What would you do if you were more courageous?
Late one evening just before the start of the new year, I was catching up with a friend.
As we slowly demolished the dessert we were sharing, we exchanged updates on life, family and work, reflecting on the year that was about to end. Both of our careers have significantly changed, in different ways, over the last couple of years. My friend returned to work last year after having her first child, her transition made more challenging by stepping into a more senior role as well as starting to work part-time for the first time in her professional career. As for me, late last year I left the company that had employed me for more than a decade and decided to venture out on my own.
My friend expressed how she thought it courageous for me to give up the security of employment. It was something she wouldn't be able to do at this point in her life, she said.
But courage comes in different shapes and sizes.
For my friend, who is seeking a balance between work and life that seemed all too elusive last year, courageous in this chapter of her career might look like: deciding to put her health first and going to bed rather than staying up to work late into the night, again; taking time to consider a new request at work, rather than saying yes immediately despite a full workload; or having an honest conversation with her manager about how she's feeling and how he can help her.
For me, courageous over the next few months is likely to involve: allowing myself to be visible and my voice to be heard more than I've previously been comfortable with; putting myself 'out there' to experiment with new approaches despite not knowing how they'll turn out; and saying no to the good (e.g. freelance work that pays well but isn't completely aligned with my desired direction) to make room for the great.
What is courage?
In the book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver, positive psychologist and researcher Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener came up with the following definition of courage (drawing on psychologist Christopher Rate's work):
“Courage is the willingness to act toward a moral or worthwhile goal despite the presence of risk, uncertainty and fear.”
It seems that the word 'courageous' is often used these days to describe acts of heroism that are big, dramatic or public - that is, bold action in difficult circumstances that most people would agree require courage.
I believe that what matters is doing what feels courageous for you.
That's personal and subjective. (Did you know the word 'courage' originally comes from the Latin cor ‘heart’? In Middle English it was used broadly to mean ‘what is in one's mind or thoughts’ or, according to researcher Dr. Brené Brown, ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’.)
So courage doesn’t have to mean quitting your job to be an entrepreneur or freelancer. You don’t have to be saving the world or going from zero to hero in one big leap. In a work context, even 'common' actions such as speaking in front of a room, hiring someone or delegating might feel courageous for you.
Why does courage matter?
Dr. Biswas-Diener says that, 'Courage is the shortest route to the good life', one that is rich and rewarding. And after all, 'everything you want is on the other side of fear', as George Addair apparently said.
Choosing to take action despite risk, uncertainty and fear isn't always easy. It requires vulnerability, and as social creatures, our desire to be liked and to belong can make it tempting to present only the shiniest, most polished and 'perfect' parts of ourselves. But Dr. Brené Brown challenges the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and argues that it is really our most accurate measure of courage.
And the magic is that it's through this courage, vulnerability and imperfection that we liberate ourselves to become who we really are, create change, see new opportunities, and deepen our connection with others. Dr. Brené Brown describes vulnerability as 'the birthplace of love, belonging, innovation, and creativity - the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.'
What would you do if you were more courageous?
Rather than let fear drive your decisions, what would happen if you chose to be led by curiosity and courage instead?
Courage is a practice, a habit, a skill that can be learned or developed.
You can build and strengthen your courage. Start where you are, and practise taking small steps out of your comfort zone. If stepping outside your comfort zone feels scary, try thinking about it as enlarging your comfort zone instead, as Michele Woodward suggests.
One tiny courageous choice at a time.
What feels courageous for you to do right now?
It's easier to face your fears if you're clear on your 'worthwhile goal' or your 'why'.
You know best what will enlarge or expand your comfort zone, but if you're looking for ideas, here are 10 actions you could try:
- Speak up in a meeting when you’d usually stay silent. Voice your opinion. Share what you sense or notice, in between people's words. Call out the elephant in the room. Ask the question you're afraid to ask.
- Say no to something you don’t have the capacity to take on, or don’t want to do. Honour your self, your health and your boundaries. You can say no without being unkind.
- Raise your hand for a task or project that excites you (and perhaps raises your profile) but feels like a stretch. Even if you don't feel entirely ready, or you know you might not be as awesome at it as you’d like, yet. Consider whose support you can enlist to build your confidence and provide guidance.
- Give yourself permission to do less or be imperfect. If you're feeling overwhelmed, pause to discern what matters most and focus on doing 'less but better'. (On this topic, I recommend Greg McKeown's book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.) Release some control, delegate more. Tone down your perfectionism - recognise the difference between the pursuit of excellence vs. impossibly high standards of perfection that generate anxiety and fear. (Research suggests that 'good perfectionism' is an oxymoron - any success is probably in spite of perfectionism, not because of it.)
- Change a situation that is causing you unhappiness or stress. Choose to stop making excuses and start looking for a way through (or a way out). Have that difficult or courageous conversation.
- Reconnect with someone you care about. Decide that feeling awkward isn’t enough of a reason to hold you back, and drop an email or call a mentor, colleague or client you haven’t spoken to in a while. Most likely, they’ll appreciate hearing from you and be flattered to know you were thinking of them.
- Open yourself to a new experience. Take a new class, volunteer for a cause you care about, build relationships through a networking or professional group, find an industry association or conference on a topic you're interested in (even if it's outside your current industry), say yes and go along to an event you might usually shy away from.
- Share a little more of yourself at work. Show your quirks and interests. Share what inspires you, and take the time to find out what motivates your colleagues. Open up about your struggles to a colleague, a mentor or your manager and together work towards a solution.
- Invest in yourself. What do you want to be known for? What are you curious about? Take ownership for your education and development. Go beyond the professional development and training given to you by your employer and invest time and/or money to up-skill yourself in an area you'd like to develop. You could use your network to see if you can get a warm introduction to someone who can help you, or reach out to someone in your organisation who might be willing to share their experience. Consider signing up for some external training or partnering with a coach. If it's related to your job, your employer may even be willing to sponsor you.
- Ask for what you need. Or dare to ask for what you want. You may be pleasantly surprised! And even if you don't get what you want, or it doesn't turn out exactly as you'd hoped, you'll probably come out the other side realising you're still standing, and able to tackle your next act of courage.
What will you do to practise courage today?
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P.P.S. An inspiring example of 'everyday' courage - demonstrated over and over again - is Daniel Flynn's journey to build social enterprise Thankyou. If you haven't read it yet check it out here - it's a fascinating story!