Yesterday I started teaching a class at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, GLBL252 Courage in Theory and Practice. Over the coming semester, I’ll be sharing a pared-down version of the class with you, my online readers. I wish you could be there in the classroom, as I anticipate lively discussion around these topics, and I’m sure I’ll learn at least as much from my students as they do from me. But failing that, I’ll post a blog each week, and once Producer Vic gets back from his well-earned vacation, we’ll be podcasting too.

If you want to take a look at the reading list/syllabus, you can find it here. GLBL252 Courage Syllabus

And there is an abridged version of the slideshow here.

Okay – on with the blog post…


Why does courage matter?

It’s possible you don’t feel the need for more courage in your life. For the things you do every day, you’re on top of it. You’re operating inside your comfort zone. You know what you like and you like what you know. No courage required, thank you very much.

And that’s all fine…. for now. Not wanting to be the scaremonger, but things change. Relationships change, finances change, jobs change, health issues change, governments change, weather patterns change. It takes courage to handle those changes with resilience and confidence, rather than stress and anxiety.

More than that, the world as a whole is sailing into uncharted waters. Computerization, robotization, a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, an unprecedentedly huge human population putting stress on supplies of water, food and housing… you may need to be courageous sooner than you think, and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

As national leaders challenge our trust in their leadership, we need to look for the leader inside ourselves, and believe that we have the power to make a difference in our corner of the world. As outgoing President Obama said in his final speech to the nation, “I do have one final ask of you as your President… I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours”.


What is courage anyway?

I used to think that courage was something that other people had – adventurers and explorers, soldiers and generals, firemen and first responders, CEOs and politicians. Testosterone seemed to be heavily correlated, too.

But I wasn’t really understanding what courage is. Many of the aforementioned are indeed courageous, but courage is more subtle than that. Courage is not fearlessness. Courage is not over-confidence. Courage is not (always) doing what you have been trained and paid to do. Courage can be something soft yet steely, gentle but determined, slow-burning yet stubborn. It is what used to be called backbone, when that was fashionable.

What I am really interested in is the art of living a courageous life, rather than the impulsive courage of the have-a-go hero. This ongoing courage is, I believe, what the world needs right now. And this is what, as individuals, sets us on a very different trajectory for our lifetime.


To get technical for a moment, Christopher Rate (2007) tentatively defined courage thusly:

  • A willful, intentional act
  • Executed after mindful deliberation
  • Involving substantial risk to the actor
  • Motivated to bring about a noble or worthy purpose
  • Despite the presence of fear

It’s important to note that the risk need not be physical – it could be loss of social standing, loss of ease, loss of anonymity, or anything else that we care about.

But most important to note is the last line, about the presence of fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, or teenagers doing dumb things would be getting awards for gallantry. Courage is feeling the fear, and doing it anyway. And why would we do that? Because of our motivation to bring about a noble or worthy purpose.

My theory for this is that:

When motivation is greater than fear, you get courage.

So if you want to be more courageous, pump up your motivation.


Can courage be taught?

As I was putting together the syllabus for my class on Courage in Theory and Practice at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, I encountered a certain amount of skepticism from friends about whether courage could be taught. I firmly believe that it can (and not only because I’m being paid to teach it).

I say this as someone who used to be utterly non-courageous, who now regularly gets mistaken for a courageous person, having rowed – solo – across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans in a 23-foot rowboat. (I also occasionally get mistaken for an idiot, which is also understandable.) What motivated this venture, which was outrageously audacious for someone who had never been to sea before, and doesn’t particularly like physical exercise?

It was that “motivation to bring about a noble or worthy purpose”. I’d had an environmental awakening, and wanted to do whatever I could to bring the urgent need for sustainable living to a wider audience. I knew my contribution might be minimal, but I just had to do something. I had no history as an activist, but now this went to the heart of my identity – I didn’t want to see myself as the sort of person who would stand by and watch the Earth go to hell in a handcart.

My motivation was so great that I invested my life’s savings, and got in a tiny rowboat, and rowed 15,000 miles to try and make a difference. It’s hard for you to appreciate just how far outside my comfort zone this was, because you don’t know me, but trust me – it was a leap of faith times ten.

So if I can make the transition from apathy to action, from bystander to badass, from cowardice to courage, then I really believe that anybody can. You just need passion, and purpose, and maybe a fair dollop of naïve optimism that you can make a difference.

And one thing’s for sure – if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know.

Next week we’ll be looking at the Hero’s Journey, and how it can help make you more courageous.

See you then!



  • I am so psyched to follow you on this course literally! Wish they had such courses back in my day at college. Best of luck with it I know your students will benefit greatly. So many people associate courage with such gigantic epic feats/goals. It is a misunderstood word and it is refreshing to see you lay it all out in broader terms!

  • Roz, this is a fantastic piece, from start to finish. The bit that really is on fire for me is this:

    “What I am really interested in is the art of living a courageous life, rather than the impulsive courage of the have-a-go hero. This ongoing courage is, I believe, what the world needs right now. And this is what, as individuals, sets us on a very different trajectory for our lifetime.” Followed by that very powerful image…

    It is sobering to think of life just tailing off into a woolly cocoon of smallness and self-protection, but it’s not uncommon, especially when those around us take that path. I’m so glad to look up and see you out ahead of me 🙂

    Looking forward to the podcast!

    • Thanks so much, Max, for the words of appreciation. The paradox, of course, is how nervous I was about a week ago about teaching a class on courage. 🙂 But now it feels GREAT to be outside my comfort zone again. Thanks for all the great work you do in the world too!

  • Hi Roz- I’m looking forward to following this. It’s well time with the new era we’re about to enter. Courage will manifet itself in many ways here.
    “Any idiot can handle a crisis! the real courage is developed in surviving the daily grind” – Chekhov – ish

    • I believe that this is one of the great challenges of our time – for each and every one of us to find the inner courage we will need to face up to the massive challenges that are afoot in the world.

  • Looks like a really rich and valuable course. I hope your students go on to have great experiences. It has always fascinated me what different people fear. Familiarity I am sure can reduce fear in some cases. For example, I don’t like walking in woods very much – maybe I liked Red Riding Hood too much when I was very small – or maybe it’s because I grew up walking more on wild moors with no trees. Others fear open spaces. I’d be interested in ranking fears and seeing which are the most useful to overcome for folk in business.

    • That would be interesting to know, Angela. I know that “fear of failure” used to be right up there for me – until I practised failing (spectacularly) a few times and found out that it’s definitely survive-able, and in fact is the best teacher of all!

  • Hey, Roz.. its your old friend from Savage USA. To paraphrase your last paragraph, some of us (ME!) just need a new purpose to channel our innate passion or we could be left feeling apathetic. I “kicked the tire” on an MFA program at a local University, but seems its not quite right for me. I’ll audit your course instead and use the readings in the Syllabus. Just wish I knew how to get my hands on the short pages of readings assigned from certain books. ~Bravo Roz.

    • Absolutely this can be changed! I am sure this series will be full of ideas about that. And of course, it’s something that coaching can help with, and I’m sure is right in Roz’s wheelhouse 🙂

  • Roz….Followed you around the world and can’t wait to follow this course. I cannot imagine a better person to teach a course in courage. Perfect timing as we in the US and perhaps worldwide need courage today more than ever before in our lives. #resist.

  • We all need to develop courage, to continue to try and find our purpose and make the world a better place, particularly in these dark times. I wish you all the best with this course, which I will follow with interest. Regards Len

  • We all need to develop courage and continue to seek our purpose and try to make a contribution in these dark time. I will follow this course with interest. Best wishes Len

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