Have you ever held back from making a change or taking a chance, afraid of what might happen if you did? Have you ever stayed silent when there was something you really wanted to say, scared of ruffling feathers or being rejected? Have you ever thought to yourself, I wish I just had the guts?
If you have, you’re not alone.
As human beings, we’re wired for caution. We steer away from situations that expose us to the possibility of failing, losing face or feeling foolish. Our desire for safety and certainty pulls hard against our desire for growth and adventure.
If only I had the courage, we often say to ourselves, as though courage is something only a lucky few are endowed with. But that’s not true. Within you lies all of the courage you will ever need—to make that change or take that chance—in your work, relationships and life.
You just haven’t learned how to access it. Yet.
I know this because I’ve spent much of my life learning how to find my courage and rise above the fear that can so easily rob us of our freedom and hold our happiness hostage. From dealing with the challenges I never would have chosen (an armed robbery and numerous family tragedies) to those I’ve willingly taken on (having four children in five years while moving around the world) I’ve discovered that courage is a skill, and like all skills, it can be learned and mastered. I’ve spent years working with everyone from CEOs to trailblazing entrepreneurs to prove this.
Think of courage as a muscle. If you’ve never lifted weights, even the smallest weights will be challenging in the beginning. But if you keep working out, over time you’ll increase your capacity to lift heavier ones. Each time you act in the presence of fear, you dilute its power and grow your own.
But how do you move beyond the bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans that say Just Do It, Live Strong or Be Brave? How do you actually take that audacious leap of faith over a seemingly giant chasm of fear? This six-step guide will inspire you to go from fearful to brave in the face of risk.
Start by asking yourself, For the sake of what? Nothing worthwhile is accomplished with a guarantee of success. Risk is a toll life exacts en route to any meaningful endeavor. Finding the courage to take risks demands you be 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, you have to be crystal clear about what it is you want to gain in the process. What are you willing to lay your reputation, pride, status or vulnerability on the line for? Only when your desire for something transcends your desire for safety can you rise above the fears hardwired into you to protect you from such dangers.
A big, inspiring why propelled Justine Flynn and her co-founders to launch their company, Thankyou, in 2008. They were straight out of college and had no idea what they were doing. Flynn told me she and her co-founders felt passionate about helping people in the developing world get access to clean drinking water, something most of us take for granted. It wasn’t that Flynn and her co-founders didn’t fear failing. It was that their desire to make a difference was stronger than the fear that they would fall short. Eight years later, there are nearly 200,000 people who drink clean water every day thanks to them.
Fear often gets a bad rap. Its sole purpose is to alert you to potential threats to your safety. But in today’s culture of fear, we can find ourselves living in its shadow, unable to distinguish those fears that are serving us from those that are stifling us. Psychologists have identified these four key mechanisms that undermine our ability to assess smart risks from safe ones.
1. We overestimate the size of the risk, making potential losses loom larger than gains.
2. We catastrophize and exaggerate the potential consequences.
3. We underestimate our ability to handle the risk.
4. We discount, downplay or deny the cost of inaction.
The result is people end up being overly cautious, unwilling to take the very risks needed to create more meaningful lives. When we shine a light on our fears and realize the actual cost of inaction, we loosen the grip fear has on our psyche. This improves our ability to accurately assess risk and discern the smartest path forward, even if it’s not the easiest or most comfortable.
Six weeks before her wedding day, my younger sister Anne, a doctor, called me to say she was having strong second thoughts about whether to marry her fiancé. Although 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 said, “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 brave decision to break off her engagement. Although she said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do, it taught her 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, Sudan, that served internally displaced Sudanese refugees. Since then, Anne has not only married the man of her dreams (and is set to have her third child with him), but she has done extraordinary work in public health around the globe.
Of course we aren’t all called to head off to war zones or launch social enterprises. But we are all called to make our mark on the world in some way. Before you read any further, ask yourself, What would I do if I were being truly courageous? Take a minute to close your eyes, breathe deeply and sit with the question. As you do, give your imagination permission to soar and open your heart to wherever it takes you. However dauntingly large or seemingly insignificant your vision is, just know that within you lies all of the resources you will ever need to make it a reality. One day, one hour, one daring act of courage at a time.
In October 2001, with three children under 4 (including an 8-week-old), I moved from Australia to Dallas with my husband, Andrew, who’d been offered a job. It was a difficult time, not only because of the heightened anxiety after 9/11, but because I was living 10,000 miles away from my family with little support.
Six months in, I fended off my mother’s guilt to take a few child-free days with my husband. Away from the disruption of young children, I did a visualization exercise, imagining the life I wanted in 10 years. I knew it would draw on my background in psychology and interest in Fortune 500 business, and align with my passion for helping people live more bravely. I envisioned myself forging a new career supporting people to live bigger lives and make their own mark on the world.
To my disbelief, what also appeared clear as day were the faces of four, not three, children. I recall slapping my face to reset the image. With my husband working long hours and regularly away for travel, I was already stretched just mothering three children. How could I pursue a new career and have a fourth child? But that image was clear, and the vision was compelling. In my heart I knew my dream life included nurturing a big family while also pursuing my calling outside of the home. As scared as I was of not having what it would take to create both, I also knew deep in my heart that if I didn’t at least try to have a fourth child, I would run the bigger risk of looking back with regret.
Just over a year later, our little Texan, Matthew Raymond, arrived. Now 14 years later, I am living my calling in ways I was unable to imagine in 2002. Although I’m juggling (and dropping) more balls than I could also have imagined back then, it’s only reinforced my belief that when we dare to pursue our boldest dreams, we can discover just how capable, creative and courageous we truly are. As my family (now with four teenagers) learned last year when we all climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, it is by stretching our limits that we can expand them.
Related: How to Push Yourself to Greatness
Only when we dare to trust ourselves and dream more bravely can we harness the potential that resides within us and unleash our brilliance upon the world.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by your dream, focus on what you can do in the next day or week. Then next week and the week after that, do the same thing.
My dad, a humble dairy farmer with a generous heart, always cautioned me with the following words: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Having left school at 16 and spent 47 years milking cows, I knew he meant well, yet his advice strikes at the tension between living a wholehearted life and living a comfortable one.
All change, even positive change, is innately uncomfortable, as it requires trading the familiarity of the known for the uncertainty of the new. It’s why so many people choose to sleepwalk through their adult lives, staying in jobs that leave them miserable or in relationships that leave them lonely. Preferring the devil they know than the devil they don’t, they opt for what is most certain now because they’re afraid of the possibility they might end up worse than they were before.
But at what cost? By discounting the price of our inaction and indecision, we sell ourselves out and settle for a life far smaller than the one we are capable of living. All the while dreams retreat, passion wanes, doors close, talent sleeps, and life passes by.
It usually takes less than a minute after having an insp iring 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 is, you need to start by breaking it into smaller, shorter-term goals with doable, bite-size actions achievable in the short term.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Identifying the first few steps is a strategy that worked for one of my clients, Tracey Webber, who founded EAT! With Tracey, in Charlottesville, Virginia. A successful sales executive, Tracey found herself increasingly dissatisfied with her work in the tech industry despite its secure salary and lucrative annual bonus. She wanted to make a change and pursue her passion for nutrition coaching but had no idea where or how to start.
“What’s the first thing you could do?” I asked her.
“I could look into the training programs and research people who are already successful in the field,” she said. “And I could make a financial plan to help me figure out how to bridge the income gap at least until my business was established.”
Webber went on to build up her business to include a host of consultants helping people live healthier through better nutrition, and it was all because she dared to think big, start small and trade the security of the known for the possibilities that inspired her most. Although Webber’s business is no longer active, she says it was the jumping off point for her to make changes in her life. Her business evolved to become a coaching business, then she and her husband started an IT services advisory firm, where one of her clients from Hewlett Packard Enterprise hired her. While she’s working in IT again, she says her mindset is different and she no longer feels stuck in her life.
Closer to home, I’m also managing feeling overwhelmed in launching my own online TV show, RawCourage.tv. The gap between where I am and the vision I have for the show five years from now (Oprah, watch out!) is vast. So I’ve begun with small steps. I chose the name, bought the website URL, found a website designer, scripted the first dozen episodes, sourced videographers and reached out to my dream list of people I’d love to interview.
It’s a huge undertaking. But I believe that we must not wait until we know everything before we dive in. I have no doubt that one year from now, I will be better off than if I’d waited for opportunity to come knocking at my door.
Action is the most powerful antidote to fear. The only way to rise above it is to go right through the heart of it.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by your dream, focus on what you can do in the next day or week. Then next week and the week after that, do the same thing. Make a 90-day plan and schedule specific steps, however small they might be. It’s far better to be moving forward slowly than to remain stagnant. Action is the most powerful antidote to fear. The only way to rise above it is to go right through the heart of it.
Let’s be clear: Living courageously is not the absence of knots in your stomach, a lump in your throat, chattering teeth or sweaty palms. It’s not about being fearless. It’s about fearing less.
We all have the capacity for greatness within us. Sometimes we’ve simply spent so long buying into a story that we’ve become a stranger to the bravest part of ourselves. It doesn’t need to stay that way.
Try this little experiment.
Stand as if there were a string pulling up through your head so you are tall and strong. Bring your shoulders back. Wear a quiet smile on your face. Lift your chin and look gently upward. Hold your stomach strong. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Take three deep breaths and imagine a time you felt like you could take on the world. Breathe into that feeling. Clench your fist and store it there.
Now that you are connected to the source of that strength, visualize yourself doing the very thing you know will set your life on the trajectory that inspires you most deeply. Imagine yourself taking bold, self-assured actions. Imagine the people around you reacting to you as someone to admire and to be reckoned with.
Feel the power of that moment. Take hold of it. Remember it. Own it.
Every single day, you can bring your bravest self to your biggest challenges. Hold yourself in your power. Only then can you realize you never needed to feel afraid to begin with because the courage was in you all along.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.