12 Ways to Practice Courage

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In my overview of Aristotelian ethics, I noted that we become more virtuous through practice. This post gives activities and suggestions that help you practice courage.

The virtues are interconnected in a very important way. It turns out that working on one virtue has reciprocal effects on other virtues. You’ll see the reciprocal virtues listed in each bullet, as some of the different activities that make us more courageous tend to make us more virtuous in some areas than others.

It’s key to remember the Doctrine of the Mean when reviewing this list. For every activity mentioned, there’s a way to overdo it, leading to rashness, and there’s a way to underdo it, leading to cowardice. Find that middle ground between the two and begin flourishing.

  • Name Your Phobias and Conquer Them.
  • There’s a difference between being uncomfortable in situations and having a spine-tingling phobia of something. The thing is, some phobias are such that they keep us from flourishing. Agoraphobia (fear of large crowds of people), for instance, keeps us from interacting with other people in ways that they’re comfortable and limits the way we can find joy outside of home.

    Muster up the courage to name your phobias and work through the fear they generate. The reality is that you may just move to being uncomfortable with whatever you’re currently scared of, but you can function as a rational person through discomfort. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Friendliness, Indignancy)

  • Get in a Romantic Relationship if You’re Not in One Due to Insecurities
  • Perhaps an odd tip for becoming more courageous, but many people never find their true happiness for fear of being rejected, accepted, stifled, or whatever other fear of intimate relationships they conjure up. The root of their relationship avoidance is fear, and this fear leads to sub-optimal flourishing.

    Fight the fear and open up…what’s the worst that can happen? You could end up lonely? That’s the route you’re currently on, anyways. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Friendliness, Truthfulness, Benevolence, Conscientiousness, Generosity)

  • Handle Tough Emotions when They Come up.
  • A lot of people shove tough emotions down when they come up and they never deal with the source of the emotion. Some are afraid to know what lurks in their core and, as a result, they never know how to process their emotions and figure out who they are.

    But you can’t make meaningful decisions about your life if you don’t know who you are. You’ll waffle from year to year, make commitments you can’t keep, be insecure with jobs you take, and be in awkward relationships with others. It’s possible that you could stumble into flourishing, but it can sometimes be really easy to confuse temporary, security blanket positions for lifelong flourishing. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Temperance, Spiritedness)

  • Talk to Someone Who Is Not like You.
  • We naturally tend to congregate with people who are very much like us. They have similar skin colors, financial statuses, and political and religious ideologies. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it has a tendency to make us very narrow-minded when it comes to different perspectives on the human condition.

    Find someone who has a different perspective on the human condition and talk to them. Try to understand their position, but most of all, get slightly outside your personal comfort zone. Break down the unconscious social barrier that you have set up for yourself. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Friendliness, Generosity, Benevolence)

  • Tell Your Boss “No.”
  • Many people are scared to tell the Boss “no” because they’re afraid of long-term repercussions like being fired, so they constantly take more work than they can possibly do, which impacts other areas of their lives. They become stressed about work, disgruntled, and frustrated at themselves for not standing up for themselves.

    Find a good reason to say “no” before the Boss asks. Usually, all it takes is looking at what all you currently have to do and being prepared to use that as the justification for you not taking anymore work. Saying “no” is much easier when you can say “I’m sorry, but if I attempt to do that Project X may fall further behind” or “I had this great idea about Project X that’s taking a little bit longer to complete than I thought…would you rather me drop that, or work on what you’re proposing?” Be able to talk about the status of the project, and then over-deliver on the product.

    Lastly, remember the difference between being the “go-to person” and the “default person.” The go-to people get the hard jobs, but their Bosses use them differently than they use the default person. The default person just gets all the jobs because the Boss knows she’ll do them. You want to be the go-to person, not the default person. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Industriousness)

  • Stand up for What’s Right when It’s Hard to Do.
  • It’s really easy to stand up for what’s right when everyone else is already doing it. It’s much more frightening to the be the first person to stand up for something or to be part of a small group who are going against the tide of injustice or social slights.

    Dr. King observed that it wasn’t the small minority of evil people that made the world so bad, but rather it was the silence of the majority that went along with what was going on. Don’t be a part of that silent majority. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Generosity, Truthfulness, Friendliness, Indignancy, Spiritedness, Benevolence, Conscientiousness)

  • Become Slightly Rebellious About Something
  • We are all unique people, with unique tastes and slightly different perspectives. Many people are afraid to be their true selves, though, for fear of rejection or because they don’t want be singled out as being different.

    If you figure out who you are and what you like, manifest yourself and pursue those things you find valuable. If someone asks you why you’re doing what you’re doing, stick up for yourself and defend your choices. Ask them why their position should be the default one. You’d be surprised how many people don’t have an answer for that question.

    The key here is not to through your life choices and beliefs at other people. No one likes a zealot. But don’t let either people’s ways dictate your just because they’re in the majority. If they press you, press them back. Check out Amy’s rebellion for a good example of how to pull this off. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Temperance, Conscientiousness, Generosity, Truthfulness, Friendliness, Indignancy, Spiritedness, Benevolence)

  • Become a Guardian
  • I’m not talking about a parental guardian. This is a reference to Plato’s Republic, which listed types of people out by what function they performed for society. Guardians are those who protect the fabric of society. In today’s context, they are the policemen, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, military servicemembers, and emergency response personnel (think FEMA).

    All of these civil service organizations have volunteer or part-time positions available, so you don’t have to have a major career change to become part of them. Many, like the National Guard or Reserves, give financial benefits for being a part of them, so you get a side-benefit, as well.

    Few things test and temper your courage like being in emergency situations and having to respond. And there are few things more rewarding at the end of the day, or one’s life, as knowing that when the time came, you were able to face your fear and help others. If you join one of these organizations, you will have at least one situation where your courage will be tested. But the organizations will also train you how to become more courageous, and those lessons apply outside of emergency situations. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Temperance, Conscientiousness, Benevolence, Spiritedness, Industriousness)

  • Run for a Political Office.
  • Few things are as frightening as living your life with others watching. What’s even more frightening is doing that while you have to make important decisions that affect the lives of others. This fear keeps many from considering running for office, with the result that a lot of otherwise qualified, good people sit at home on the couch and we get the…er…other type.

    I’m not saying you have to run for President, but run for something important that you believe in. Don’t like the way the PTA is operating? Rather than complain, run for PTA president. Overcome the fear and make positive changes for those around you. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Temperance, Conscientiousness, Generosity, Truthfulness, Friendliness, Indignancy, Spiritedness, Benevolence)

  • Start a Blog
  • Expressing yourself to people you know is a bit scary. Expressing yourself to people you don’t know, and (potentially) a lot more of them, is even more scary. Observe that most blogs don’t take off when their authors are hiding behind the text; it’s only when those authors expose themselves as true people that others become interested.

    Deliver the content, but deliver it through your person, not your computer. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Conscientiousness, Friendliness, Industriousness, Wittiness)

  • Start a Business
  • Fear of failure and uncertainty keeps most people from considering starting their own business. Some people find meaningful employment working for someone else, but many, many others don’t, and rather than flourishing while doing something they love, they wither most of their adult lives while they look forward to retirement.

    Even if you like doing what you do, starting your own business will make you a better person and will allow you many different options should your desires or conditions change in the future. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Industriousness, Temperance, Spiritedness)

  • Read Philosophy
  • No, this is not about job security for me. This is about the fact that most of us live comfortably with unexamined lives because we’re afraid to subject our beliefs and choices to the scrutiny of the wisdom of the ages. What’s so scary about philosophy is that it has a tendency to get us to move from comfortable certainty to uncomfortable uncertainty.

    Overcome this fear and learn to live the Good life. Or at least learn that though the Good life is simple, it’s not easy and it’s not really certain. (Reciprocal Virtue(s): Temperance, Indignancy, Conscientiousness, Spiritedness, Truthfulness, Benevolence; Practice Wisdom, in general)

Comments

  1. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Amy: Thanks for letting me know you liked this post and that you want to see more. I’m hoping to have the next one up by Tuesday.

  2. Bill says

    Instead of courage, how about using words like self-confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness ?
    I know that it requires boldness to break out, and that it “feels like” one is putting one’s life on the line, but it is pretty unlikely that anyone has a great chance of dying or being killed by what you are promoting.
    To infer that your activities require courage only lowers the nobility of the ultimate sacrifice one willingly makes for what one believes. I guarantee that when that person is in the middle of that courageous action, they have not taken the time to ponder how courageous they are being.

  3. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Bill: I think you’re right that people don’t think about how courageous they’re being, for when I’ve been in situations that were, in fact, life and death, I didn’t wonder whether I was being courageous or not. I just acted.

    But where I disagree is that courage’s only reference is for actions that require ultimate sacrifice or a willingness to die or be harmed. Furthermore, the constant act of putting yourself out there for causes you believe are important makes it such that you’re not as cowardly in other situations that require more sacrifice.

    Am I saying that the courage from blogging translates to courage in combat, stressful situations, or against tyranny? Not a direct translation – that requires other virtues to be at play – but it has made you used to being someone who stands for something or at least has made you used to the idea that your voice and actions count for something.

    Thanks for joining the conversation!

  4. Bill says

    Thanks for the agreeing with the “Gestalt” of a courageous act…I am still adamant about reserving the use of courage as the ultimate willingness to act (the extreme of a continuum of actions).
    This act is usually based on preserving the beliefs of a polity or society without forethought to the personal consequences. That doesn’t mean it always ends in death…and it is not always rewarded by the society that the act intends to preserve!
    If an individual feels they must “muster up courage” to act, then there is usually some desired self serving motive. Saying “no” to your boss is not courage. Your recommended action seems to implore that the individual seek a reason for saying no that will contribute to the benefit of the company. That is a start – to get the fearful individual to start looking how they may be a benefit to others, and not just themselves. We humans overcome incredible odds, when we take our personal self-serving agendas out of the picture.

  5. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Bill: There are at least three different, but related, positions that we may be disagreeing about. I think it’s the first one, but the implication of the first one bears on the other two. I wanted to make sure which position you’re taking so I’m clear on what we’re disagreeing about.

    1) We’re disagreeing about the referent of “courage.” You reserve it for “the ultimate willingness to act…to preserve the beliefs of a polity or society without forethought to personal consequences.” My use is much more mundane – so the third-grader that stands up to the bully is acting courageously – the same kind of act to a different degree. This disagreement is a semantical one.

    2) We’re disagreeing about what makes people morally worthy. My position is that there’s no need for a person to contemplate an action for that action to be morally worthy. Thus, whether a person is “willing” in some deep meaning of willing is not the issue – it’s the action, pure and simple. This is a metaethical disagreement.

    3) We’re disagreeing about how we become more virtuous. My position is that we become more virtuous through practice and habit rather than some complete out of the blue action. This is a disagreement about the teaching of character.

    Now, if you’re right about (1), then (2) and (3) may need some revision. (3) is the clearer case, for if you can only become more courageous (virtuous) through extreme actions, you’ll have to be either really lucky or unlucky to be able to become more courageous because it’ll require your socio-historical positioning such that you have the ability to put yourself on the line in a grand way. On this account, a very small portion of humanity will ever have the chance to be cowardly or courageous – and that seems counterintuitive to me.

    Regarding self-serving motives: there comes a point where an individual needs to have her needs taken care of, and sometimes the only way they can do that is to learn how to be courage enough to take herself seriously enough and begin acting as if she were serious. I think it’s a measure of wisdom when people start figuring out when their needs are not being served by “the common good” and figure out a way to take care of those needs without necessarily stalling “the common good.” We need not get into the trap of ethical egoism – my interests are the only ones that really matter – but we do need to recognize that our interests do matter.

    So my advice about telling the Boss no is in the context of someone who’s flourishing is seriously compromised by the way they are allowing themselves to be treated rather than the context of someone just looking out to serve themselves.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 12 Ways to Practice Courage: It?s key to remember the Doctrine of the Mean when reviewing this list. For every activity mentioned, there?s a way to overdo it, leading to rashness, and there?s a way to underdo it, leading to cowardice. Find that middle ground between the two and begin flourishing. This post is Part One of an 11 Part Megaseries that lists every virtue displayed here. My goal is to do one virtue a week until completed. [...]

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