Discarded Anxiety - How to Build Courage

For the last few weeks, we've been discussing courage.  We started with my personal story of what it felt like to be courageous for a change in "I Have a Confession..."

Then we shared the story of a young man who, despite choosing to stop speaking to avoid the scrutiny of a terrible stutter, found the courage to do something amazing with his voice in the post, "How Cultivating Courage Will Save Your Life."

This week, I wanted to conclude the conversation and provide you with something more tangible - 13 simple steps on how to build courage.  A step-by-step guide,  to make this growth process as easy and seamless as possible.

Here's how to get the most out of this guide:

  1. Read through the entire guide once to get an understanding of the steps.
  2. Read through a second time and develop your own plan.
  3. Take one small action every day.

Cultivating courage requires action.  You have to plant the seeds now so that over time you become more and more courageous with experiences you can recall when you need it most.

So, here we go:

1. Why do You Need to Build Your Courage?

The very first thing you'll need to do is determine why you need more courage.  What is it that you want to do with your life that you lack the courage to do right now?

What goals do you have for your future?

Take a minute and write down your answers

2. Why are You Afraid?

Now that you've determined what you're dealing with, take a moment and think about why that activity or scenario scares you so much.

What is it about that thing or those things that cause you to have anxiety?

Is it the location, is it possible embarrassment?  Or is it a general fear of the unknown?

Jot down your answers.

3. When Do You Face Your Fears?

We all have our fears, but we also have our moments of courage.  When do you feel you exercise courage?

This may be difficult to determine at first, but take some time to think about the things you do every day.  Think about your responsibilities at work or within your family.

Consider things that used to be challenging, but no longer are.  What are those things?

What things are you currently doing now that still scare you a little, but not as much as they did in the past?

Write them down.

4. What Makes You Take Action Despite Your Fear?

In the last step, you wrote down at least one thing that you are currently doing even though it still kind of scares you.

What makes you take action even though it's a little scary?

Are you doing it to impress someone?

Are you trying to be strong for someone else?

Are you faking it until you make it?

Is it an action required by your job?

Do the benefits of acting in the face of fear outweigh the consequences?

What makes you go through with this scary thing?

Write it down.

5. Make the Choice

You can’t accomplish anything until you decided you will at least try.  You have to make up in your mind that you will not quit.  Yes, there may be failure along the way.  Yes, some days may be more difficult than others, but quitting is not an option.
"Giving up is the only sure way to fail." - Gena Showalter

The only way you don't develop the skill of courage is if you quit.

So let's take that off the table right now, OK?

6. Give Yourself Time

Success is rarely overnight.  Anything worth doing takes time and commitment.  If developing your courage is worth it to you, then understand that learning this skill will take time.

Taking your time allows you to reflect on your success and learn from your failure.  This is crucial to developing any skill.

Reflecting on your success helps you to see that you are growing and that you can accomplish the goals you set.  It helps to improve your mindset as you continue to work to develop your courage.

Learning from your failure is just as important as reflecting on your success.

Along this journey, failure is inevitable.  But don't be discouraged.  Failing will allow you to review what you did and how you can possibly do things better the next time.

Nobody likes failing, but it's something everyone can learn from.

Give yourself the time and opportunity to reflect and to learn, then, keep going.

7. Build Up Courage Every Day

In Malcolm Gladwell's books Outliers: The Story of Success, he talks about the 10,000-hour rule.

The rule is very simple.  Malcolm states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to obtain mastery of a skill.  He comes to this conclusion after researching many of the elite people in different careers and fields.

The research shows that much more often than not, the most successful people, whether they are computer programmers, athletes, or violinist, had practiced their chosen skill at least 10,000 hours of their life, while their less successful counterparts had not practiced as much.  This was regardless of any natural talents or ability.

It was the practice that made the difference.

Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest that you need to practice courage for 10,000 hours before you get proficient, but I think the evidence shows the important impact that practice can have on your skills.

So, make sure you take time every day to do something to practice being courageous.  Even little things like smiling at strangers as you pass by instead of looking away can build your courage.

Make practicing courage part of your daily routine.

8. Be Willing to get Uncomfortable

Developing courage requires that you continuously stretch your comfort zone.

This will not always be pleasant.  In fact, if it is, you may need to push further.  Developing courage is like a muscle.  If you try to work a muscle too much, you will injure yourself, but if you don't work it enough you'll never make any progress.

The key is to push that muscle a little further every time you workout.  That's exactly what you must do when developing your courage.

If you want to work on talking to strangers, start out with a simple nod and a smile.  Then work yourself up to saying "Hi!"  Then push further to "Hey, how are you?"  And keep pushing until you find yourself in a conversation.  Then push further to maybe having a cup of coffee together.

The point is to always be working towards the next step.

9. Plan to take the Smallest Step

About a year ago, I decided I wanted to start weight training to build muscle.  I came across a simple weight training program called Stronglifts 5x5.  The program requires you to do 5 different exercises each week:  Squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and barbell row using a standard Olympic barbell.  You do 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise 3 times a week.

The genius thing about the program was, no matter your skill level or experience with lifting weights, the program recommended that everyone starts out only lifting the bar without any added weight.

The reason being, if you practice with just the bar, you can focus on your technique and form instead of focusing on lifting the heavier weights.  Then, once you get into the heavier weights, you will have already developed great form and won't run the risk of injuring yourself.

Developing courage is exactly like that weight training program.

It pays to take very teeny tiny baby steps toward your goal.  Initially, this will likely be irritating because you may feel like you can handle more difficult challenges.  But understand that you start at the beginning with the smallest of small steps for a reason.
  • You will experience success.  Taking baby steps allows you to experience success on your journey.  Even though we know failure will likely be part of the challenge, if you have past successes to reflect on, it's easier to make adjustments and try again.
  • You will perfect your form.  This may be the first time you're going about pushing your limits and stretching your comfort zone.  So it's wise to ease into things slowly and pay attention to your body, how you feel when you do something a little scary, and how you can improve for the next time.
  • You will avoid injury.  Taking the baby steps to develop your courage allows you to get stronger over time.  Taking this time will teach you the good ways to go about increasing your courage as well as the things you should avoid.

So, start at the very beginning.  The smallest step that you can imagine to reach your goal, and do that.

Don't worry about the end results, just focus on accomplishing that teeny tiny baby step.

10. Set your Plan

It's time to start mapping out what struggles you want to conquer.

If you're like me, one of your goals may involve several of your struggles.  For example, one of my goals is to give Keynote speeches and talks to large audiences.

However, my struggles include a fear of public speaking, a negative internal perception of my past public speaking experiences, a lack of confidence in my ability to be engaging, and a lack of experience.

Here's how I set my plan.

  1. I'd draw a line across a piece of paper. At the beginning of the line I'd write START and at the end of the line I'd write KEYNOTE SPEECH.
  2. Then, along the line I'd fill in all the baby steps to reaching my goal that I could possibly think of.  Once you have everything you can think of walk away from the plan.  This will give you time to reflect on your plan and develop some clarity on your steps.
  3. Come back 10-20 minutes later (or longer if necessary) and see if you can add any more baby steps or tweak the steps you have already listed.
  4. Finally, reorder the steps from what seems like the smallest easiest baby step up to the final step of accomplishing your goal.
Congratulations!  You've just created your courage plan.  Now on to the last step.

11. Take Your First Step

Nothing profound here,  it's time to get to work.

If you're at this point, you're already amazing and already practicing courage.

You've made up your mind, which is 80% of the battle.

You've developed a plan, which is a step further than most people go when they say they want to develop courage.

Now you're ready to put your plan into action.  You're ready, go ahead... take your first step.

12. Take a Moment to Reflect

At this point, you will have taken some action toward practicing courage on a regular basis.  You will likely have some great wins under your belt or might be experiencing your first early downfall.

If you've been successful thus far, remember to congratulate yourself.

Do something special just for you.  Don't forget to keep a record of your success, either in a journal or notebook.  Here's my favorite tool.  That way, when you experience a tough day or struggle, you have notes on all your good days to reflect on.

Also, keep challenging yourself every day to be uncomfortable.  Don't get comfortable.  Keep working those courage muscles, you're doing great!

If you've suffered a failure or two it's OK.

The greatest personal growth often comes out of failure.

Here are some quick tips you can use if you've had some failure:
  1. Accept that failure is part of the process.  It's seriously OK and will be very helpful.
  2. Take a look at why things didn't work out:
    • What could you have done differently?
    • What signs did you ignore?
    • What didn't you notice the first time, but now you are aware of?
    • Was it too be a step?  Can you break down the steps further?
  3. Make some adjustments to your plan based on your review of what happened before.
  4. Try it again and see what happens.  You've already experiences the worst of it (failure) so you have nothing to loose here.

13. Wash, Rinse, & Repeat

My all time favorite sport is golf.  I love golf because the game is never the same.  Even if you play at the same golf course, at the same time, every day; each time it's going to be slightly different.  The elements of the game are constantly changing.  The wind, the grass, the location of the flag on the green, it all changes.  And since the elements change, the way you play the game changes every time.

I also love the game because there is no perfection in golf.  You can map out how you want to play your round, but once it's time to get out there and play, oftentimes you have to adjust.

When I was younger and playing golf with my dad and his friends, I would often get angry that I wasn't playing as good as I thought I could.  I wouldn't throw any tantrums or anything, but instead would just give up and go through the motions, not trying to play well, just taking what the course would give me.

But, as I got older and better at playing the game, I learned that although the elements were constantly changing around me, instead of just taking what was given to me, I could use those elements to my advantage.   It was my response to what the course was giving me that made the difference.

On your journey to greater courage, you will find that the elements around you may begin changing.  Although you mapped out your plan, you may find yourself having to make adjustments.  People may start to treat you differently.  You may begin having new experiences and interactions that you weren't having before.  You may have to deal with trials and adversities within that make the journey more difficult.

As these moments come, and they will come, remember you don't have to just take what life gives you.  Do your best to recognize what's going on around you and take the opportunity to respond.  Use the elements around you to your advantage.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to create courage or overcome anxiety.  I'm sure you will have to make adjustments along the way.  The important thing to remember is that you can make the adjustments.  If things don't go the way you thought they would, analyze it, see what you can do differently the next time, and then keep pressing toward your goal.

So, what do you say we get to work?

Next Action Steps

Complete step one of this guide by answering the following question in the comments below.

What is it that you want to do with your life that you lack the courage to do right now?

For example, I want to be more comfortable in social situations.  I want to be able to start conversations and network with people who I may be able to help or may be able to help me accomplish my goals.  Right now, I don't always have to courage to speak up and talk to people I don't know well and I fear I may be missing out on meaningful relationships due to that fear.  I want the courage to overcome that fear of rejection and judgment.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I love this post Aaron. I love a goal and lists and I especially love a plan. 🙂 Thanks for the great motivation. And that 10,000 hour rule is so interesting. I never knew that - I will keep it in mind.

    1. Thanks so much Lisa. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I hope something in there is helpful to you. I read about the 10,000 hour rule in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (a great book by the way), and found it interesting how so many "overnight success" stories really started out years and years before they became famous. It let me know that the secret it to put in the work more so than anything else.

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