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!