One of my pet theories on courage is that:


In other words, we can feel fearful, but if we are massively motivated to take action, we can overcome the fear and do the courageous thing.

And what motivates us? A strong sense of purpose, usually in relation to a cause greater than ourselves – be it protection of our family, concern for the environment, a passion for social justice, or any of the other things we deem important and worthy.

[For the video of Producer Vic and me discussing motivation and purpose, click here! For podcast links, see the bottom of this blog post.]


Inner Algorithm

When we are deciding whether or not to do something, we usually run a decision process something like this, even if it only takes a split second:

  • Can I do this task? (self-efficacy)
  • Do I want to do this task? (emotional)
  • Why would I want to do this task? (cognitive – values, purpose)
  • Is this choice likely to arise again? (identity)
  • What is the meaning of undertaking this task? (worldview, significance, self-transcendence)

In the context of my class on courage, I am particularly interested in the last three questions.


Values and Purpose

My students each filled out a spreadsheet to explore their values. Here it is: Values Worksheet. And here are the instructions: Values Worksheet Instructions. The goal of the exercise is to end up with a list of the four values that are the most important to you, to use as a compass as you navigate through life. Often our dilemmas are caused by a clash of values, so knowing your key values in advance can help you make quick and good decisions when the need arises.


According to self-determination theory, we create a kind of internal code that governs how we behave. It focuses on intrinsic motivations, or our internal drivers, rather than extrinsic motivations like rewards or social approval.

In effect, each time we make a decision, we are reinforcing our self-concept, our sense of who we are. This can work for us or against us, depending on whether or not we hold ourselves in high self-esteem. It is as if we have a little observer watching our every move, and this observer is looking at our actions rather than our thoughts, so it is not impressed by good intentions. Based on its observations, the observer funnels feedback into our inner narrative, rounding out our idea of who we are and how we will behave in a given set of circumstances, and this largely determines how we will behave in a similar situation in the future.

When I was struggling for motivation on the Atlantic (which was just about every day), the most successful strategy for me was to make it a question of identity, or to put it a different way, to be mindful of the story I was telling myself about who I am. Did I want to be the kind of rower who exhibited discipline, determination, and dedication? Or did I want to be the kind of rower who slacked off and lazed around in my bunk?

You can try to make yourself do things by willpower alone, but as anybody who has ever been on a diet will testify, that is a hard way to do it, if every time temptation strikes you’re having to screw up all your willpower to stop your hand reaching out for a slice of cake.

It may take more work initially, but I believe that the only way to succeed in the long run is to create the inner story that you are the kind of person who doesn’t eat cake, who takes responsibility for their health, who is willing to make hard decisions in the short term to avoid much harder situations in the long term. Whatever challenge you’re facing, you can always find a way to reframe it to make it a question of identity.



Viktor Frankl

One of our set texts is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Even in the midst of the horror of Auschwitz, he was able to reframe his situation and find meaning in it, by perceiving it as a test presented to him by life. He wrote: “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly… Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual… When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task.”

He came to see his ability to find meaning in the ordeal as essential to his continued survival. He noted which of the other prisoners survived and which didn’t, and he saw that hope was usually fatal, as it led inevitably to disappointment. Those who survived were those who were able to find the gift in their suffering, and accept it rather than fight it.


In Conclusion

Thankfully most of us will never have to endure a prison camp, but we still want to find some way to manifest meaning in our lives by finding some purpose that fulfils us. If you’re looking for inspiration, you might enjoy this article about a question that many of us face – how to find work that aligns with our purpose.

“Be yourself.

Quit being the person people think you’re supposed to be.

Find a way to dig deep into your courageous self to be who you are.

Whatever that means as far as exploring your emotions, your identity, your profession, find one version of you that you are always and everywhere.”

–Leah Zaccaria

Or, as that well-known philosopher, Dolly Parton, put it:

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.


Who are you?

Who do you want to be?

What gives your life meaning?

What is your purpose?




As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast.

YouTube           iTunes               RSS (Android users can enter the link into their podcast client and subscribe directly)

You can find the slideshow from my lecture here on Slideshare. In case you want to take a look at the reading list, here it is again: GLBL252 Courage Syllabus.



Other Stuff:

Following on from last week’s look at critical thinking, and especially confirmation bias, I found this article very interesting. Whether or not you agree with the writer’s thinking process and/or conclusion, it is for sure a good example of somebody having the intellectual courage to step outside of their encultured worldview, consider the facts, and change their mind about an important and controversial issue.

I’m back home in Windsor for a few days, as I’m giving a lecture in Cambridge on Friday night that was booked long before I knew I would be at Yale this semester. The lecture is on Extreme Rowing – details here. To give you some idea just how long ago this booking was made, originally one of the other lecturers was due to be Theresa May, MP. I see she has had to cancel – no doubt something to do with having gone from MP to PM in the interim.

Next Wednesday I’m giving a careers talk at Yale, on the subject of Courageous Career-Building, at the Jackson Institute. I will NOT be encouraging students to row across oceans.





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