary but they’re still doing it, and we can see it on you.
BB: I must be on fire because I am scared all the time. What’s one thing that you’re super excited about right now?
CS: My book coming out. It’s my first book.
BB: Yes! Talking about being bold and your first book is Black Magic, about trauma and learning, so I think you’re following your bold advice. What’s one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?
CS: My soulmate. I think I found my soulmate. And I used to be so lonely, Brené, so freaking lonely. And she’s here. She’s in the next room.
BB: Are you going to tell us her name, or should we not know her name?
CS: You can know her name. Her name is Juliana. She’s great. She’s right there. Can I tell you a quick thing about that?
CS: Woodstock is our place, our little couples place. On our first trip there two years ago, she put on this audiobook, and it was you, and I was not familiar. I want to say it was Daring Greatly. But you have such a canon that—please don’t hold me to that. I could be mixing it up. It was like crack for me. It was like, “This is—I’m touchy-feely corporate thing like this—this is exactly what I need to hear.” So we drive. We listen to it for an hour. We get to Woodstock. We have a beautiful, amazing first day of a trip ever. And we’ve been dating for a few months, but second date I was like, “I know, this is her. She’s here.”
BB: You knew.
CS: Yeah. And so then she falls—she goes to sleep 8 o’clock at night. She’s a super early riser, early to bed. And I turn on Netflix and obviously, because the computers can hear us, the first thing they throw in my face is your Netflix special. So I turn it on, and you tell the story about this kid who’s scared to tell his girlfriend he loves her, and then he tells her that he loves her, and she breaks up with him. But, again, God speaking through a person, the universe giving me the same bludgeoning lesson over and over, I was like, “Man, I need to be bold. I need to tell Juliana I love her. I need to do it.” And I was like, “And I can’t wait until tomorrow because I might get scared.” And I woke her up, and I told her. And she didn’t break up with me, and she loves me back. And now—
BB: Oh, this is the best story.
CS: And I didn’t think I was ever going to meet you, but then when I found out I was going to meet you, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to tell Brené.” So thank you for that.
BB: Oh, my God. You just made my year.
CS: Thank you. Just for you.
BB: OK. I’m not going to be able to function now, but that’s such a beautiful story. It sounds like you’ve got the “be bold” under control right now. You have stepped into your boldness.
CS: I’m working on it, but all of this stuff is scary, but it’s OK.
BB: We can be scared and brave at the same time, thank God. All right, last one. You gave us five songs you couldn’t live without: “Baby I’m a Star” by Prince; “Runaway” by Kanye West; “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer; “Day ‘n’ Nite (Nightmare)” by Kid Cudi; “Zorro’s Theme” from James Horner. This is where you have to reach deep into Chad the writer. One sentence, what does this mini-mixtape say about you?
CS: My life is an adventure, and I need to embrace my role as the adventurer.
BB: That is beautiful.
CS: Thank you.
BB: “My life is an adventure, and I have to embrace my role as an adventurer.” Chad, thank you for Black Magic. It’s an incredible book, and it’s been such a joy and a pleasure to talk to you about it. And thank you for being on Dare to Lead.
CS: Thank you, Brené. You have been such a champion, and I really appreciate you. Thank you.
BB: There was something very compelling about the way Chad set up his book—I can’t wait for you all to read it—just how he wove his own story, along with his incredible storytelling, in with these interviews about what he learned from different people he met at different points in his life. I just love the book, read it from cover to cover in one sitting, and then have gone back and reread several of the essays, and again having it as an organizational-wide read for our team, just because there’s so much, per usual, to learn and unlearn. Just incredible. You can find Chad online on Twitter at @Chad_Sand and on Instagram at @chadsand. You can get his book, Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph, anywhere books are sold. And again, really appreciated his honesty, his vulnerability, and the courage that he shared with us.
BB: Just some church bulletin items. Last week on Unlocking Us, I talked with Emmanuel Acho, the creator, host, and producer of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, which is an incredible web series about racism and anti-racism work, and now a book. Both Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us are now exclusively on Spotify, so thank you for joining us here on Spotify. You can check out the hub where we’ve got all the mini-mixtapes, we’ve got the podcast, and I’m going to start doing some Spotify mixes of songs that I love, and songs that I write to, and songs that inspire me. So I think it’s all things Spotify, all the time. Grateful for your time. Grateful for your listening. Stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: Dare to Lead is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music is by the Suffers. The song, “Take Me to the Good Times.”
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