On January 17, 1931 in Arkabutla, Mississippi, a baby boy was born to parents who would end up being more absent than present in his life. At the tender age of 5, the boy moved to Jackson, Michigan to be raised by his grandparents on their farm.
The change of life from Mississippi to Michigan was so disturbing for the young boy that he developed a stuttering problem. Upon entering school, his stutter became worse, causing him to become self-conscious and shy around his peers.
It progressed to the point where the boy decided to stop talking at school altogether to protect himself from the harsh scrutiny of his classmates.
The child held his silence for 8 years. Consequently, he was labeled a “functional mute.”
Then, in his first year of high school, he met an English teacher that took a special interest in him. The young boy had developed a beautiful talent for writing poetry and that teacher was adamant that his words be spoken in front of the class.
Somehow, that boy who hadn’t uttered a word in 8 years, was going to have to overcome one of the most common fears of all, public speaking. He was going to have to develop some courage and do it quickly.
What Is Courage?
It’s the willingness to take action despite the anxiety or fear that problem may present, whether that anxiety or fear is real or imaginary. Despite a common belief, courage is not about being fearless.
In Dr. Richard Zinbarg’s article for Psychology Today, he talks about the book Fear and Courage by Stanley Rachman. Dr. Zinbarg summarized Rachman’s point of view on anxiety and courage stating:
“If one does not experience anxiety or fear about doing something, then it is easy to do and does not require courage or strength. Rachman’s perspective suggests that the more anxious or fearful someone is to do something but does it anyway, then the greater the courage or strength!”
What Rachman is saying is that courage cannot exist without fear or anxiety. These negative emotions and thoughts are the very fuel needed to have courage.
Imagine the amount of fear that boy felt as his English teacher told him he had to recite one of his poems. I know I would’ve been a wreck. Beads of sweat would have come out of nowhere, my heart rate would have tripled, and my mind would have gone into overdrive about how I didn’t want to speak, how I would inevitably fail, how shameful and stupid or silly I would feel, all within a matter of seconds. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Two Types of Courage
I think courage boils down into 2 categories. Heroic courage and everyday courage.
You know all about Heroic courage right?
This is the courage that every superhero possesses. It’s the bravery that navy seals have when they are preparing to take on what seems like an impossible task. It’s the courage that a firefighter calls on as he rushes into a burning building. That selfless type of courage that causes someone to sacrifice themselves for someone else, even if it costs their life. That is heroic courage.
Then there is everyday courage.
The kind of courage that sometimes doesn’t seem like courage at all, just simply someone’s daily routine or action. Everyday courage is the child who falls off his bike and scrapes his knee. But, instead of running into the house vowing never to ride his bike again, he puts a band-aid on the cut and gets back on the bike. Everyday courage is walking into work, believing that you will be better today than you were yesterday. It is challenging yourself to be just a little bit better than you were last time.
Although everyday courage seems to pale in comparison to heroic courage, everyday courage is a far more important type of courage to cultivate.
Amy S. Choi gave a Ted Talk where she discussed how different cultures around the world think about parenting. In her talk, she spoke about how a Japanese mother would “let her 4-year-old daughter run errands with her 7-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother without parental supervision. Her kids don’t hesitate to take the Tokyo subway by themselves and walk the busy streets alone, just like their Japanese peers.”
As crazy as this may sound, consider what these children are learning. This activity of running errands for their family teaches these children independence, responsibility, and courage. Inevitably, these kids learn to navigate their city, speak up when addressing adults, protect each other, and how be responsible for not only themselves, but each other.
Essentially, each day these kids go out and run errands, they are cultivating those characteristics, so that when the time comes for them to be independent, responsible, or courageous; they have experiences to draw upon because they practiced it regularly. Additionally, they gain experience that children in other parts of the world won’t learn until much later in life.
Courage Can be Learned
While scientists and psychologists debate whether or not some people are born with more courage than others, I whole heartedly believe this doesn’t matter because courage can be learned.
Courage is a skill and like any other skill, it can be learned, taught, practiced, and cultivated for the future. The same way that 4-year-old is learning to run errands, you and I can learn how to live with more courage and develop that courage over time.
The best part is, you can continuously practice courage. Even if you end up trying something new and failing, once you decide to try again, you’re continuing the growth of your courage. There is no finite or maximum level of courage. Nor is there any minimum requirement you must achieve. The amount of courage you decide to learn is completely up to you. It’s your choice. Nobody can stop you except you.
Cultivating Courage Will Save Your Life
What if you didn’t invest time in developing your courage? I think we both know that if we allowed our negative thoughts about ourselves to flow unchecked, we would ultimately end up destroying ourselves.
Without increasing our courage and trying each day to do and be better than the day before, we would miss out on the amazing opportunities that lay at our feet. We would start believing the lies that we aren’t good enough or smart enough to do the things that we dream about. We’d never be able to experience the life that we desire. Henry David Thoreau said it best:
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
We would be those men and women, heading to our ends, without even sharing our gifts. Is that the life you want? Is that how you want your story to end?
No, that won’t be your end. Because you’ll be the one who takes the small risks every day to stretch your comfort zone. Before you know it, you’ll be taking on bigger and more difficult tasks, doing more than you ever imagined. Then, somewhere along the way you’ll look at all you’ve accomplished and realize how much more you believe in yourself. You’ll realize how much courage you’ve stored up and how many times you looked anxiety and fear in the face, and kept going.
You’ll be the one who doesn’t take their song to the grave, but shouts it from the mountain tops, sharing all your wonderful gifts with the world. You’ll have the courage to live your dreams and the strength to speak when the time comes.
What About that Young Boy?
As for the boy who vowed to be silent, according to him, somehow he stood up, walked to the front of the class, looked at all of his peers, took a breath and began to recite his poem from memory. He never stuttered. He never faltered. He performed perfectly. And from that day forward that young man kept speaking, practicing, and improving his skills by reciting his poetry and pursuing other speaking opportunities in and outside of school.
That young man went off to college to study medicine, but soon fell in love with drama. After college, he served in the Korean War, and then moved to New York to pursue his passion – acting.
He did pretty well. He landed job after job and is now famous for being one of the most recognizable voices in cinematic history, the voice of Darth Vader. His name is James Earl Jones.
Your Next Action Steps
In the comments, share one thing you would accomplish if you have just a little more courage.
For example: If I had a little more courage, I’d start a Podcast of me reading my blog posts and other great posts around the web to start out. Then maybe I’d also interview people from our community and outside our community about discarding social anxiety.
What would you do?