I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being courageous and being just downright foolhardy. It seems to me the line between courage and crazy can get pretty blurred.
Which got me thinking: What is courage? What does it mean to be courageous?
Definition of Courage
A dictionary look-up tells me that courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one” or “strength in the face of pain or grief.”
And an action is deemed courageous if it is an attempt to achieve an end despite penalties, risks, costs or difficulties of sufficient gravity to deter most people. Oxford goes on to say that if you can be cheerful while being courageous you basically get bonus points.
And what if the penalties, risks, costs or difficulties are designed for you to take heed and not do the (crazy) thing?
Courage (or crazy?) and I have a front row seat these days. Some mornings I wake up in full conviction that we’re doing the right thing and other mornings – like today – I wake up and wonder what the heck we’re doing.
My husband and I decided to take our newly graduated High Schooler and University Grad on a “Family Gap Year.” By the time you read this article, we will already be on the other side of the world – in New Zealand – setting our lives up there for a year away from our ordinary; embracing a more outdoors-focused lifestyle and exploring new ways of making our contribution in the world.
We have dreamed of being location-independent for awhile – and the gift of the global health pandemic means most people are now comfortable receiving their services from me via virtual delivery. My husband has secured a remote work engagement and our girls will explore their future vocation choices through new work experiences in another country.
It sounds good on paper – or moreso in a pipedream – but in reality, this decision of ours has required a great deal of courage on our part to coordinate the many moving parts that comes with an international move – even a temporary one.
How to Develop and Cultivate Courage
I believe that courage is like a muscle – you need to practice it or train regularly, with increasing resistance, so you eventually build the muscle required to take courageous action.
There is almost nowhere that I have practiced courage more than in my business and career. Taking risks. Asking for what you want. Doing the hard thing – like putting yourself out there on social media or accepting speaking engagements. All these things require courage.
Think of the CEO who decides to do a major merger. The corporate takeovers. The big decisions that move not only businesses, but cities and countries forward. All of these require having courage and taking courageous action – and I bet some people may have thought some of those decisions were crazy.
The Role of Courage in Achieving Goals
Courage is more than just being brave; I believe it is the key to unlocking our full potential and living a fulfilling life. It’s the thrill of stepping outside your comfort zone – of trying new things – of choosing adventure over comfort.
In my 20s, I decided I’d like to learn how to downhill ski. Initially I was terrified. I’d get to the top of the ski hill and not have a clue how I was going to get down safely. I’d think about negotiating with the liftie to let me ride the ski lift back down the ski hill. But that wasn’t an option. (Have you ever seen anyone ride DOWN the hill on a ski life. No. There’s a reason for that.)
I had to learn how to ski down safely. And it took practice. Eventually I was skiing larger and larger hills, then mountains, with increasing speed and seeking new challenges. The thrill of learning something new and becoming a good downhill skier required – above all else – the mindset and personal decision to do it. Which brings me to…
Mindset is Key to Taking Courageous Action
Practicing courageous action involves developing the mindset and behaviors that allow you to face fear, uncertainty, and adversity with determination and resilience. Courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to take action despite it. Here are some steps to help you practice taking courageous action:
- Self-Awareness: Understand your fears and limitations. Self-awareness is the first step toward courage. Identify what scares you and why. Recognize your strengths and areas where you’d like to be more courageous. What is holding you back from wanting to take a courageous step? Is it lack of control? Is it fear of failure? Is it wanting to please someone else who wants to keep you safe? All these things are decisions of mindset – and once we know what they are, we can make a plan to circumnavigate them.
- Set Clear Goals: Define what courageous action means to you. Set specific, measurable, and achievable goals that push you outside your comfort zone. This could be in personal, professional, or social aspects of your life. If you have a fear of being seen on social media, for example, and yet need to use it for your work – try posting something quite benign to start, and then as you get comfortable, start sharing more of your personal opinion about various topics. Pretty soon you’ll be writing weekly blog posts without a care to the world – and hoping people see your work; not afraid to receive the feedback from the world.
- Develop Resilience: Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. It’s closely tied to courage. Strengthen your resilience through practices like mindfulness, meditation, and physical exercise. As we prepare for this Big Adventure 2.0 (we went on another one years ago – see more on that first one here) I’m still hitting the gym 3-4 times a week. I meditate every morning and the self talk managing my saboteurs comes throughout the day. There’s nothing about this that’s easy, except knowing it’s the right decision for our family right now.
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
- Take Small Steps: Courage doesn’t always require you to take big leaps. Start with small, manageable actions that challenge your fears. Gradually build up to bigger challenges. Much like my decision to learn how to ski in my 20s, when everyone around me already seemed to be an expert, I started on the bunny hill and worked my way up.
- Seek Support: Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or mentors who can provide encouragement and guidance. Share your goals with them and ask for their help when needed. Who do you know who has already achieved something you want to achieve? Take them for a coffee and learn from them. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. I’ve never been more grateful for my community of supportive friends and family than I am right now as we’ve navigated the details of this international move.
- Learn and Prepare: Knowledge and preparation can boost your confidence. Educate yourself about the challenges you’ll face, and develop the skills and knowledge necessary to overcome them. The fear of the unknown can be all-consuming. What I know is that if we write down specifically what’s concerning us, we can make a plan to deal with those things. If they stay in our heads, they can grow and become unmanageable. The more knowledge we have the more we can prepare for it.
- Visualization: Use visualization techniques to mentally rehearse courageous actions. This can help reduce anxiety and increase your readiness to act when the time comes. If you’re imagining yourself breaking a leg when you ski – you’re more likely to break that leg, honest! Visualize success – and go for it!
The Importance of Courage in Personal Growth
- Face Your Fears: Courage often involves confronting your fears head-on. Embrace discomfort and be willing to take calculated risks. Remember that growth often happens outside your comfort zone. Any Harry Potter fans out there? Harry had to build his magic powers to be able to finally fight Voldemort. He wasn’t ready when he was young, these skills had to be practiced until he was ready to fully face his fears head-on.
- Learn from Failure: Understand that failure is a part of the process. It’s not about avoiding failure but learning from it and using it to improve your future attempts. Just like Wayne Gretzky and others have said – “We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take.” You won’t know until you try – and wouldn’t it be sad if you never tried?
- Practice Gratitude: Cultivate a mindset of gratitude. Recognize and appreciate the positive aspects of your life. Gratitude can help counterbalance fear and negativity. The endorphins of positive thoughts and feelings can help us navigate the fear of something not working out. I am so grateful for the health, the smarts, and the shared vision of my husband and daughters. If it doesn’t work out, at least we tried and we did it together!
Build Courage through Practice and Repetition
- Stay Persistent: Courage can wane in the face of adversity. Stay persistent and committed. No one said it was going to be easy. And anything worth doing is worth fighting for. If something’s not working, Reflect and Adjust. Regularly assess your progress and adjust your approach as needed. You might need to change your approach but that doesn’t mean you should give up.
- Celebrate Successes: Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small they may seem. Recognizing your accomplishments can boost your confidence and motivation. I start all my private and group coaching sessions with a round of applause for what’s gone well in the past week! We too often forget to stop and acknowledge what’s gone well. Don’t forget to celebrate!
Courage and Fear
All that being said, the line between courage and crazy, confidence and fear, seems to be very thin at times. What I know is that building my business and a career I’m proud of taught me to be able to take courageous action in both my personal and my professional life.
What is courage? What does it mean to take courageous action?
Courage is a skill that can be developed and strengthened over time. It’s about taking intentional steps to face your fears and challenges, even when it’s uncomfortable.
What courageous action is calling you? And what is ONE thing you can do today to move towards that goal? I’d love to hear! Drop me a note or post a comment below. I believe courageous action can help us live more fulfilling lives and lead more fulfilling careers – a life lived with purpose and impact. Join me, won’t you?
To your success,
Susan Elford is a Leadership Coach and Business Mentor who especially loves to work with women who want it all: a fulfilling career or business while living a full and satisfying life. Through powerful career coaching and business mentorship to get their career or business to the next level, Susan helps her clients get real about their strengths and celebrate and promote them so they get more of what they want: success at work; success in business & success in life.
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