Courage is a competency that we can develop. Contrary to popular belief, we are not born courageous (or not!) but develop courage from the minute we start to become aware of our surroundings.
Let’s start at the beginning. Courage is the willingness to act despite recognising the risks – physical, societal, emotional and/or psychological – of doing so. So the toddler who continues to try to learn to walk despite the known pain of falling, who continues to put things in their mouth despite the awful flavour, or who wanders away from their care giver to explore despite the feelings of insecurity are all examples of courage in action at the earliest of ages. Even as they get older children continue to show courage – learning a new skill like bike riding, standing up in front of an audience for the first time, changing schools, dating and leaving home.
So why do children continue to display courage when they know it could (and often does) bring pain, discomfort, insecurity and, in the case of older children, potential ridicule from their friends? Partly it is biological – the need to explore their surroundings; partly societal – to be part of the group; and partly learned – to receive praise or avoid punishment. Parents also play an important part to helping shape courage in young people – to give up or carry on, to try something new or stick with the old, to embrace uncertainty or try to contain it.
So why as adults do many of us start to see courage as an uncertain friend – something to hold as a virtue but for others to do? Is it because we don’t recognise the courage in the everyday and begin to only see courage in the extreme – acts of valour by soldiers rising their lives for others or whistleblowers risking their livelihood for cherished principles? Or is it because we build our experiences up to a level that our days don’t hold surprises or uncertainties, or if they did then we already know how to avoid them?
Whatever the reason, we can recreate those moments of childhood and train ourselves to be more courageous.
If you’re trying to be courageous why don’t you try the following;
1. Reflect on previous courageous experiences
One of the most powerful ways we have to increase our courageousness is to remind ourselves of previous times of when we were being courageous. The closer the example to your current situation the more powerful it can be. For example, when did you last go and ask for a pay increase, or raised a complaint, or said no to someone who was asking an unreasonable demand? Remember the fear you felt and how it turned to elation when you overcame it.
2. Get a better understanding of the risks involved
Most humans overestimate the risks of their potential action – they think they will suffer more than is realistic. In reality, other people don’t often care as much about us as we care about ourselves! To address this, talk to other people to get a balanced perspective, undertake a ‘dry run’ in your head, try to imagine how you might react if someone else did it or find others who have done similar actions.
3. Link the action to the bigger picture
Sometimes when something seems impossibly difficult to do it is worth thinking about the bigger picture and recognising that your action is only one part of that. For example, Rosa Parks showed immense courage when taking her seat on the bus and while we can only imagine what her thoughts were, one way of giving herself courage could have been to imagine how many fellow Black Americans had died or suffered great tragedy before her.
4. Take small steps
A great tactic to build courage is to take small steps. While preparing for your big presentation, you might want to practice in the mirror and in front of friends so that the big event doesn’t become quit so scary.
5. Act tactically
While courage is a very personal action, one tactic for building courage is to recognise the needs of the greater group, organisation or society. Many examples of bravery refer to individuals who have put others before themselves – physically, socially, mentally. By drawing inspiration and reference from wider values and needs, individuals throughout the ages have undertaken hugely courageous actions.
Remember, the amount of courage that an individual displays is a function of the perceived risk and reward of the action, previous experience, the clarity of their personal principles and their attachment to the wider group. If you can understand the actual risks, focus on the rewards of your actions, draw inspiration from your past, dig deep into your values and link your actions to the wider group – then you can be courageous!