I used to modify the serenity prayer to swap the word strength for courage because I rarely found myself lacking the courage to change the things that I can. (The serenity prayer starts: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.) In fact, I spend my time changing things that seem to need to be changed. I did, however, frequently find myself exhausted by the process. So reading a book on courage was a bit weird. I found that many of the things in the book weren’t new – but they were refreshing to read. Find Your Courage was a journey in what courage is – and how to be more courageous.
Courage in the Moment, In Relationship, and With Yourself
Sometimes when folks think about courage they think about charging into a burning building to save a baby from a fire. However, how many of us are going to be confronted with that situation? Hopefully there won’t be that many of us. However, we’re faced with dozens of opportunities each day to be courageous. Being courageous is about the moment-to-moment decisions we make to be honest, to be vulnerable, and to be our real selves. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more about vulnerability requiring courage.) Courage is about telling folks how you feel even when it will be unpopular. Courage is about being real.
Another way to say this is that courage is living wholeheartedly. It’s about taking action even in the presence of fear. Everyone has fear. It’s not that courageous people have no fear it’s that they don’t allow fear to get in the way of them doing the things that need to be done. It’s about living a life that’s aligned with your core beliefs.
Courageous people have grit and perseverance. When a horse throws them off they get up and get back on – not because they didn’t feel the fall – but because riding the horse is what needs to happen – for them and the horse.
I posted separately my thoughts about How to Be Yourself. It’s a guide to the first part of being courageous – knowing who you are and living who you are. While this is a great start for some of what Find your Courage shares, it’s not the complete story.
The Meaning (Fear Of) Failure
So what does failing mean to you? Is failure OK – or is it a death sentence? Do you believe that you will become a failure – in your own eyes or in someone else’s – if you fail? Does failure threaten your value as a person? Does failure threaten your ability to survive? What if failure was no big deal? What if failure was just like walking up to a bowling alley and not getting a strike? Few people would blink if they didn’t get a strike on every frame in bowling but if your bar is set on a perfect 300 then anything less is a failure.
Sometimes failure is about the bar you set – the standard – and sometimes it’s about the persistence, just continuing to try until you succeed. If you look back at any successful person, you’ll probably find that they’ve failed more than others. They’ve failed to meet their own expectations – and the expectations of others. If you want to soar, you have to be willing to fall out of a few trees.
In Schools without Failure Glasser writes that he believes that we shouldn’t be inflicting the label of failure on our students that we should be creating ways for them to be successful. This isn’t failure-less schools in the sense that everyone gets a participation award but rather it’s about helping students accept failure. It’s trying to protect Creative Confidence and ensure that we don’t become debilitated by our fears.
Setting High Standards
Those who are courageous dream big. They dream about dreams that put a ding in the universe (aka Steve Jobs). Having high standards means that you’ll fail more often than you succeed. Steve Jobs – for instance, failed with the NEXT computer – at least commercially. However, that didn’t stop him. He went back to Apple and returned the company to a position of respect in the computer community. His high standards – and awareness of user experience – fueled his failures but also created some enormous successes.
The higher your standards the more frequently you’re going to miss the mark. The more perseverance you’ll need to develop. How Children Succeed calls this perseverance grit. Emotional Intelligence calls it persistence and unflappability.
How many times do you have to fail before you succeed? Embedded into this question is hope and determination. Failure is simply the path to success. It’s never the destination and rarely a stopping point. As the saying goes “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When Thomas Edison – the Wizard of Menlo Park – set out to create an electric light most people thought he was crazy. He knew it was possible but didn’t know how to do it.
For Edison it was failure after failure after failure. He’s often quoted as having failed at creating a light bulb over 1,000 times. We all know that he ultimately succeeded. However, most people don’t know that he was learning something with each failure. He was consulting with top experts in related fields. He himself learned a great deal about how gas lights worked. He knew that if he would keep at it, he would ultimately get what he wanted.
While most folks remember the Wizard of Menlo Park they don’t realize that not everything that he invented was a commercial success. He did in fact have commercial failures as well. He created the invention but wasn’t able to sell enough of them. He didn’t stop inventing because he couldn’t sell his first invention – an electric vote recorder.
Perhaps perseverance is fine for Thomas Edison but what about for you and me? We tend to hear and believe in overnight success stories. We think that Starbucks and Wal-Mart and Chick-Fil-A burst on the scene in a moment. They didn’t have their setbacks, failures, and obscurities. However, the actual results are very different than what we believe.
Starbucks was a maker of coffee equipment until Schultz took the helm and started selling coffee directly. Wal-Mart was Sam Walton’s five and dime in rural Arkansas until the momentum eventually kicked in and elevated them to national status. Chick-Fil-A was the outcome of the Dwarf Grill restaurant run by S. Truett Cathy until it started rapid expansion. Dwarf House was started in 1946.
But those are organizations that have been successful, what about people? As Malcom Gladwell cataloged in Outliers, there are many people who became successful only after they had put in their time with 10,000 hours of practice. (Based on research by Anders Ericsson.) Howard Gartner studied extraordinary people for his book Extraordinary Minds. He found that they reframed failure as a way to learn.
If you want to consider what it means to be responsive to the world that surrounds you perhaps you should watch the infamous last lecture series presentation by Randy Pausch titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” You see Carnegie Mellon University had a lecture series that was intended to be what professors wanted to leave to the world – their last lecture. However, Randy, a month before presenting his lecture was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer – so this was quite literally his last lecture. Though they changed the name of the lecture series, the lecture he gave was spot on and became an Internet sensation. Early on in the presentation he comments about how he cannot change his cancer, he can – however, choose his response to it. He’s careful to point out that he’s not in denial – he’s clear that he’s got a terminal illness and he knows what that means. (Check out my review of On Death and Dying for the stages of grief someone goes through related to death.) The message – so poignantly delivered – is that whatever life deals to us we can’t change. We can only change how we respond to it. Whether we decide to choose positive and life-giving responses (even if you’re dying) or whether you choose responses that subtract and take away from what you have and what is remaining.
Normally we’re not confronted with situations where we must face our own mortality. However, even in these cases, we must choose how we’re going to respond. (Remember that choosing not to respond is itself a response.)
Journey not destination
When will you know that you’re truly courageous? Well in truth you’ll never know that completely. Even though I feel like I live most of my life in a way that others would describe as courageous, I know there are times when I cannot muster the courage to admit a fault, or to apologize to someone that I’ve wronged. So I’ve come to realize for me, in my life, that being courageous isn’t a destination. It’s not some place that I arrive at. It is instead a journey that I’m on to become more courageous each day. I’m learning how to be courageous in times that I would normally not be courageous. Even though I opened with the idea that I’m normally courageous I have to acknowledge that there are times when I’m not courageous at all. I’m far from it.
You see, courage is an active verb. Courage is mostly about the doing. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t the point. Even when being courageous is letting things happen to you – courage is about making the conscious decision to live out your beliefs – to be the person that you’ve decided that you want to be.
Predicting the Future
Crystal balls aren’t clear. Tarot cards have never spoken to me. I’m not even sure how people would read tea leaves – and all I see on my palms are wrinkles. In short the ways that the world believes that you can predict the future don’t work for me. However, there is one way that does work. That is that you can most accurately predict the future when you’re the one who is making the future. When you create the future you’ve in essence already predicted it. You’ve already had the vision – no matter how cloudy – in your mind’s eye before it becomes reality.
We all want to predict the future. There’s a certain fear about the future. Will I be happy? Will I continue to make enough money for the family to live – and enjoy themselves? Will I continue to love my spouse? Will my children be successful? There are so many future worries. There is so much potential for anxiety. So how does one calm their fears about the future? The answer is that they create it. They seize the day. They prepare for tomorrow. The courage here is that once you decide that you’re going to predict – and make the future – you become responsible for it. You’re responsible for your own destiny. There’s no mythical god to praise or blame. There’s no point in blaming circumstances. You’re predicting the future because you’re making it.
Hallmarks of Openhearted People
Find Your Courage speaks of the hallmarks of openhearted people as:
- Candor. They can share their successes and failures, their joy and heartache, and their temptations and weaknesses openly.
- Honesty. They have integrity in who they are and in how they live their lives. They are sincere in what they say.
- Generosity. They are wonderful givers.
- Affection. They are able to express their love freely.
- Depth. They think and feel deeply because they do not repress their emotions.
- Joy. They have a huge capacity for joy and, therefore, can sometimes be childlike (as distinct from childish), because they show so much delight in so many things.
- Gratitude. Openhearted people embrace an abiding sense of gratitude.
- Courage. This goes without saying. Courage comes from the same place as love—from the heart.
To be courageous you have to express your whole self. However, what if your “whole self” is angry? What if your sense of self is angry? In short, so what? While anger is generally not socially acceptable, it is a valid and important emotion. Anger can be the catalyst to get things done. Johnathan Haidt’s model of the Rider-Elephant-Path from The Happiness Hypothesis is perhaps the most potent example of this. If you want to get something done, talk to the elephant. It’s the elephant that will get things done.
Expressing anger in a constructive rather than a destructive way leads us to the thoughts of the Dali Lama and Paul Ekman in their conversations recorded in Emotional Awareness. Buddhists, they explain, see emotions as afflictive and non-afflictive. In western cultures this is most frequently described as destructive and non-destructive emotions. The challenge is that the view of what is afflictive and non-afflictive is situationally contingent. That is if the emotion is appropriate to the conditions and realistic. Anger isn’t itself afflictive. Anger is only afflictive (destructive) when it is out of proportion.
We’ve learned that people don’t like receiving our anger. We’ve learned that we should suppress or hide it. However, there are some kinds of anger such as the anger one feels when others are harmed that can be appropriate.
Learning to push past the expectation that anger is bad to a point of acceptance that it can be good – and can be good to express – is itself an act of courage.
Humility and Courage
My favorite definition of humility comes from Humilitas. It says that humility is “power held in service to others.” That is that whatever power I have – whether internal or external, directly or through influence – should serve others. This contrasts with the typical Western cultural view that humility is a lack of self-confidence.
A common criticism of those who are living courageously is that they’re arrogant. That is that they don’t consider or care for other people or perhaps they believe too strongly in their own righteousness. However, this is often misguided. Often courageous people are willing to speak passionately about their beliefs – not out of lack of respect for others but for respect for themselves. The line between self-confidence (courage) and arrogance is razor thin – and measured in the eye of the beholder.
In Emotional Awareness the Dali Lama addresses humility and courage by saying that it’s wisdom that reconciles the two. That is that wisdom helps you to know how to speak your truth and when to allow others to believe their truth.
Lost Without a Dream
What are your great life dreams? What are the dreams that you gave up so long ago that you barely remember you had them? Did you want to be a ballerina or an astronaut? Did you want to be a rock star or a captain of industry? Where did these dreams go?
The dreams we dream at night might be passing fancies or distorted of the echoes of the day we had. However, the dreams of our heart should be protected. Dreams are goals, places that we want to end up in our lives. Ideally these dreams are the landmark at the end of the road. They’re a place for us to head to.
Without a land mark to head to – a vision of what we want – how possible is it to get where we want to go? “If you don’t know where you want to go any road will take you there” said the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.
Dreams can pull us into being courageous when we might not otherwise be. They can fuel our growth and continued progress. Dreams are achievable. We must convince ourselves of this fact. We must find a way to break the dream down into meaningful steps. As Extreme Productivity pointed out we may not be able to directly plan our path forward, we do know how to take steps that move us towards our dreams – or that make us more prepared for them to happen.
Being Better One Day at a Time
I’ve spoken about what Maxwell calls the Power of Mo’ – Momentum that is. It’s what happens when you build into a system just a little more over and over and over again. Albert Einstein said that “Compound interest is the eighth natural wonder of the world and the most powerful thing I have ever encountered.” That’s momentum when building bit-by-bit on top of the existing money created powerful results. Wayne Dyer said “True nobility isn’t about being better than anybody else, but about being better than you used to be.” We can leverage the power of momentum in our lives by striving each day to be just a little better than we were the day before.
The amazing thing about a one-day-at-a-time approach is that it works for addicts and non-addicts. By worrying about today you create a small measurable and immediate goal that you can use to guide your life. By looking out at the destination of the person that you want to be, you’ll not have specific actions that you can take today. You’ll never begin the journey because the steps will be too large.
Courageously you can step out in faith that if you work to be just a bit better today and a bit better the next day that you’ll eventually get there. You’ll never get there if you don’t start but all too often we fail to start because we’re scared of the effort necessary in the journey to reach the destination. Learning to step out in faith – to take a small step is at the heart of being courageous and living whole heartedly. It’s the path to keeping ourselves out of the trap of depression and suffering.
Depression and Suffering
For me it’s an amazing thing. We believe that others have perfect families. They have everything together. They never have struggles. At least that is how it seems until you get close. When you get close you realize that every family has its struggles. However, there are other families that seem stuck in their struggles. There are others who seem to be moving from one struggle to the next. When you look deeper here you see that they’re not moving from one struggle to another, they’re staying in the same struggle. They’re reliving the same pain over and over again.
So everyone – whether having the appearance of being perfect or having the appearance of having nothing together – has the same struggles. They have pains inflicted upon them by their past, their present, or the threat of their future. There is no escaping pain and yet some are able to escape suffering. How is that? How Children Succeed talks about secure detachment and limiting the number of adverse childhood events (ACE). There are discussions of delayed gratification and its power to help people power through the challenges of the present and look for a better future.
More fundamentally though, those who are suffering are choosing to remain in the pain. They’re choosing to be depressed. As Glasser writes in Choice Theory – they’re choosing to depress. If you confront someone who is suffering and you tell them that they’re choosing to stay where they are you’re not likely to get a good reaction. They want to believe that their condition has been inflicted upon them. They don’t want to take responsibility for their condition. It’s easier to be a victim than to work your way out of the darkness and into the light. (Victimhood is a theme in Choice Theory but I’ve also discussed it in my review of Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die.)
Victimhood is fundamentally opposed to courage. Courage is perpetually preventing yourself from taking up residence in victimhood. Courage is accepting responsibility for how you’re going to live – and making your life better one day at a time.
Courage to Read
The journey of a thousand steps begins with but one. Are you ready to start your journey by reading Find Your Courage?