The crucial role of courage in personal freedom

I don’t think of myself as a “courageous” person, at least not in a stereotypical way. We tend to think of “courage” as an attribute of firefighters, of the men and women who serve our country in the armed forces, or of media-celebrated heroes who are heedless of their personal safety as they rush into dangerous situations to rescue complete strangers. However, over the years I have developed a fair amount of practical, day-to-day courage, and this in turn has helped me to accomplish things I never in a bazillion years would have thought I could do. Courage comes in many forms and many degrees, and it can (and should) be cultivated by anyone who seeks personal freedom – the more courage you have, the more truly free you can be.

Why do I say that? Well, let’s first look at what courage is.

Simply, courage is the ability to act in the face of fear: if you do something in spite of being afraid to do it, you have courage. For example, if you’re afraid of heights but you overcome that fear to stand on the 86th-floor observation deck at the Empire State Building, you have courage. If you are afraid of public speaking, but agree to give a talk on your recent cross-country motorcycle trip at the local library, you have courage.

Notice that courage has many forms: some of us have great physical courage (the ability to overcome the fear of personal harm, injury, or even death), while others have great psychological courage (the ability to overcome the fear of non-physical injury, such as injury to our pride if we stammer and forget our lines in front of an audience). And courage has many degrees: You may be able to overcome your fear of heights by taking up base-jumping and leaping off a 400-foot cliff in a wingsuit, while I might declare victory if I could make it to the top of a 6-foot stepladder without breaking into a cold sweat.

The cool thing about this, of course, is that we can each be courageous in our own way, by deciding which fears we want and need to overcome, and then strengthening our courage by repeated exposure to those fears. Afraid of heights? Don’t start by tackling Mount Everest – climb on a step-stool and look around. Then try a step-ladder. Feeling good? How about a hike to a mountain overlook? As we progressively expose ourselves to situations and activities which in our own experience have caused us fear, and forcing ourselves to be in those situations in spite of our fears, we become more courageous – step by step, day by day. And you can be as courageous, in your own way, as a firefighter running into a burning building, just by overcoming your own fears of far less dangerous situations on a daily basis.

Why is continuously exposing ourselves to those things we fear, in order to cultivate greater forms and degrees of our own personal courage, important to growing our personal freedom? With greater courage, you will be able to face the fears which are holding you back from greater personal freedom. Many people are stuck in dead-end jobs because they are afraid to quit – they fear not having a source of income, or losing face, or of what the neighbors will say. What if they practiced quitting, building up their courage to quit, by taking baby steps in that direction? To start, they could practice quitting some commitments that are not so consequential as a job: say, quitting a boring Tuesday-night book club, or quitting a town committee on paint colors for the new library – you get the idea. With each successive practice, you will be building your courage and ready yourself for greater challenges ahead; preparation is the greatest antidote to fear.

An important element of this practice is keeping track of how you feel both before and after each challenge (I call this your “daily courage log.”). Each entry in your daily courage log should list the date and time, what challenge you’ve set for yourself, how you think you’re going to feel while you’re doing it, and then how you think you are going to feel when you’ve completed it. Leave two more spaces, for how you actually felt while you were in the middle of your challenge, and how you actually felt when you completed it. Here’s a sample entry, based on a challenge I took while skiing recently in Grand Targhee, Wyoming:

Date Challenge How I THINK I’m going to feel while doing it. How I THINK I’m going to feel after completing it. How I ACTUALLY felt while doing it. How I ACTUALLY felt after I completed it.
2/12/2017 “Boot pack” (climb with ski boots on, and skis slung over your back) up a 400-foot climb and ski down a steep open bowl (I’ve never done any boot-packing before). Butterflies in my stomach; dizzy; lots of negative self-talk. Relieved that it’s over. Some low-level anxiety, but once I got started, more tired than anything else (boot-packing is hard work at 8,000 feet altitude); twinge in left knee; breathing hard. Exhilirated; adrenaline rush; wanted to do it again; couldn’t wait for next opportunity.


As you can see from this entry, my perceptions of how I would feel both during and after my challenge were pretty far off the mark, compared to how I actually felt. Thinking about it and worrying about it were far worse than actually doing it, and once I was in the middle of my challenge, I was too busy doing it to actually be afraid. Likewise, I felt so much better after doing it, that I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity to challenge myself.

By creating your own daily courage log, you can identify and work on all those fears that are holding you back from creating ever-greater personal freedom for yourself, whatever those fears may be. Remember to start small, and above all take incremental steps: the more steps you take, and the more regularly you take them, the greater the progress you’ll make in the end, and the greater your freedom to do those things that you thought you’d never be able to accomplish. And a final warning to all you risk-takers out there: don’t be foolhardy, OK? There is a vast difference between having courage and taking foolish risks – on that same recent ski trip, I took one look at Corbet’s Couloir, a steep, narrow, double-black-diamond trail off the peak at Jackson Hole, and knew immediately I didn’t have the skills to tackle it, so I opted for the challenge of skiing down Rendezvous Bowl instead: steep and scary, but within my abilities to make it down in one piece and live to write this blog post.

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