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The Need for Courage

Stories are great ways to teach lessons. A good story is more interesting than being talked at through bullet points, is easy to remember, and has a setup, a culmination, and a take away. And really good stories are passed along so others can learn from the situation without first hand knowledge.

Peter Bergman told a great story today in the Harvard Review about his experience ordering an open faced sandwich.

It is simple, about an everyday mix-up between himself, a waiter, and a cook. Peter wants open-faced lox to share with a friend, but the chef can’t seem to get it right. The waiter knows what he wants, but still the issue persists. Clearly there’s a communication problem. Peter questions the waiter, finds the problem, and it isn’t just communication. The waiter lacks the courage to confront the chef on the patron’s behalf. The result: an unsatisfied customer.

Courage is interesting and important emotion.

Courage is something that never comes easily. It isn’t quite bravery—assuming a self-assured mask while doing something that is dangerous. It isn’t confidence, knowing that you are equipped to turn an uncertain situation into a good one.

No, courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one.” It means that you know how scared you are, and face down the emotion. It is going forward despite butterflies and a physical gut-twisting that makes you squeamish just to think about. It is strength of character.

Courage isn’t necessarily on a grand scale. It is most frequently in the small battles. It is making a presentation to an audience of your colleagues when you are terrified of public speeches. It is sitting on an airplane when you’re petrified of flying. It is taking the irrevocable first step down the path that you hope will change your life, but not knowing that it will work out. Courage is a differentiator.

Everybody wants to think they are courageous, because the assumption is the alternative is being a coward. But the reality is that courage is rare, and the alternative is just playing it safe. How often do most people do what they fear? Not often. Doing what other people find terrifying doesn’t require courage. Superman wasn’t courageous when stopped a plane crash. He couldn’t get hurt and had nothing to fear. No, courage is an entirely internal battle. It is deliberately choosing to face your own fear and most people rarely do that.

Any one has the capacity for courage, but presented with a choice between doing what is comfortable and what is frightening, most people choose what is comfortable almost every time. It’s self-preservation, completely rational and understandable. That is why courage is rare. It is a risk.

It takes courage to change. Altering your life, pursuing what you want and risking what you know can be terrifying. It takes facing down your fears and deliberately choosing the gut wrenching option. But those are the decisions that define you.

Look at your life. What were the life changing decisions? In how many of those did you make the safe choice? The things that define us, that differentiate us from the crowd, are the choices when we took the road less traveled. We put ourselves out there. We chose the gut twisting and faced down the fear for what we wanted. We had courage.

Think about the gutsiest person you know. The ones who seemingly choose the gut-twisting option all the time. Are they more courageous than you? No. They got used to doing what frightens them. They have faced down fear so many times that it is no longer a battle. They don’t need courage in their daily life.

Summoning courage is like lifting weight. Taking on the little battles that make you nervous or uncomfortable will prepare you for the battles that leave you speechless in terror, just as starting with lighter weights will let you build to heavier weights. You will become accustomed to the anxiety and twisting, and become confident in more and more situations.

Peter Bergman’s story is a great illustration of the constant opportunities to practice courage and gain confidence. Work your way through circumstances where you’re awkward, uncomfortable, or scared until you are confident in almost everything you do. Get used to the feeling. Then you will be ready when there is an opportunity to improve yourself, to redefine yourself. You will have faced the gut-twisting so many times that you won’t even need to see this as a risk. It will just be a chance to practice summoning courage in an even harder situation, which prepares you to face even scary things.

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