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Take the Leap! The Power of Deciding To Act

“Failure is easy. If you tried, and failed, you can always go back to your day job. But to succeed is to differentiate yourself and step out. You’re suddenly alone.”


by Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

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“Courage is the gap between knowing the right thing and doing it. It may culminate in an event, but that’s not where it comes from or what drives it. It’s the day-to-day practice of acting on your values.” So says Shawn Hunter, who spends his days interviewing influential business leaders for the online learning site, Skillsoft. He compiled many of their hard-won lessons in his new book, OutThink. Chief among them: Courage is a choice. It’s an empowering decision to stand and fight rather than run. To persevere rather than quit.

To take responsibility rather than overlook a difficult situation. To move forward in life rather than stagnate. Courage doesn’t come from self-awareness alone; it takes practice to cultivate bravery. Hunter cites a clinic in Palo Alto, California, that treats people who suffer from crippling cases of shyness, as an example of how to build the habit.

“The behaviorists and clinicians there don’t ask you about your family history or your daily rituals,” Hunter says. “They put you to work immediately—in incremental, varied circumstances.”

The first week, patients go to a public place where they must ask three people the time of day. The next week, they go out to lunch and special order something—mayo on the side, Coke with no ice. Over time, they’re building skills of courage in different environments. The final exam comes in the eighth week, when patients go to the produce section of a grocery store and intentionally drop a watermelon on the floor. They have to resolve how to get help, clean up, and pay for their mistake, and they must endure the stares of fellow shoppers.

“If they went into the shyness clinic and were asked to drop a watermelon right away, they’d run away screaming,” Hunter explains. “But in these small acts of courage, they can apply skills that give them strength, that prepare them for greater challenges. Courage is a learned attribute. And it takes constant, small acts to encourage it.” Here’s how.

Strive to fail and succeed
In the process of innovation, failure moves you closer to success, Hunter says. But even as you’re failing, you have to want to succeed—which is harder than it sounds. “It’s really frightening and terrifying to succeed,” he says. “Failure is easy. If you tried and failed, you can always go back to your day job. But to succeed is to differentiate yourself and step out. You’re suddenly alone.” Aspiring to be courageous opens opportunities that are both unfamiliar and exhilarating. Marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin told Hunter that courage has a tell. “We all have a reptilian part of our brain, where the fight or flight mechanism lives. When you’re in a strange place, and you feel slightly terrified, you can feel the hair rising on the back of your neck,” Hunter says, explaining that this response is how Godin knows he’s in the right place. “It means he’s guaranteed to learn something, and it’s a signal that he’s pushing the edges of his capacity.” Learn to recognize that feeling in yourself and to welcome it.

Challenge and believe in yourself
Charles Handy, the philosopher and organizational theorist who helped found the London Business School, believes disruption on a grand scale can foster courage, too. He popularized the idea of the portfolio life, which encourages workers to uproot themselves (training to hone a passion, taking a break to travel, pursuing a new career) every five to seven years to develop their range of strengths and talents. Handy himself discovered he could write, at age 50, while on a sabbatical. Give yourself permission to try something completely new. Don’t mistake overconfidence for courage. A young girl whose first ski jump went viral on YouTube inspires because years of practice prepared her for her spectacular act of courage.

“There is a gap between what you want and what you’re capable of,” Hunter says. “Without practice and thoughtfulness, actions don’t amount to courage. They’re just bravado.” Lay the groundwork before you jump. That effort is worthwhile but only when you believe you control your destiny. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of the book, Mindset, asserts that the world is divided into two types of people. One camp believes that their capacities are fixed. Their talents are intractable, and they’re born with what they have. The other group believes their gifts are malleable. With hard work, perseverance and grit, they can succeed. Hunter says the courageous believe they can be. 

Courage Cheat Sheet: 4 Steps To a Braver Life Goals.
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Imagine where and who you want to be. Find inspiring models to follow. Then take small steps to get there.

  • Feel the tingle. When the hair on the back of your neck stands high—at the start of a 10K race, or before an important meeting—don’t flee from the feeling. Embrace it. 
  • Practice courage every day. Hunter repeats novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “Every day, we must all be leaping off cliffs and growing wings on the way down.” Small steps that build your courage help you exercise your will to choose the courageous path. 
  • Consider uprooting yourself. A wholesale shift in your creative life or work every 5 to 7 years can keep you from getting stuck in a state of fearful self-protection. So go ahead; try something completely new. 
  • Take the leap. Failure means you’re striving to succeed. And in that striving lives courage. 

Photo Credits: Kid on bike: Judy Barranco/Getty Images Kid diving in lake: Henglein and Steets/Getty Images