Eight Ways to Build Your Creative Courage
People often comment on how brave I was to travel alone to Afghanistan twice with the Afghan Women’s Project to photograph and interview women. For many, that might be a brave thing to do, but I have a history of solo travel in the developing world. It felt like an adventure to me.
Where I truly showed courage was before the traveling. Giving a pitch and asking for money for this venture took courage. Listening to me stumble through my memorized talk caused one audience member to speak up, telling me not to worry and that they were a very kind audience. That was nice, but it didn’t help much. I wasn’t afraid of speaking as much as asking for money for a cause that I wasn’t sure anyone would want to support. Finally I got through it and I had to practice my courage even further – I stayed for lunch after.
Courage Isn’t the Same for Everyone
The first thing about courage is that it’s different for everyone. People have different fears, so acting in spite of them, although it may look minuscule to others, may actually be huge for that person.
Being daring and risk-taking may be less fearsome for optimistic people, but it’s only because their fears are less and not because they are necessarily more courageous. It is more of a skill to be developed than an inborn trait.
Courage is a skill well worth developing. For many artists, putting that first stroke of paint on the canvas is an act of courage. For a writer, sharing a vulnerable moment is one. For a musician or speaker, those first times onstage can be fraught with terror. But without the audacity to step up anyway, the world would be more of a dismal place.
Moral courage is a skill, and often a more subtle one. Taking a stand in front of those who you know will disagree or sharing your true self with those who you think might have a negative reaction is tough. This includes ending a relationship that you know is poisonous for you, and it can require a mountain of courage.
8 Ways to Build Your Courage
How do you not feel so afraid? How do you develop courage?
I have discovered several ways in my own life.
#1 Stop Feeding the Wolf
In the 2003 film, The Missing, a Native American shaman tells a young boy that everyone has two wolves in him, one good and the other, evil. The one that will win the fight is the one you feed.
In relation to your courage, this means stop feeding your fear. When a fearful thought comes to mind, tell yourself that you will take this step to help counteract it (ie. I’m afraid that it will rain during my outdoor party so I’ll look into getting a tent or an indoor venue). Or I choose a Plan B as in “if they don’t give me this job, I will look here and there for a different opportunity.”
#2 Think Through Your Options
Knowing that I have other options (a Plan B) helps me to be brave. I keep in mind Oscar Wilde’s quote, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” I never know if a failure of the endeavor that I’m afraid of trying will actually lead to something better or an unforeseen outcome.
In order to succeed in your scary endeavor, it’s important to jump in with both feet and act as if taking this step is your only option. And I find it a bit easier knowing that failure may be embarrassing, but it won’t be the end of the world.
#3 Practice Being Courageous
Courage is a muscle, and small acts of grit help build it. Make a list of small things you’re afraid of doing, and choose one thing from that list to do daily. Over time the scary thing will get easier.
I was frightened when I got my first paying photo gig. As I drove to the job, my stomach was in knots. It relaxed when I imagined that this wasn’t my first experience, that I’d been doing these sorts of jobs for the past five years and the work was old hat. This quelled the fear and left me better able to focus on doing a good job.
Also, keep in mind that you’re probably more courageous in your daily life than you think. Notice every time you do something you’re afraid to do. Make a Grit List of those experiences, so you can revisit it when you’re thinking about avoiding something that scares you.
#4 Have a Sense of Influence
One component of courage is having agency, that is, having a sense of control over what is happening. You may not be able to stop that runaway train you’re riding, but you can take control of how you react to it – how you brace yourself, calm others, and take steps to minimize possible damage.
When I’m facing something that takes more courage than I can summon in the moment, these tactics allow me to face my fears:
#5 Find Role Models of Quietly Courageous People
Think of how your role models will be proud of you for taking this brave step. You are not alone in facing these fears.
#6 Think About the Impact
Ask yourself, what am I standing up for? What is the importance of acting courageously in this instance? What is my bigger picture or why? Is this something worth “fighting” for?
#7 Focus on the First Step
Just focus on taking the first step. After that one, focus on taking the next step, then the next one. Just get through those first few minutes. Focus on the here and now.
#8 Create a Warm-Up Ritual
Create a warm-up ritual that you can enact before beginning something new. It should be short, and something you can easily do in any circumstance. It should something that moves you toward taking action.
Invoke this ritual consistently when you’re facing something scary. For example, before I give a presentation, I mentally scan my body from head to toe, relaxing my muscles all the way down. Physically, I hold a power pose* for two minutes and then smile at myself in the mirror. I do this in the venue bathroom before every talk. When I can’t get any privacy, I go through it mentally while they’re giving my introduction.
“The world needs our courage. You can do it. Challenge yourself today.”
– Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (see more)
To inspire you a little more, here is Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.