You feel scared about the risks ahead.
Your gut tells you that you must do something—it is the right thing to do.
You wonder: Should I be the one doing this? Am I being bold, or merely stupid?
Every courageous journey has several stops along the way. Like levels in an existential video game, they are filled with traps to avoid, demons to thwart, and rewards to gather.
Stop 1: Fear
Fear comes first. It appears when you start to see potential risks on the horizon. You begin to feel uncertain about how things will play out, see looming unpleasant consequences, and wonder if you will be able to rise to the challenges ahead. Fear is a constant companion on your journey.
Stop 2: Values
Your values form a scaffold to support you on your journey. Values motivate and make risk-taking worthwhile. When I say values, I’m using the word broadly. It can refer to a personal goal or the action of upholding your morals or ethics. Your values can also be causes or purposes that drive you. You might not always be able to give voice to your values, but they’re there, guiding you forward.
Stop 3: Action
Making a choice and acting of your own volition is the “when” of courage. Action is your response to a dilemma or situation in the face of fear. Often, we get right to the point of action—and retreat. We chicken out.
Stop 4: Change
What happened as a result of your actions—what changed? Even when nothing else changes, you change. This is the moment when you must adapt, reorient, and respond to new circumstances.
These are the stops on any courage journey. By zooming out on your particular journey, you can see where you are, figure out why you are stuck, and then decide what to do.
Stop 1: Fear
Fear: Unmask It
The first thing you can do is to recognize these internal warnings for what they are: manifestations of your fear. Then you can decide which ones are valid and which ones are misplaced.
Writer and programmer Paul Ford suffered from anxiety, so he created a spambot to help him deal with it. As he tells it on the podcast Reply All, he entered his anxieties into a program that turned them into emails and sent them back to him several times a day. Stuff like, “Hi Paul, history will forget you, because history forgets people who are unable to finish things.” (He was trying to finish a novel.) Or personal insults like “People look at your internet profile and think: in possession of a weird nose.”
Sounds a bit nuts, right? Wouldn’t this make his anxiety worse? It didn’t. Instead, it helped to make his fears look like junk mail, the kind you can ignore or quickly delete. It kept his fears from playing in a loop in his head. Sometimes the best way to get over a fear is to acknowledge it.
Fear: Get Used to It
While unmasking fear weakens it, this process alone doesn’t make the fear go away. You need something more: you have to learn how to get accustomed to it.
Once you become used to how fear feels, you can take action in spite of it. Psychologists use exposure therapy to help their patients get accustomed to their fears. To help a patient overcome a fear of needles, for instance, a therapist might start by simply showing the patient the needle. In subsequent sessions, the therapist moves the needle progressively closer, until the patient gets so used to seeing it and having it nearby that they no longer feel afraid.
Fear: Get Rid of It (When You Can)
Another way to wrestle your fears into submission is to lower the risks that drive them in the first place by having a safety net, a dare pack, a plan B (or C). Many entrepreneurs hold down day jobs while getting their dream businesses off the ground. Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, earned his CPA certificate and became an accountant while running his company. As he writes in his memoir, Shoe Dog, it gave him “something safe to fall back on when everything went bust,” and it reduced his personal risk.
Stop 2: Values
Find Your Purpose and Values
Finding your purpose can take a whole lot of stumbling around before you figure it out. The same is true for your values, but they can be more amorphous. You may believe in personal values like authenticity and generosity, or ethical values like honesty and fairness. While you may consciously choose some values through experience, many come subconsciously through your culture, family, and community.
Fear loves this vagueness. What’s more, your values may be idealistic or even naïve, and the risks of taking action are right in front of you. Robert Prentice, a professor at McCombs School of Business, studies behavioral ethics. In his 2014 article titled “Teaching Behavioral Ethics” in the Journal of Legal Studies Education, he observed that even when people are aware of their values, they may not act because they are “overwhelmed by social pressures, organizational stresses, and other situational factors.”
Building a reflective practice to periodically examine your choices can help bring fuzzy values into focus and create a path forward. Reflection can be useful at three key moments of action: retrospectives, impasses, and inklings.
Look back at a moment, choice, or project after you’ve taken action. Do you feel regret—wishing you had done things differently—or do you feel pride because the actions you took were in alignment with your values?
When you hit a wall with your work, whether you have lost enthusiasm, feel disillusioned with your team or project, or are endlessly procrastinating over a decision—or when your fear rears its head—it’s time to review your original intentions.
You’re moving forward with a clear rationale, but then suddenly you have a hunch, or a strong inkling, that’s counter to your actions. This is another good time to stop and reflect.
Stop 3: Action
Overcome the Three Flavors of Inaction
Unfortunately, most of the time when you’re not acting it’s not because you are engaging in courageous civil disobedience. It’s because you are stuck, stymied, and spinning our wheels. The first step to getting past this roadside breakdown is to open up the hood and figure out where the problem is. Every courageous action must first get past the inertia of inaction.
Inaction comes in several flavors. One is clear-cut and obvious; the other two are show-stopping charlatans.
Inaction is garden-variety avoidance, an all-out shutdown. It’s the New Year’s resolution without the trip to the gym. It’s setting out to write a screenplay, then binge-watching movies instead. (We know this as procrastination.) Or it could be a moment in the past, a time when you wish you had acted but didn’t. Even so, this flavor of inaction is clear: you know you are avoiding work that needs to be done.
Fauxaction is fake action. A good example is putting empty platitudes on a company’s wall extolling the supposed values of an organization when they aren’t reflected in the actual decision-making and behavior. It’s like changing your logo when what you really need is a new business plan.
Spinaction is when you’re doing a lot, but making zero progress. The word spin denotes two ideas: first, that you are just spinning your wheels; and second, that you’re putting a positive spin on your predicament—telling yourself that although you’re not getting anywhere, you’re doing all you can, and there is nothing more you can do. Spinaction is a form of denial. Imagine you have to give critical feedback to someone you care about. You don’t want to seem too harsh, so you never really lay it out clearly, hoping they’ll still get the message. They don’t, but hey, you tried.
Whenever you find yourself stalled, spinning, or faking it, you are avoiding the risks that come with taking real action. To recognize these roadblocks and move past them to a stance of action, listen to the reasons for your inaction that you tell yourself. Are they legitimate? Bernard Roth, the d.school’s academic director, takes an extreme approach to examining reasons. According to him, “reasons are just excuses prettied up.”
Now is the time to use your reflective practice to examine not just your purpose, but also the reasons you are not fulfilling it. If you really care about the purpose, it can help you find the courage to stop making excuses and do what you need to do.
Stop 4: Change
Your journey is well under way. You’ve picked up some tools, and you’re ready to act with courage.
But what happens after you do? It might go well: Things work out. You find that your fears were unfounded. You resolve a conflict. You feel great about upholding your values. You inspire others by acting courageously—your story gives them permission to try something new in their own life. Hooray!
Or it might not go so well: You speak up but are silenced. Your bravery is met with ridicule. Or worse, you get fired. Your choice to be clear and open is met with anger and pushback. You lose time and money. You fail. You trusted your gut, but it led you down the wrong path. Boooo!
Or it may not be so clear: You’re stuck in limbo—you can’t tell whether things are going well or badly, and you’re not sure if you should keep going or just quit. You made a little progress, but maybe not enough. Hmmm…
No matter which category your act falls into, one thing is certain: things changed. Real consequences, both positive and negative, give acts of courage gravity. They are the source of our fears and an expression of our values. But consequences are not resolutions. Our journey keeps going. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher, wrote in her book When Things Fall Apart, “Things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.” Exploring the consequences of your actions helps create a road map for the way forward.
Change, the last destination of your courage journey, is another journey in itself. It comes with buttermilk phases, bad-time stories, unclear next steps, and surprise wins. And you respond to this change by figuring out what to do next.
Whether your act of courage paid off, went sideways, or produced the all-too-common inconclusive results, I hope it spurs you on to choose courage again, every day.