Courage Takes Practice

On viewing courage as a skill that can be practiced and developed.

Diner Ismail

5 minute read

Have you ever thought of courage as a skill? Many people see their level of courage as an attribute of their personality and see that as fixed and unchanging. A few years ago I started to think about it as a skill that, like any other skill, can be developed. That made me become more deliberate about choosing to do things that help me practice courage. I was quite shy until high school and even during university, so getting rid of my shyness was important to me. This post explains how I think about courage and fear.

First, I think it’s important to examine the importance of fear itself. As useful as it might have been during the millions of years of our evolution in helping us flee from predators, the modern world is definitely safer, therefore fear is an instinct that’s less important to follow. If you think about it, your life isn’t actually at risk whenever you’re scared (except when it actually is, and you’ll know when that’s the case).

Most of those fears are irrational - like the fear of public speaking, for example. It’s difficult to make them disappear, since they’re so ingrained in our psychology. However, with some practice it’s also not that difficult to overcome them, and even get used to overcoming them easily.

There are two types of practice that I have in mind. The first one is obvious: do the things that scare you and as you do that you’ll become more comfortable doing them. Get out of your comfort zone. Go to that party you’ve been invited to, go talk to that pretty human being that caught your eyes, upload that video you’ve edited even if it’s not perfect, or publish that blog post. I know it’s easy to say it, but it is that simple. Just do the damn thing.

At first, these actions don’t have to be big acts of courage. Actually, I think it’s better if you get started with small acts that expand your comfort zone. A few things that helped me were playing sports, training in martial arts, or getting into the habit of speaking my mind whenever I’m out with people. Innoculating yourself with small doses of fear slowly makes you immune to it. The fear will never completely disappear, but those butterflies in your stomach will start feeling smaller and smaller, and at some point you might actually get used to them flying around there :)

The second type of practice that I have in mind is more like a meditation on what’s the worst thing that can happen if you take the risk. Usually after this exercise, what most people realise is that the worst-case scenario is really not that bad, or that it’s completely reversible. This is based on an exercise that Tim Ferriss calls ‘fear setting’, and you can read about it in more detail here.

Charlie Houpert puts it best in the following paragraph. I go back to read this once in a while, or when I need to make myself take action in the face of fear.

“Since the stakes are so high, you play it safe. You don’t tell the joke, quit your job, or let the other person know how you feel. Failure equals catastrophe. You never put yourself in a vulnerable position. You take no risks. You try not to be seen. You purposely inhibit your ability to stand out. You rarely, if ever, fail because you rarely, if ever, extend yourself beyond your comfort zone. Mission accomplished. Except the mission got confused. The goal is not to avoid failure. The goal is to thrive. The goal is to connect, to lead, and to love. The issue is that we assumed that the answer to our “what if…” question was “catastrophe and failure.” The real answer to life’s “what if’s” is always this: It will be okay. Please, please, please, realize this: No matter what happens, you will be okay. If you crack a terrible joke in front of a crowd, you will be okay. If you reveal your feelings to someone who doesn’t reciprocate, you will be okay. If you start a business, sink your savings into it, and lose it all – you will be okay. If you get fired and everyone you know thinks you are incompetent, you will be okay. To be clear, I’m not saying that these are wonderful outcomes. I’m saying that you will go on breathing. I’m saying that even if you lose your job, you will not starve to death. If you lose all your money, you will not freeze to death. If you make an ass of yourself, you will not doom yourself to a loveless existence. You will go through an uncomfortable period. You will manage. No matter what the outcome, life will go on. Realizing this gives you license to fail. Which gives you license to try. Which is something most people never do. Most people stick with the comfortable option. Whether it is the job, the relationship, or just staying quiet at a party instead of chatting up a stranger. So when you are trying new things, taking risks, and succeeding or failing without an existential crisis, people notice. You appear unshakeable. You are undaunted by the fear of failure that controls their lives.” - Charlie Houpert

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