When Yves Biggoer-Burger was in the second grade, he witnessed a group of peers teasing an overweight girl. Drawing himself up to his full 8-year-old height, he stood by her side and said:
“Guys, she might be bigger than you, but she’s definitely not as stupid.”
The boys slunk away, shame-faced.
Many of us can remember times in our childhood—and our adulthood too—when we would have liked to act as bravely as Yves. But we couldn’t muster the courage. Maybe we weren’t lion-hearted or quick-witted enough. Maybe we thought that courage belongs to an elect class of noble souls and daredevils and not for the likes of us.
I have felt all of these things.
But this is a mistake not only for those who might benefit from our courage but also for our very own selves. Courage helps us grow and give. And it’s available to us all.
This post is not about how to take monumentally brave actions, like Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani education activist who was shot for her efforts, or like a firefighter rushing into a burning building. It is instead about understanding what courage really is and training ourselves to perform small, daily acts of bravery.
- Courage means being afraid and acting anyway, not that you’d know this from looking around at our culture, which celebrates fearlessness. (There are over 50 books titled Fearless on Amazon as of this writing.) If you tend to be fearful, you probably assume that you’re not courageous. Courage researchers Cynthia Pury and Charles Starkey reviewed the citations for valor of 74 recipients of the Carnegie Medal for heroic actions and found not a single mention of the words fear, afraid, or worried. This isn’t surprising; the psychologist Avril Thorne found that listeners embrace traumatic stories emphasizing bravery or compassion, but not ones focusing on fear or sadness. Yet, we all know that fear is a universally powerful emotion, and we all know how terrible terror feels. Thus, we should grasp that feeling afraid and acting anyway is a form of nobility.
- Courage is a habit, a muscle you can exercise. Most of us aren’t born courageous, so we shouldn’t expect to magically acquire it without practice. As Brene Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Courage is…a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”
Get in the habit of deciding what you think about things and speaking from that place of conviction. Practice saying what you think about small, inconsequential things: pleasantly, politely—but firmly.
- Notice every time you do something that you’re scared to do—something your body is telling you not to do. You’ll start to realize that you do these things all the time. You’re already much braver than you think. This is particularly true of shy people for whom daily life requires them to smile in the face of fear. Here is one of my favorite quotes, by Charles Darwin: “A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.”
- Focus on the people or cause you’re standing up for. It’s easier to be courageous on behalf of others than it is for your own sake. Here is one of my favorite examples: a fellow Princeton grad named John Burford, who rushed a fraternity, was horrified by its dangerous hazing practices and wrote a letter to the school paper describing his experiences. It was a hugely courageous act. At the time, all of Burford’s friends were members of the college Greek system. But he focused not on the risk to his own social standing but on the safety of future students: “Ultimately,” he explained, “what I wasn’t OK with was the possibility of being remembered…as ‘that guy who knew what fraternities at Princeton did, and could have spoken up, and then somebody died because of his fucking cowardice.’”
- Find courage in numbers. It’s much easier to act in the company of even one other person who feels the way you do. The hardest thing in the world is to dissent solo. Sometimes, you’ll have to go it alone, of course. But often, this isn’t necessary.
- Learn to attend to positive signals and to discount negative ones. Many of us have a “negativity bias” that causes us to pay more attention to disapproval than to positive reinforcement. Be aware of this, and gently steer your mind to positive stimuli. When I first started my public speaking career, I tended to focus on whichever audience member had the most disgruntled expression on her face. These days, though I still hope to please everyone, I’m much more attuned to those who seem happy to be there.
- Find role models of quietly courageous people. I’m a huge believer in the power of role models for just about anything you hope to do or become. When you’re trying to stretch yourself beyond your apparent limits, there’s a part of you that wonders whether it can actually be done. A role model is a constant reminder that the answer is yes. Channel that person until it feels natural to channel your very own self. And if you don’t have a role model handy, try Miep Gies, the quiet and ordinary woman who sheltered Anne Frank in her attic for two years. “I don’t want to be considered a hero,” said Gies.“Imagine [if] young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary.”
It was exactly Gies’ ordinariness that made her courage all the more noteworthy and attainable for us all.