Consider this situation: A young, ambitious executive at a multinational company got a big promotion. There was only one condition. He had to move to Cairo, Egypt. He went home to his new wife and their baby and said, "Great news, we're moving to Cairo." His wife was stunned. She said, "You're moving alone. I'm going home to my mother."
This was a test of courage in that family. There was no viable compromise: If he relinquished his promotion, he would resent his wife for ruining his career; if she just went along with the move, she would hate him for ignoring her dreams for her baby and herself. What to do?
After some discussion, they might have been tempted to believe that maturity required them to deny their feelings and to sacrifice on behalf of each other. But instead, they went back to the fundamentals: Is it my career, or is it our career? Is it your baby, or is it our baby? Are we individuals, or do we operate as a team? What are our values? That marriage had to grow up by the equivalent of five years in about two weeks. They ended up going to Cairo, but their relationship had been transformed: She understood that his career was important to her. He recommitted to his values as a partner in the family. What matters is not what they ended up choosing, but how they made the choice. They took the courageous step to redefine, from the inside out, who they truly were.
Courage is a very special human quality — and some would say it’s becoming increasingly rare. Courage is the trait the ancient Greeks held to be the foundation of all other virtues. What's the difference between an average leader and a great leader? Between an average parent and an outstanding one? Between a worker who steps up in all situations and one who hides in the background? The difference is courage.
What makes some people crack under pressure — whether in warfare or business — while others seem to push themselves past their limits? Courage, or the lack thereof. Finally, why is it that some people challenge themselves to the limit — they even attempt the impossible — while others never get off the sofa? You should know the answer by now.
Courage is often understood to have two categories: physical and moral. Physical courage is the willingness to face serious risk to life or limb instead of fleeing from it. Moral courage is the firmness of spirit that faces danger or difficulty without flinching or retreating. The Civil War General William T. Sherman understood courage in almost mathematical terms. He said, “Courage is awareness of the true measure of danger, and the mental willingness to endure it.” John Wayne put it more simply: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”
Courage has been the mark of class acts throughout history, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Confronted with the same choices, some people stand up to accept the challenge, while others shrink away.
What about you? Do you feel courageous?
Of necessity, a discussion of courage must also be a discussion of fear. The Greek philosopher Aristotle made this point more two thousand years ago. Courage is not the absence of fear, but how you react to it. Faced with a charging lion or a maxed-out charge card, two people may both feel fear. But the courageous individual takes on the challenge, while the other does nothing. Courage still matters — more than we think.
Without courage, everything becomes fragile. Winston Churchill called courage "the first of human qualities, because it guarantees all the others." That's what we mean by the courage of our convictions. If we lack the courage to hold on to our beliefs in the moment of their testing, not just when they accord with those of others but also when they go against threatening opposition, then our beliefs mean nothing.
Courage doesn’t always need to express itself in wars, Arctic expeditions, or climbing mountains. Joining a fitness club can be an act of courage if you’ve gotten out of shape. In your career, you can display courage by fighting for an idea or a project you believe in, even if others don't agree with you. The point is this: Courage is an energy that manifests in our everyday lives by helping us control our fears. Even if fear is not completely overcome, it no longer holds dominion over our actions. We still feel fear, but how we react to that fear can demonstrate courage to the world.
Of all the infinite varieties of fear, probably the most dangerous in the modern world is the fear of failure. Most of us are no longer faced with life-threatening adversaries. But we are faced with issues that can ruin our financial life, or the life of our careers. Very often that kind of fear boils down to a simple question: How does the possibility of success stack up against the risk of failure? Anyone who has ever wanted something badly enough in life has experienced the fear that comes with the possibility of failing. The greater the potential achievement, the greater the fear can be.
Fear, then, is the single biggest impediment to any sort of achievement. It’s certainly an insurmountable obstacle to making yourself an unforgettable person. In confronting fear with courage and commitment, one of the first steps is just recognizing that the fear exists. Some people never express courage because they don’t even know they’re afraid. They avoid challenges by such a wide berth that neither fear not courage ever has a chance to really kick in. For some others, just reading or hearing the word fear might cause a physical reaction. Fear can register on such a physical level that the simple thought of it is unpleasant. Your heart rate speeds up, your hands become moist, and all your senses are heightened. But again, in today’s world, this usually isn’t because someone is about to hit you with a shovel. It’s because you’re about to have a meeting with your boss. You’re about to sign a mortgage agreement. You’re trying to decide between two kinds of cars, or two investment plans. You’re not afraid for your life. You’re afraid of making a mistake. You’re afraid of failure. Most often, you’re just afraid of making a fool of yourself.
To help with this, remember that fear in the modern world is almost always a reaction to what’s going on in your mind — because it’s usually not going on anywhere else. Before your body can experience fear, your mind has to tell it to be afraid of something. Understanding that fear begins in the mind is a crucial step toward reacting courageously. Your brain may instinctively react with fear, but just by understanding that reaction, you can gain access to courage.
Fearful thoughts, therefore, provoke physical symptoms and physical actions. Fearful thoughts cause sweaty palms, and fearful thoughts also cause missed sales and canceled projects. The emotion of fear stems from several hormonal and neurochemical responses in the brain. Once these hormones are released throughout the body, they begin to trigger defensive mechanisms such as raising adrenaline and cortisol levels, and increasing heart rate and respiration. This is usually referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response. These symptoms are meant to stay active for only a few seconds or minutes, which is just enough time for a person to react to the object of his or her fear.
What do you think happens, however, when that object is not real? What if it's simply a situation created by your imagination? In this case, for many people, the high levels of adrenaline and increased breathing rates remain in the body for longer periods, adding more stress and consequently making the body experience burnout and exhaustion.
At one time, gladiators may have dealt with their fears by building up their bodies. Today it’s a matter of learning to control our minds. Needless to say, some people are much better at this than others. Do you know somebody who always seems to be calm and collected? The kind of person who can't be rattled? Who’s such a consistent model of courage, no matter what? Can it be that people like that don't have any fears at all?
The answer is absolutely not! Everyone experiences fear; it's just that some people handle it better than others. People who achieve any level of success are able to master fear well enough to get things done. Class acts don't let fear stand in the way of making things happen. Just as an athlete learns to play through pain, a certain kind of businessperson works through fear in order to get a job done. And how does he or she do that? Here are ideas you can try out for yourself.
First, remember what we said about fear being in the mind. In the contemporary world, fear is almost always a mind-created phenomenon. A courageous person understands this. A courageous person attempts what others fear to do — because he or she knows that the origin of fear is really in our own heads.
Second, be aware that the most common form of fear in your working life is fear of failure. Even if it seems as if you’re afraid of something else, fear of failure is almost always present in the workplace. Of course, nobody likes to fail. It hurts the ego. It’s not easy and it’s not pleasant. But as we’ve seen throughout this program, class means doing what’s difficult. And courage is the energy that lets you do that. Failure is a way of saying that you weren’t good enough ... not forever; just not this time. Just not yet.
If you look deep enough into your fear, you will find that there’s almost always nothing there. But fear tries to scare you into not looking very closely. It’s like the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Fear scares you into not trying. Not trying deprives you of acquiring experience. Not acquiring experience means you are not moving forward. And if you don't move forward in any endeavor, how can you be successful? So look your fear in the eye, and you'll see that it can't really harm you.
This is what class acts have learned to do. Looking fear in the eye without blinking is the primary act of courage. In the 17th century, the British philosopher Francis Bacon said, "Nothing is fearsome except fear itself." Three hundred years later President Franklin Roosevelt used almost those same words in the darkest hours of the Great Depression.
So if you feel the fear coming on before a big presentation or interview, call upon courageous thoughts. Remind yourself that you’ve been in more difficult situations before — and you’re still here. In fact, you were probably made even stronger by the challenges you faced. In a year, or maybe a week, or perhaps even tomorrow, you’ll feel the same way about what’s happening today.
People often speak of conquering fears, but a much more effective strategy is to actually embrace them. Embracing fear means recognizing the symptoms and becoming aware of its presence, and devoting your conscious mind to it. Turn your fear into an experiment. When you start feeling nervous and anxious, tell yourself, "It's beginning. I'm becoming afraid." By acknowledging fear and keeping company with it, you will eventually learn how to master it.
Conquering fear in this sense does not mean destroying it. When you conquer something, you take control of it and become its master. No one can ever completely destroy fear, and why should you? It’s a part of human nature whether we like it or not. So here are a few easy mental and physical steps you can use to control fear, rather than letting it control you:
Number one: Get up and get moving. Many people are afraid to start the day. Some even have panic attacks early in the morning, while they're still in bed. So get under way. Open the morning paper, turn on the TV, and notice that life is still going on around you. Get dressed and go outside. See that there are people and activity around you at all times. This puts your fear into perspective and makes it small.
As a continuation of this, get enough exercise: Get your blood flowing. Do some sit-ups or push-ups, lift weights, or walk your dog around the block. Exercise replaces fear hormones in your body with others that promote strength and power. When you’re stronger physically, you’ll feel stronger emotionally.
Idea number two may surprise you. Sing — or if you don’t want to sing, at least whistle. Pick your favorite tune and sing or whistle it continuously. This is simply another way to control your breathing and calm yourself down.
Third, live in the present moment, in the here-and-now. Repeat the following sentences whenever fear starts to enter your mind: "There's no problem I have to solve at this exact moment in time. The most important thing I can experience right now is calm and relaxation." Saying these phrases aloud will force you to concentrate on where you really are rather than where you’re afraid of being. They’ll prevent your mind from focusing on things in the future that may never occur.
Next, it seems like a cliché — but think positive. Reviewing a past success, particularly before a presentation or a meeting, is an excellent way to eradicate the butterflies. You become instantly reminded that you've achieved great things before, and there's no reason why you shouldn't achieve them again.
Tell yourself, "I can handle it." This pulls you away from the fight-or-flight response — the quick breathing and sweaty palms — and toward a reasoned response. As a result, you calm down — and calm is the ground state of courage.
Point number five is the connection between food and fear. When you’re anxious, eat something simple like toast with orange juice or some carrots. Metabolized food is energizing, refreshing, and calming.
Suggestion six: Talk to yourself. This is the where you can really "fall in love" with fear. Tell yourself some extremely basic facts about fear, life, and your present situation.
For example, when you are in fear about things you don’t have now, especially money, think about what you do have: Maybe it’s a wonderful family, a loving dog, caring friends, or interesting work. The list goes on and on, and every point wipes away some fear. Remind yourself that there is no profit in fear, no pleasure in fear, and no wisdom in fear. Tell yourself that you are the master of your own mind. Only you can control fear.
Finally, get plenty of rest when you’re in stressful circumstances. It's almost impossible to feel courageous when you're exhausted. Use these ideas to take control of your fears instead of giving them control over you.
I’m sure it’s clear by now that fear is a precondition of courage, not its opposite. If we were looking for the real opposite to courage, there’s a very straightforward word for it: discouragement. Like fear, it starts in the mind and directly affects what we do — or don't do.
In business, any endeavor is usually composed of many steps that are put together and ultimately lead to a goal. Building a company, for example, is an incremental undertaking. Along the way, there is a good chance that you will get discouraged. Perhaps sales are not growing as fast as you would like; you hired some ineffective employees; there was a defect in one of your products; you had to issue a recall ... the list is endless. You must keep in mind at all times that discouragement is part of the game. That is, you will feel discouraged at times — which is when you must show the most courage.
Suppose you’re a sales rep having a rough month. It looks as if you are going to miss your sales target and get chewed out by your boss. You start feeling down and become less productive. You figure you're done for. This is when the process begins; you have to realize that discouragement is sinking its claws into your mind. Recognize that you are starting to get discouraged.
Now you need to remind yourself that discouragement will get you nowhere. It will only help drag you down even more. So be quick and get it out of your system. Don't let it get a firm hold of you, or you're toast. Now the faster you can get rid of it and get moving to reach your goals, the better. How can you do that? Good question. The answer is through encouragement.
This doesn’t mean just having a rah-rah session with a bunch of people. Encouragement can and must come from within. During the course of your life, you've certainly achieved grand things. Maybe you won an award of some kind, or were complimented as being a good friend, coming up with a solution to a tough problem. Maybe you were the top sales rep in your company for a period of time. Among other things, these are all achievements that required a certain amount of courage. More importantly, they are your achievements, and nothing stops you from moving on to greater things. If you could stand up to the challenge and win then, why not do the same today? Do it again!
Tell yourself that you are capable of achieving great things. Tell yourself that you're smart. Tell yourself that you'll achieve your goals because you are willing to put in the necessary effort. Above all, tell yourself that you’re a class act and an unforgettable person — in the past, in the present, and in the future.
So what's needed is action. But action does not spring from nothing. Suppose you wanted to start working out and get into top shape. To do so, you would have to start eating properly, go to the gym regularly, train with intensity, get enough sleep, and generally dedicate yourself to a given number of hours a week. Sounds like a lot of effort ? Here’s a secret: The hardest part is getting started. And what makes the difference between a successful start and an unsuccessful one? Courage.
If you do the thing you think you can’t do, you'll feel your hope, your dignity, and your courage grow stronger. Someday you’ll face harder choices that might require even more courage. And when those moments come and you choose well, your courage will be recognized by the people who matter most to you.