So often people say that they want to have more courage. They want to be braver. They want to dare more.
I admire the ambition and the enthusiasm, because it shows the beginnings of a desire of change.
But there’s a big problem. There is no such thing as courage.
Literally, there is no emotion called courage. You can’t actually feel courageous. People who do daring things never say, “now I feel courageous, and therefore I will now do this daring thing.” That’s not how it works.
Courage is, more often than not, how we explain others’ actions that look scary to us. Think about when a friend tells you that she’s quit her corporate job to start her own company. “You’re so brave,” we’ll tell her. “You’re such a courageous person.”
But really we’re just projecting our own feelings and fears onto the situation. We’re thinking: “That step seems so scary to me. There must be something special about her. I could never do that—I have too much fear.” But if you ask her, she’ll tell you that she didn’t feel brave. She had just come to a point where enough was enough.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s acting despite of fear, as Nelson Mandela once said. And fear is not a bad thing. It’s often a calling card toward something we care about. It’s a signal of something we deep down know we should do, but triggers some sort of anxiety. Fear gets your senses piqued, makes you more focused, and more alive.
I’m not the first to say this. “A shortcut to success is to follow your fear,” says surfer Nic Lamb. “What you fear is an indication of what you seek,” said the writer Thomas Merton. Athlete Amelia Boone recently said, “I now take fear and discomfort as a sign that I should be doing something. That’s where the magic happens.” And fear expert Kristen Ulmer proclaims: “You are supposed to be scared when you’re doing big things—okay? Acknowledging this can be life-changing.”
People do scary things not because they feel brave — they do those scary things because they want to or because they feel like they have to. They feel like there’s no other choice. They’ve passed the point of no return. Even though their actions have potential negative consequences today or in the future, the potential gains are too loud to ignore.
What we think of as courage is actually more like resoluteness and determinedness. It’s steadfastness. It’s the ability to see what is essential and to prioritize your efforts. It’s the sense of knowing what’s important to you. It’s when you want it, bad. And you act, despite any discomfort you might feel along the way.
So courage is more about keeping your eye on the ball. It’s knowing what the ball to look for—on a field (i.e. life) that’s becoming more and more crowded with other balls that vie for your attention. It’s the ability to see where the ball is, despite it zipping around and sometimes hiding from view. And it’s knowing that the ball might smack you right in the face. But if you’re going to have a chance to hit a home-run—or a mere base hit—there’s no way to do it without keeping your eye on the ball.
A new definition of courage
One dictionary defines courage as: “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.”
As you will have picked up by now, that definition is…wrong.
So I hereby propose a new definition of courage: Courage is “the after-the-fact explanation attributed to a person who has faced difficulty, danger, pain, etc. and acted anyway, despite—and often due to—fear.”
Fear is what you feel before you’ve done something important. Courage is how you explain that you did it anyway.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” the writer Anaïs Nin trumpeted. With our new definition, here’s a modification: “The more you have followed your fears and acted despite of the discomfort you have felt, the more your life will have expanded.”
So don’t wait for the courage to act. Instead: act, and courage will follow.