Can courage be taught?
What gives us the courage to pursue goals and dreams? Why do some people move forward against all odds while others stop trying? This article explores the link between courage and fear and the importance of withstanding discomfort while taking steps to achieve life-transforming goals.
Researchers have debated the nature of courage for decades. Is courage a distinctive personality trait or a set of behaviors anyone can learn? Is courageous the person displaying consistent bravery or one heroic gesture turning regular people into legendary figures?
For Peterson and Seligman (2004), courage is the willingness to accomplish goals while facing external and internal opposition. Oxford Languages defines courage as "the ability to do something that frightens one."
Often associated with overcoming impossible endeavors, the two authors point out that courage comprises several ingredients, from integrity and authenticity to honesty and truthfulness. For instance, it takes courage to take responsibility for our feelings and actions, present ourselves to others genuinely, and have the integrity to be morally coherent.
Being courageous is also associated with persistence, perseverance, and diligence. Brave is not just the person who does exceptional acts but also performs in the face of contrary boredom, tedium, frustration, and difficulty. (Peterson and Seligman, 2004)
Psychoanalyst and management scholar Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries explains that being courageous is a mix of genetics, psychological characteristics, social norms, and the person's context.
Research in neuroscience shows that the brain structures of risk avoidant and thrill-seeking people are different. Thrills seekers (Type T personalities) seem to require higher endorphin neurotransmitters to feel good. A more risk-oriented lifestyle may also correlate to inhibited behavior due to the higher testosterone hormone levels.
"A neurological architecture predisposed to risk-taking, combined with a strong value set determining what they perceive as right or wrong, could make it more likely, when the situation requires it, that Type Ts will act in a courageous manner." (Kets de Vries, 2020)
Courage Is Not the Absence of Fear
I have been watching American Idol since 2002, when Kelly Clarkson won the first edition. Ten thousand hopefuls auditioning on average in each city is a staggering range of talent and courage facing the scrutiny of worldwide audiences.
One of my favorite judges, Lionel Richie, mixes kindness and realness when urging contestants to seize the moment. He says, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone," a simple formula that gets to the core of the impostor syndrome.
Like any other ability, courage takes practice. Courage is not solid rock, but a cloud in a blue sky taking shapes only our mind can see. Becoming courageous is accepting the experience of discomfort as an inevitable part of the journey from point A to point B.
I recently watched an interview of Oprah Winfrey with actress Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder, The Help), who recently published "Finding Me," a memoir witnessing her life's incredible challenges and triumphs.
Despite her upbringing characterized by poverty, violence, abuse, and colorism, Viola Davis won an Oscar for her stellar performance in Doubt with Meryl Streep. During the interview, Viola says that her past traumas almost stopped her from pursuing her love for acting.
“When I first entered college, I said, ‘I can’t major in theater.’ That is not a profession that can pay the bills, and I really needed to pay my bills because I did not want to be on welfare.
I did not want to be what I felt my parents were. I fell into a great depression in denying that creative spirit in me. Until my sister, Delores, said, ‘Why aren’t you majoring in theater, Viola?’
And I said, ‘Because I can’t make any money doing that, Delores.’
She said, ‘But that’s what you love to do; that’s who you are.’ And you know what? You begin to understand that whole Anne Lamott quote, ‘Courage is fear that has said its prayers.’
I understood that the fear was not going to go away. There is a huge chance it’s not going to land, and it’s not going to work, but dang on it, it’s worth the try.” (Oprah + Viola, 2022)
If courage is the gas pedal that keeps us going, fear is the break urging us to stop to avoid crashes. There will never be courage without some level of fear, and there will never be fear without a glimpse of opportunity.
One Step, and One Step More
In her interview, Viola Davis mentions the American novelist Anne Lamott, who points out that fear of failure keeps people stuck in the same place through perfectionism. Lamott dedicates an entire chapter to perfectionism in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.”
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life [...]
I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.
The truth is that you will die anyway that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” (Lamott, 2022)
"Just take it bird by bird" refers to the advice Lamott's father gave her brother, overwhelmed by a school project on birds when he was ten years old.
Rather than feeling intimidated by the complexity of the task, courage turns into hope when focusing one step at a time and checking progress, not only results.
"My dreams were bigger than my fears," says Viola Davis. The opposite of courage is not fear but the absence of hope.
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Kets de Vries, M., 2020. How to Find and Practice Courage. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: <https://hbr.org/2020/05/how-to-find-and-practice-courage>
Lamott, A., 2022. Bird by Bird. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Netflix. 2022. Oprah + Viola. [online] Available at: <https://www.netflix.com/browse?jbv=81592429>
Peterson, C. and Seligman, M., 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues. Oxford University Press.