Man showing his courage

I recently found myself standing seven metres above the ground on a trapeze platform—in a safety harness, attached to safety ropes, with a safety net below me and a muscle bound man standing close behind—after signing up for a fun morning out at a trapeze school. As I peered down at the net, I was suddenly overcome with fear. While I intellectually knew that I couldn’t hurt myself, I was still gripped with fear and terrified of leaning out to take the bar.

It was a potent reminder that unless we manage our fears, they will manage us. It’s also why I believe that one of the most powerful questions you can ever ask yourself is: What would I do if I was being courageous?

How many times have you thought to yourself “If I just had the courage!” The courage to make that change, take that chance, speak my mind, say no to something that doesn’t inspire me, or yes to something that does.

Arrghh, if only…” we tell ourselves as we weigh up the risks, and focus on all that might go wrong. Desperate to avoid nagging feelings of regret, we do our best to rationalise why sticking with the status quo isn’t so bad. While we clutch onto whatever evidence we can find to ease regret and keep doubts at bay. All the while somewhere, deep inside, we wish we’d been braver.

Talk to anyone in the twilight years of their life and they are likely to tell you that when they look back on key decisions in their life, they wish they’d acted with less timidity and greater boldness. Many people—old and not so old alike—have shared with me how looking back on even just the last 10 years they can see how they underestimated themselves too much, played safe too often and, if given the chance to do it over, would have leant more toward risk and less toward caution.

How many times have you thought to yourself “If I just had the courage!”

Which is why I am passionate about challenging people to rethink risk, to expand the vision that they have for their life and to be more courageous—in work, in love and in life. Having witnessed the possibilities that can open up when people decide to stop playing safe, I know that even the most timid souls and risk-averse worriers can act with courage. That is, to take action in the presence of their fears and doubts, not in their absence.

The word courage comes from the French cor, meaning heart. So at the core of courage is choosing to live wholeheartedly—to bare your heart wide open to the full spectrum of experiences and emotions; to stop letting fear run your life, and to start owning your power to create, achieve, become and contribute all that inspires you.

But how do you move beyond the platitudes and T-shirt slogans about being bold and living fearlessly? How do you actually take that brave audacious leap of faith over a chasm of fear?

Know why you are doing, what you are doing

You start by asking yourself “For the sake of what?” You see, nothing worthwhile is accomplished with a guarantee of success; risk is a toll, which life exacts en route to any meaningful endeavour. So finding the courage to risk demands being super clear about ‘why’ you are doing it in the first place.

We are wired to focus more on what we have to lose than what we might gain. Therefore, before you can find the courage to risk losing something—whether it be material security, social status, professional pride or admiration—you have to be crystal clear about what it is you want to gain in the process. “For the sake of what?” are you going to lay your reputation, your pride, your status and vulnerability on the line? Only when your desire for something transcends your desire for safety [and comfort] can you rise above the fears hard-wired into you to protect you from such dangers.

Finding the courage to risk demands being super clear about ‘why’ you are doing it in the first place

Your ‘Why’ is what gives your life a sense of purpose and lies at the intersection of your talents, passions, values and skills. It’s what fuels you and what fills you. It’s the ‘why’ that propelled Anthony Crowley to give up the security, status and trimmings of a job in the advertising industry to pursue his passion in the performing arts. A gifted musician, playwright and artist in his mid-twenties, Anthony decided he didn’t want to look back on life wondering ‘What if?’ While Anthony’s name is not up in lights beside Lloyd-Webber’s [yet], his plays and musicals have been presented and awarded around the world. Not only does Anthony draw enormous satisfaction from his work, but he provides a powerful role model for his children and many others on what it means to live your passion.

Confront your fears, rethink risk

Man fearing his own shadow
Stop living in the shadow of fears that limit your life experience and stifle your actions

Fear often gets a bad rap, but it serves the vital role of alerting us to potential threats to our safety, protecting us from harm and pain. However, in today’s culture of fear, we can unwittingly find ourselves living in its shadow, unable to distinguish those fears that are genuinely serving us from those that are stifling our actions and limiting our experience of life.

Every day, we are bombarded with reasons why we should feel afraid. Fear of economic recession. Fear of job loss. Fear of losing our savings. Fear of radicalism, fundamentalism, government, racialism, terrorism, isolation, mutant viruses, violence, identity theft, global warming… the list is long.

Marketers prey on our fears, the media prey on our fears while politicians play on our fears. Fear sells products. Fear sells papers. Fear wins votes. Fear makes profit. Fear grows power. And fear fuels fear. That’s why, in a world that is so filled with fear, refusing to be a pawn to fear, to play safe and to think small, becomes an ever more courageous act.

As I shared in my latest book Stop Playing Safe, research psychologists have identified four key mechanisms that undermine our ability to accurately assess risk, and take those ‘smart risks’ needed to create the opportunities, influence, prosperity and success that we want. While there are many different psychological processes at play, there are four core ways we are ‘wired’ to play it safe:

  1. We overestimate the size of risk
    We misjudge the likelihood of losing something we value over gaining something we would like even more. In short, potential losses loom larger than potential gains.
  2. We ‘catastrophise’
    We exaggerate the potential consequences of what might happen if things don’t work out. Our imagination runs riot and we come up with all these dramatic and drastic worst case nightmare scenarios which, in reality, are extremely unlikely to occur. What would actually happen is that we’d quickly intervene if things started derailing to shore up potential losses.
  3. We underestimate our ability to handle risk
    This is a core factor for many people who second guess and doubt their ability to handle bigger challenges. My experience working with women is that women are particularly susceptible to this and often doubt themselves and their capabilities far more than they should. It drives them to veer away from opportunities and challenges rather than lean toward them because they doubt their ability to handle them well. As Mark Twain once said, “I have known a great many troubles in my life, most of them never happened.” Such is the power of our imagination!
  4. We discount, downplay or deny the cost of inaction
    How often have you heard someone justifying why they didn’t take a chance or make a change with something like “Things aren’t that bad” when you know that they are actually pretty miserable with the status quo? My guess is, likely a lot. Too often we tell ourselves lies about the cost of not taking action because we are too afraid to take it. The truth is that when things aren’t going well, they usually only get worse if we do nothing. While there is always a risk to taking action, there is also a risk to inaction. Getting real about the cost of inaction is essential to find the courage to it.

The result of these combined psychological mechanisms is that people often end up being overly cautious; unwilling to take the very risks needed to create more meaningful lives. However, when we shine a light on our fears and become truly present to the cost of inaction [and believe me, there is always a cost!], we loosen the grip that fear has on our psyche, improving our ability to accurately assess risk and discern the smartest path forward, even if not the easiest or most comfortable.

Marketers prey on our fears, the media prey on our fears while politicians play on our fears

It was six weeks before her wedding day when Anne, a doctor, called me to say she was having major second thoughts about whether to proceed with her wedding. While she admired the man she was going to marry, she’d become increasingly uninspired by the idea of spending her life with him. When I asked her how she felt about ending the relationship and calling off the wedding she insisted, “I can’t break it off—it would kill him. It would kill me too!” Anne’s fear of the fallout from breaking off her engagement was understandable, but—as I pointed out to her—just because it was an incredibly hard thing to do didn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.

After much soul searching Anne made the very brave decision to break off her engagement. She didn’t die. Nor did he. While she said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do at the time, what it taught her was that she was more courageous than she thought. That knowledge emboldened her to pursue her dream to join Doctors Without Borders. Nine months after calling off her wedding, she was managing a remote hospital in Darfur that served internally displaced Sudanese refugees. Since then Anne has not only married a man she is inspired to live her life with [and is soon to have their first baby], but has done extraordinary work in supporting the world’s most needy.

So before you read any further, ask yourself this: “What would I do if I were being truly courageous?” Go on, take a minute to close your eyes, breath deeply and sit with the question. As you do, give your imagination permission to soar and then open your heart to wherever it takes you. However large or small, daunting or seemingly insignificant it is, just know that within you lies all the resources you ever need to live your answer. One day, one hour, one act of courage at a time [however small it may seem.]

Cultivate a ‘Courage Mindset’

Man in a superhero costume
When you develop a courage mindset, you can unleash your inner superhero

When it comes to fulfilling your potential at work—to making the full contribution you are capable of and being rewarded for it accordingly—there are two core fundamental mindsets that separate those who experience deep career fulfilment and success from those who don’t. The first mindset is based on the premise that the risk is to be avoided; the other that risk is to be embraced as a crucial element of success. I call these mindsets the risk-averse Fear mindset and the risk-ready Courage mindset. One is driven by fear of what could be lost, the other by desire for what can be gained.

While there is no doubt that some people are naturally more comfortable taking risks than others, science has proven that courage is a skill and, like all skills, it can be learned and developed to a level of mastery with consistent effort and commitment. When you choose to develop a courage mindset, your psychological courage muscles are strengthened every time you use them. You sharpen and shape your courage skills every time you intentionally choose to step beyond what is comfortable, put yourself at risk and bravely render yourself vulnerable to something you fear. Courage is ultimately a mindset. So is fear.

The table below lists 10 core attitudes of a courage mindset along with the corresponding attitudes of a fear mindset. Think of a current challenge or opportunity you are facing. As you read through the list of risk-averse mindsets, ask yourself what conversations and actions you could initiate to approach each one with a risk-ready courage mindset. I encourage you to write down your answers as they come into your head… before they leave again!

When you focus on what you don’t want to happen, you psychologically enlarge the holes in your safety net, amplifying timidity into full-blown terror. As I stood on that trapeze platform looking down, the holes in the safety net beneath me seemed to grow larger by the second until my imagination had me falling right through them.

You sharpen and shape your courage skills every time you intentionally choose to step beyond what is comfortable

Somehow I convinced myself to focus. I took a few very long, deep and deliberate breaths, then I leant out from that platform to grasp the trapeze bar. Off I flew letting out one mighty scream along the way.

Having dared to fail countless times in my life, and having succumbed to self-doubt and fear nearly as often, I know all too well that courage is not a one-off decision. You don’t just choose to be courageous and then never have another moment of cowardice or even hesitation. No, becoming more courageous is more about moving in the direction from which courage calls.

Some days you’ll feel like you’ve just hit the ball out of the park—you’ve been bold and assertive, spoken up to your boss about the new role you’d like to take on, volunteered to lead the next sales meeting, signed up for a marathon … you’re on a [courage] roll. Moving in the direction of courage! Then on other days… you’re not. You keep your mouth closed during meetings even though you really don’t agree with what’s being said. You shy away from ruffling anyone’s feathers. You’re operating from fear, moving away from courage. Such is life. It’s about having more courageous days, than fearful ones.

Fear mindset Move towards Courage mindset
Probable ----------> Possible
Narrow-minded ----------> Open-minded
Critical ----------> Curious
Pessimistic ----------> Optimistic
Rigid ----------> Flexible
Change resistant ----------> Open to change
Avoid mistakes ----------> Expect mistakes
Left-brain analyse only ----------> Listen to intuition
What must I protect? ----------> What do I want to give?
Avoid vulnerability ----------> Accept vulnerability

Trust yourself: you’re capable of more than you think

When I started my second career in coaching [which later evolved into speaking and writing], I had four children under the age of six. I remember being a little overwhelmed at the idea of starting a business with such young children, particularly since I was living in another country at that time with no family support network around me. But I was passionate about pursuing a calling, and I knew that if I did nothing, I would look back with regret. I also believe that we can hardly tell our children to pursue their dreams if we don’t first have the courage to pursue our own.

What I learnt over the ensuing years is that too often we let our fear of ‘not having what it takes’ keep us from taking the actions that would enable us to realise we have everything it takes. That doesn’t mean that we can conquer our own personal Everest in a day, a month or a year. But if we take one step forward toward whatever it is that inspires us, over time, those baby steps lead us to new places, new experiences, new opportunities and a greater realisation of just how much we can accomplish if we set our mind to it.

New research has lent credence to the words Lao Tzu wrote 3000 years ago: “People are capable of more than they think.” Whether backpacking around the world on my own at 21 for a year, having a fourth child [a definite leap of faith!], or starting to write my first book Find Your Courage with four children under seven at that time, I’ve learnt that when we doubt ourselves, we limit ourselves. Only when we dare more boldly can we ever harness the potential that resides with us and fully share our unique talents with the world.

Embrace uncertainty

Man looking outside his window in fear
People fear uncertainty because they are afraid they may end up worse than before

My dad, a humble farmer with a generous heart, always cautioned me: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” He meant well, his words were guided by his desire to protect me from disappointment, but his advice was not for living a wholehearted life. All change, even change for the better, is uncomfortable because it demands giving up what we know for an uncertain future. That’s why so many people choose to stay in jobs they loathe, in relationships that leave them lonely, and to quote Thoreau, “Living lives of quiet desperation.”

Afraid of uncertainty, people choose the inevitability of things never getting better because they are afraid of the possibility that they may end up worse than they were before. However, as you journey through life, unless you are willing to trade the familiarity of the status quo for the possibility of a better one, you run the greater risk of short changing yourself. When you let your fears drive you to settle for less than what you really want, you sell out on what you could be. All the while dreams retreat, passion wanes, doors close, talent sleeps and life passes passively by. It is the ultimate tragedy.

Exit your comfort zone

Man moving forward towards the path
Identifying the first few steps is a strategy that has worked for many

When I first left my parents’ small farm at 18 to move to the city for university, I was part terrified, part excited, and completely outside my comfort zone. As I found out then, no worthwhile aspiration can be accomplished from within our comfort zone. Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence. As we do, we expand the perimeter of our ‘Courage Zone’, our tolerance for risks and confidence to take on bigger challenges in the future.

There is no doubt that there are real dangers we need to be cautious about. But in our overcautious, competitive and accelerated world, there are also countless opportunities. None of them lie in our comfort zone [none of the really great ones!]. Only those who refuse to cower to fear and are willing to take risk will see and seize those opportunities and reap the rewards they bring. When you dare to do the very thing you are afraid of, you’ll find the universe conspiring for you and presenting opportunities that always [and only] lie on the other side of your comfort zone. So live by design, not default, taking one action every day that moves you outside your comfort zone, however small or insignificant it may seem.

Think big; start small

Of course, it usually takes less than a minute after connecting with an inspiring vision to feel overwhelmed by the size of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Which is why, however audaciously big your dream, you need to start by breaking it down into smaller shorter-term goals, with doable ‘bite sized’ actions, that you can achieve.

Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence

Martin Luther King said, “You don’t have to see the whole stair case. Just the first step.” Identifying the first few steps is a strategy that has worked for many clients of mine, including Julie Webber, an IT professional, who shared with me that she wanted to advance in her company and take on larger leadership roles, but wasn’t confident in how to go about it. “So what’s the first thing you could do?” I asked her. “I could volunteer for a leadership role in my professional association… They’re always asking but I’ve held back because I was afraid of not being good enough,” she offered up. “And I could say more on conference calls,” she added, “since I usually stay quiet.” Today Julie is blazing all sorts of new trails for herself because she thought big, but started small.

Closer to home I can share with you how I’m also managing overwhelm in pursuing my goal of launching my own online TV show Raw Courage TV. I can assure you that the size of the gap between where I am, sitting in my office, and the vision I have for it five years from now [Oprah, watch out!] is vast. So I’ve begun with small steps:

  • Chose the name
  • Bought the URL
  • Engaged a website designer
  • Scripted the first 10 episodes
  • Sourced videographers
  • Reached out to my hit list of people I’d love to interview
  • Set up the social media pages.

It’s a huge undertaking, but as I know that unless I start doing something, even if I’m not quite sure of every step ahead, one year from now I will be better off than if I wait to figure out exactly what’s needed before taking the first one. Likewise, if you find yourself moving into overwhelm, focus on what you want to do the next day, or week. Then next week, do the same thing. Repeat as necessary!

Action is the most potent antidote to fear. The only way to rise above it is right through the heart of it. Accordingly, living courageously is not the absence of knots in your stomach, a lump in your throat, chattering teeth or sweaty palms. It is feeling your fears to the core, and then standing tall, breathing deep, and stepping forward in their very presence. Only then can you come to know that you never needed to feel afraid to begin with. As Anais Nin once wrote, “Life shrinks or expands in proportions to one’s courage.”

Be brave, you can do more than you think!


A version of this article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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