A Realistic Guide to Building Courage in Life

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them – Thoreau Walden 

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear – Mark Twain

Courage. Just how do we muster it?

I’m not referring to ‘obvious’ courage: public speaking and sky diving and whatever. Actually, these things are baby courage. 

Nah, I’m talking about deep courage; the kind that relates to our capacity for self-examination and our ability to live according to our values. The kind of courage that makes us our own biggest cheerleader, most compassionate critic, and bestest friend. 

So what do we need that for?

How about creating a life and business around your passion? How about going deeper into intimacy and connection in relationships? How about just putting yourself out there for rejection – creatively, romantically.

These things be hella scary! They are uncomfortable, challenging, terrifying – and just hard.

We need courage to become more of ourselves in life. It's scary being yourself Click To Tweet

We’re courageous when we are committed to doing these things, and to a crazy, fear-filled life in general – because we know that’s what it takes to create amazing things and attract amazing people, experiences and opportunities.

Examples of important things we need courage for:

  • speaking up (asserting boundaries).
  • standing for our values.
  • saying ‘no’ to unreasonable demands.
  • admitting to mistakes.
  • dealing with divorce and other relationship breakdowns.
  • moving to a new location.
  • going for job interviews.
  • working on and towards our visions, in an unsupportive environment.

When we lack courage, we are inclined to:

  • lie to ourselves and others in order to avoid responsibility for our decisions. 
  • not honor who we are and what we value.
  • be addicted to things (food, drugs, alcohol, people) as they are a way of escaping unsolved problems. 
  • keep ourselves busy instead of seeking to understand and deal with a permanent crappy mood. 

What happens when we develop courage:

  • we don’t run.
  • we don’t seek escapism. 
  • we stop lying to ourselves and start relating to ourselves truthfully and with awareness. 
  • we get willing to make difficult decisions and face outcomes. We move forward in the face of anguish. 

Courage is what fuels all the other virtues: cool stuff like passion, humility, honorability, integrity, truth, confidence, strength and compassion. In fact, Winston Churchill described courage as the first human quality because it’s the one that guarantees all the others. 

We need courage before we can be passionate, truthful, and confident. It's the enabler of other virtues Click To Tweet

So how do we cultivate courage?

4 Steps to Cultivating Courage 

This isn’t an exhaustive list. But here are the main things. 

1. Get clear on what scares you 

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Yup: I’m gonna talk to you about the importance of self-awareness again. 

As much of our courage grows from living authentically, we need to be honest about what it is that we are scared to do and be. And then we need to face that – because as some famous psychologist once said, the only way out is through.

I used to be scared of:

  • being honest with people about how I feel (good and bad).
  • travelling alone.
  • scenarios where my weaknesses could be exposed.
  • looking stupid or incompetent.

The things still scare me. But I ensure I do them regularly, for that exact reason. And I am working on adding some things to that list.

We gotta know what scares us. Then we actually have to do those things Click To Tweet

Becoming aware of what scares you (you know when you get the urge to do something, and you immediately don’t want to do it) and then practicing leaning into those fears is the start of living courageously.

Whilst you are being honest with yourself, be honest about the costs of staying stuck and scared, too. The very act of acknowledging how unhappy and frustrated we are is a courage all of its own.

2. ‘Brave by doing brave acts’

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This is most important.

Aristotle said “Excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

Courage is a muscle. Think about it: you wouldn’t go on a week long silent meditation having never spent longer than half a day in solitude. You need to work up to that shit. 

Courage is a muscle. It builds with practice Click To Tweet

Big challenges produce corresponding levels of courage; small ones maintain. 

The specific exercises you should take are in part dictated by what scares you (point 1). Here are some ideas to get you thinking.  

  • If planning makes you nervous, plan something in advance and stick with it. If spontaneity makes you scared, do something spontaneous.
  • Quit your job if you can’t stand it. Do something else for a while until you are clear on how you want to spend your precious commodity (your time). 
  • Instead of complaining about something, ask for what you want.
  • Take a holiday with your parents.
  • Start a blog.
  • Make a financial investment.
  • Leave your phone at home for the day.
  • Challenge yourself physically. Try a style of training you have never done. 
  • Dine out alone.
  • Ask someone out on a date. 
  • Speak up if you have received bad customer service.
  • Pause in the middle of speaking to someone to think about what you are going to say.
  • Approach attractive people.
  • Take a cold shower.
  • Be assertive in uncomfortable social situations. 
  • If you’re in a relationship, make a commitment – especially if it scares you.
  • Embrace change – even change that appears to be negative.
  • Keep your actions closely aligned with your mission statement. (Maybe get a mission statement first). 
  • Self-monitor for inauthentic behaviour. Take every opportunity to crank up the realness dial.
  • Respect your failures and setbacks as instructional.
  • Connect with people properly. Remove your electronics and other distractions and fully engage.
  • Ask for directions, advice, small favors and any other help you can think of. Especially do it if that scares you.

There are tons of ways you can cultivate bravery in life. Just making a concerted effort to do so gets you on better terms with yourself. You’ll feel the buzz of achievement and your bravery threshold will inch higher. 

3. Accepting anguish as part of the process 

I forget how many times I have heard the saying “Anything worth having doesn’t come easy”. Part of me always resists the crap out of that, because I think some things do come easy: but usually only once you have already done some quite hard stuff. 

There is inherent risk in living courageously. Part of having courage is picking ourselves up from the fails Click To Tweet

When we begin taking steps in life to align ourselves with what we want and who we want to be, there is inherent risk in that. Having courage means finding the specific reasons why a plan has failed and moving on with the same optimism we had before. 

4. Look for the flashing neon signs

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Life is hinting at us all the time about what we should be doing.

Courage is noticing life's neon lights and acting on them Click To Tweet

If you hate getting up in the morning, then maybe you need to change your job. If you’re building something and feeling happy, healthy, clear and aligned, then that’s life telling you to carry on and not get stopped. If you are reading a book or watching a movie and get inspired to contact someone you fell out of touch with, you should probably go do that.

Part of cultivating courage is recognizing these are the neon lights and acting on them. 

Summary – more actions defined my love; less by fear 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson said “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life”.

One fear each day might be a bit much. But if you haven’t done something a bit scary for a while, you might not become the person you have capacity to be. You’re sticking to what you know, settling for less than you deserve, and aren’t growing. You’re heading towards mediocrity. Possibly. 

If you haven't been scared for a while, you might be heading towards mediocrity Click To Tweet

If we are going to make the most of our unique gifts and talents, and if growth really does occur at the edge of our comfort zones, then we have to get a little uncomfortable, often. We gotta stretch. 

Finally, developing courage isn’t another thing to succeed or fail at: the important thing is noticing, and being stopped by, fears less and less frequently. 

That’s courage bad-assary.