Tag Archives: courage

#16: Courage/courage

In my previous post, I talked about the things we can do to overcome fear. The first step is to figure out what we are afraid of. In doing this research, we might realize that we are afraid of public speaking. We might also find, if we examine our lives carefully, that we fear failure. It is a fear, as I have explained, that can limit our ability to succeed.

The second step in our program to overcome fear is to expose ourselves, in ever-increasing “doses,” to the things we are afraid of. If we fear public speaking, for example, we should start out by addressing small, friendly audiences. When we survive this experience, perhaps to our amazement, we should move on to bigger audiences.

To overcome a fear of failure, we should go out of our way to do difficult things. By taking on such challenges, there is a good chance that we will fail, but in failing we will learn lessons that can help us succeed in the future. We might also come to realize that there are worse things in life than failing. One of them is not even trying to do difficult things because we fear failure.

The Stoics had multiple reasons for trying to overcome their fears. They realized, to begin with, that groundless fears give rise to needless anxiety. One of the primary goals in the Stoic philosophy for living was to prevent themselves from experiencing needless anxiety—hence, their desire to overcome their groundless fears. Furthermore, like most philosophers in the ancient world, they cared very much about virtue. But before I continue, a word of explanation is in order.

In the 21st century, the word virtue is associated with a kind of prudishness: a “virtuous” woman is one who is sexually reserved. But to ancient philosophers, to be a virtuous human being was to be an excellent human being, someone who was, among other things, wise, just, and courageous. Another important virtue was self-control. In fact, the ancients realized that it was, in a sense, the keystone virtue, since without it, one was unlikely to possess the other virtues.

Ancient philosophers also thought that the way to become more virtuous is to practice the various virtues. Do you want to become more self-controlled? Then exercise your self-control. Likewise, you can become more courageous by doing things that require courage, and one way to do this is by making yourself do things that you fear.

It is convenient, in discussions like this, to distinguish between two kinds of courage. What I shall refer to as lowercase-c courage involves fearlessness regarding relatively minor things. This is the kind of courage required to ask someone out on a date. Uppercase-C Courage, by way of contrast, involves fearlessness regarding things that can have a major impact on your life and maybe the lives of others. It is what is required to jump into a raging river to rescue a drowning infant.

A Stoic knows that the best way to become uppercase-C Courageous is to go out of our way to do things that require us to display lowercase-c courage. He will therefore advise us to go out of our way to trigger in ourselves the emotion of fear, just so we can develop our ability to cope with or, better still, suppress that emotion. Thus, if you have a fear of public speaking, you should practice your courage by giving a talk before the garden club so that if, later in life, you have the opportunity to talk sense into an angry mob, you will have the Courage to do so.

There is another benefit to be derived from intentionally putting ourselves in challenging situations: it is a great way—and maybe the only way?—to develop our self-confidence.

I would not advise readers to attempt to climb Mt. Everest. There is a very good chance that if they undertake this challenge, they will end up dead. But I will readily admit that those who successfully summit Mt. Everest, when they return to their low-altitude existence, will have gained something important. The challenges they will then be confronted with will, after all, likely be trivial compared to the Everest challenge, meaning that they will undertake them with confidence.

Success, as they say, begets success. I will add that success also feels great, particularly when you had to work very hard to attain it.

#15: Fear and Failure

Fear can be a good thing. A fear of snakes, for example, can prevent you from picking up a rattlesnake and  subsequently getting bit.

Fear can also be a bad thing, though, since it can prevent you from doing things that would benefit you and maybe other people as well. A fear of rejection might prevent you from asking out a person to whom you are attracted and prevent you from finding your soul mate. A fear of public speaking might mean that the world will never benefit from your ideas. And in your career, a fear of failure might be the principal obstacle to your success.

If you are to thrive as a human being, it is important that you overcome your fears—not all of them, but many of them. The Stoics realized as much and as a result took an interest in courage. We ought, they said, to become more courageous. This raises two questions: Can courage be developed? And if so, how?

To develop your courage, you must overcome fears, and the best way to do this is arguably the same way as you might overcome an allergy. By exposing yourself, in ever-increasing doses, to the thing that makes you sneeze, you can overcome an allergy—or at least this is the thinking behind allergy shots. In similar fashion, you can become more courageous by exposing yourself, in a measured way, to things you fear.

Psychologist Albert Ellis was a pioneer in cognitive behavioral therapy, the branch of psychology that is most in tune with the advice on living given by the ancient Stoics. As a young man, Ellis had a fear of women.

He conquered this fear by giving himself the assignment of hanging out at the Bronx Botanical Garden and introducing himself to a hundred of the women he encountered there. No lasting relationship resulted from this experience, but he overcame his fear of talking to women. He taught himself that being rebuffed by a woman isn’t the end of the world.

A fear of public speaking can be overcome with a similar strategy. You start out by offering a few words before a small and friendly group. Thus emboldened, you move on to bigger audiences. Then the day comes when, as you are speaking before a large and important audience, you realize, much to your amazement, that you are not afraid! (This, at any rate, was my experience.)

In some cases, we fear something because we fear for our health or life. In other cases, what we fear is failure. It is a fear that many people are haunted by, and it is a fear that can severely limit their ability to succeed in life.

People often make the mistake of thinking that successful individuals owe their success to their ability to avoid failure, when in fact the opposite is usually the case: successful people succeed because they do not fear failure and therefore can embrace it. In other words, it is their tolerance for failure that enables them to succeed.

Along these lines, consider James Dyson, inventor of the famous Dyson vacuum. To get to his final design, he had to work his way through 5,127 failed designs. When a prototype failed, Dyson didn’t respond by quitting. He instead learned from his mistakes and thought up ways to overcome them.

His story is not unusual. Most successful people not only admit their own failures but become, in a way, connoisseurs of them. There is such a thing as a “wonderful failure”; this is one that although it cost them dearly in terms of time and effort, enabled them to make a quantum leap forward in their creative endeavors.

Any work of art is likely to be the end result of a long series of failures.  Painters might repaint a canvas or parts of it many times until they get it right. Novelists might rewrite a chapter dozens of times before they find the version that works. These failed attempts, I should add, are not evidence of artistic incompetence; indeed, just the opposite.

If your endeavors never fail, it could be because you are very good at what you do.  It is much more likely, though, that the reason for your “success” is that you are afraid to fail and are therefore systematically avoiding doing difficult things.

Stoic advice: try to do something difficult!  And by difficult, I mean something that is difficult for you; other people might find it easy to do the thing in question.  As you undertake your chosen task, remember that it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all because you feared failure.

Remember, too, that by desensitizing yourself to failure and by learning from the failures that will accompany the desensitization process, you can dramatically increase your chances of success.