Building Courage

I got a question recently around courage. First, I want you to let that word sit with you a minute. Courage. What does that word mean to you? What feeling does it conjure inside of you? What do you picture? To be completely honestly I typically get the image of the muscle bound movie characters that seems to know everything, be everything, run into battle or a burning building without batting an eye. Is that what you think of too? Someone who looks like they could handle it all? Someone who exudes confidence and charisma? Someone who laughs in the face of danger? What feeling does that bring out for you? In an instant do you feel like, That’s me! I jump into all things new and scary. Let.me.at.em. OK many of us not, right? For me, it typically brings out a mixture of stress and admiration. It’s a combination of Look at them! They could just walk through fire! I wish I could do that. Oh my…. I hope no one expects me to do that… Does that sound familiar to you too?

As I wrestled with the concept of courage more, I tried to take it down to a more basic level. I mean, does it have to be walking into a burning building? Risking your life to save another? Quitting your job to pursue your passion? I know I’ve seen people look incredibly courageous by allowing their kid to climb a tree that is causing them anxiety. I’ve seen people display courage by walking into a meeting prepared to share their knowledge in the presentation. I’ve seen people show courage by having a difficult conversation with someone close to them. Despite what we all might come up with for what courage means the true definition of courage is actually pretty simple; the ability to act in the face of fear. That is all it is, action. Not action with a smile on your face. Not perfect action with no mistakes. Not even overcoming the fear to act. Just doing the thing (doing anything really) regardless of how you’re feeling.

This was a huge act of courage for me. Allowing my kids to be on the ice when I am terrified of people falling through. Trust me, it did not look courageous.

OK fine. I can do that. I can be courageous by just acting but I want to step that up. I don’t want to be trembling with fear as I take the first step. I want to feel courageous too. I want to fit the image in my head of what a person with courage looks like, and they don’t look like the guy nervously twiddling his fingers while he stutters through his presentation. What if I’m not built to be courageous? Well lucky for you, that is not a thing. Courage is another in a long line of buildable muscles like adaptability and mindset. All you need to do is treat it like a muscle. How do you build a muscle? By working it, you give it reps to the point of fatigue and occasionally test your limits.

First, do the thing that scares you. That doesn’t have to be anything huge it can be taking on small opportunities to trying something new that is outside your comfort zone. Remember, we’re doing reps here so manageable amounts on a consistent basis. Maybe for you it looks like raising your hand to add your thoughts in a class or meeting. Maybe it looks like letting your kids do the thing that they might get hurt while doing. Maybe it is making the call to set up the coffee date that turns into a mentorship. Maybe its going swimsuit shopping in the store with the fluorescent lights and the three way mirror. Whatever it looks like for you, make sure it isn’t a one and done. The point is to continue to consistently act in the face of fear. Even if it isn’t pretty at first or you get shot down or the fear materializes and you really do see yourself from the worst angle on the fattest day, just act and keep up the reps.

My middle little guy being (and looking) incredibly courageous as he climbed to the tallest point in Wisconsin with a terrible fear of heights.

Then, reflect on what took courage. Sometimes it is difficult to see our own courage in the moment. We are either just getting the work done and not thinking about how much we’re stretching, or we’re so scared that to equate that moment to courage sounds ridiculous. Remember though, you acted. When I, and others that I’ve discussed it with, do this I find a curve. It starts with a huge volume of courageous moments. Some planned, and some not. Some wins, and some not. Some I’d like to do over to either improve on or experience again, and some definitely not. After a while though the frequency starts to decrease. Do you know why? Because some of the things that seemed so scary before that I was practicing on were no longer scary and didn’t actually require as much, or any, courage.

Keep in mind that while you might not envision yourself as the muscle bound movie star running toward the challenge and exuding the courageous character and charisma all the way, that doesn’t mean you don’t look that way to someone else. Seeing your action in the face of fear, seeing you build that muscle up, is inspiring to other people who are wanting to do the same thing. Be an encouragement to them. You’re not just acting in the face of fear for you, you’re doing it for all of the people who are watching from the side lines and from their own place in the race. Be a help to them and know that even if you don’t see them, they do see you.

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