Everything You Learned About Courage Is Wrong
Some say you’re either born with it or you’re not. Guru’s like to speak of courage like it’s a thing they can teach you or give you.
Courage is not a device or magical power implanted in lucky individuals at birth. It’s nothing more than an invented word we use to describe when someone acts in spite of fear.
All of us have this ability.
One factor determines whether you spring you into action in the face of fear. You can boil it down to an equation and a set of questions.
What are your go-to fears?
Fear can be real, exaggerated, or imagined. In the modern world, in a civilized society, most of our worries are imagined or exaggerated.
These fears have the most significant impact on us in today’s world.
Fear of embarrassment or shame
Fear of poverty
Fear of social stigma
Fear of rejection
Fear of loneliness
To a lesser degree, we face the primal fear of bodily harm.
Why do petty things scare us?
I published my first blog post almost three years ago. It terrified me, but I accessed my reservoir of courage and did it.
It’s no longer an act of bravery because I’m no longer afraid. Sometimes I feel a nervous tingle, but only if I push the envelope.
Down the rabbit hole
Is that old adage true? The more you do something you fear, the less fearful you become. There’s some truth to that.
Here’s what happens.
The fear could be anything but let’s use writing as an example. Let’s suppose you’re afraid of publishing or submitting your work. Most of your fears are exaggerated or unrealistic. We define what failure means and then extrapolate a worst case scenario that bears no realistic possibility of occurring.
If I publish this, people will read it and call me out on my stupidity.
— I’ll become the laughing stock of social media.
— My boss will find out.
— They’ll fire me.
— I won’t be able to find another job.
— I’ll go broke.
— I’ll have to move back to my parents’ basement.
— Nobody will ever love me again.
Our irrational fears always end with a descent into poverty, public ridicule, loneliness or living in a family member’s basement.
The first experience matters
Back in the ’90s, I was a single twenty-something. We went on dates back then, but you had to work for them and risk rejection. Yeah, we went on blind dates but the rejection could be worse in that scenario (story for another day).
In the pre-internet dating era, you would typically meet someone, strike up a conversation, ask for their number, and then call to ask for a date. The woman would say yes, no or clothe their no in an excuse (just got back with my boyfriend yesterday). Some of my friends grew numb to the occasional rejection, but the mere possibility terrified me.
The first time I asked for a woman’s phone number she gave it to me and asked me to pass it on to my friend who was watching us from the other end of the bar.
My confidence evaporated
I relied on setups or the “friend first, date later” routine. I couldn’t muster the courage to put myself out there again. If my first attempt had been successful, would there have been a second? Would it have been easier for me each successive time?
It’s impossible to answer all those what if’s, but that first rejection made it difficult for me to try again. Back then, I lacked the tools to retrain my delicate ego.
Writing followed a different path
I blogged for sixty days on Google docs before I’d let a soul see my work. I finally punched through and published my first story. I suffered through a sleepless night obsessing over various fears.
“What if people hate it?”
“What if nobody reads it?”
“What if they like it?”
“What if I offend someone?”
“What if I missed a typo?”
“What if it goes viral? How will I deal with being a celebrity?”
I looked at my stats the next morning. There were zero views and zero reads. One of my fears had manifested, but life was still the same. The earth’s rotation hadn’t changed. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. I published my second story that evening. It was a tiny bit easier.
Time progressed. My stories accumulated. The fear lessened. I grew comfortable, but my writing grew stale — at least it felt stale to me. For those first six months, I wrote about marketing and copywriting. I was well versed in these subjects, but it bored me.
Then I started to write about me. These weren’t deeply personal stories, just little snippets about my day. It scared me at first, but I adjusted. Eventually, this became routine too.
As time went on, my stories incorporated more personal details: fears, dreams, hopes, life lessons. There’s always a little flutter in your stomach when you share something personal. You grow accustomed to the fear, but you never eliminate it.
Does that sound depressing? It’s not. Two mentors gave me two different pieces of advice that redefined my outlook on fear. It made it easier to accesscourage in the face of a terrifying decision.
“It doesn’t matter if people love, trash or ignore your work. People forget. They move on with their lives. You’re not as important as you think you are.”
It’s okay to fail. People will forget your less-than-stellar work. Unless you strike gold, they’ll forget your best work too.
This next lesson has pushed me across the finish line dozens of times.
“If that little voice in your head asks should I or shouldn’t I, then you most definitely should.”
Growth comes from taking chances, experimenting and accessing that little bit of courage to act in the face of fear.
A technique to access your courage
Like the lion in the Wizard of Oz, you already have courage. You don’t need to find it; you only need to access it. It feels daunting; my early dating life made that clear to me. Sometimes you need to trick yourself into accessing your bravery.
Why do we freeze when faced with scary situations? This equation answers that question.
If the pain of taking action > the pain of inaction, then you will NOT act.
If the pain of inaction > the pain of action, then you WILL act.
We always act in a way that causes the least amount of pain. You need to trick yourself into thinking that inaction will cause you more pain. These questions can help swing the balance.
Assume I fail to act.
- How will I feel if I wimp out and don’t do this?
- How will I think of myself when I look back at this moment five years from now?
Assume I do act.
- How will I feel about myself?
- What kind of stories can I tell about this moment?
- How might it set me up for other successes?
Courage is not a thing you have or don’t have. It’s a state of mind you create to act when fear strangles you.