The Courage Myth – Why “Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway” is Generally a Stupid Idea

The Courage Myth – Why “Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway” is Generally a Stupid Idea

The Courage Myth – Why “Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway” is Generally a Stupid Idea

Prior to Rocky, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor, homeless and living hand-to-mouth.

According to press interviews, the lowest point came when he sold his beloved dog, Butkus, to a stranger for $25. 

Two weeks later, inspired by a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone wrote the script for Rocky in under 20 hours. Approaching movie studios, he was offered $125,000 for the script, but turned it down, as he wanted to star in the movie himself. The studios in contrast, wanted a STAR.

Eventually a studio agreed, paying Stallone only $18,000 for the script, but allowing him to play the starring role. The rest is history, with Rocky taking out 3 Oscars, with Stallone himself even being nominated for best actor, and becoming a household name in the process. He even was able to buy back Butkus from the new owner for $15,000 (ouch!). 

The Courage Myth

The story of Sylvester Stallone (that classifies as a “legend” as there is no solid evidence beyond Stallone’s testimony) resonates with us all. We all love a good underdog story – someone who risks it all and comes out on top, despite all odds.

And we are inundated by motivational platitudes, stories and advertising that tell us to “just do it” and to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” And we believe that if we just had “courage” we would also succeed.

COURAGE – a word that we see heavily in the mainstream motivational narrative. A belief that fear is bad and holding us back from living our best selves.

However, the truth is a little more harsh. Simply being “courageous” is a very poor strategy for success. For example, according to Forbes, 9 out of 10 start-up companies fail, albeit being driven by “courageous” founders and backers willing to take the risk.

Courage (i.e. taking action in the presence of fear), is not something that should be blindly celebrated. We need to deepen the conversation.

The Truth about Fear and Courage

The truth is, that fear is there for a reason. It prevents us from taking action that will lead to harm. And that in itself is a great thing. 

We need to listen to our fears, not discard them as being irrelevant. Our fears are shaped over a lifetime of experience of dealing with the real world and hold important lessons that are crucial to moving forward successfully.

This does not mean however, that we need to play hostage to our emotions. There are indeed some cases, in which our fears are unfounded, or are indeed holding us back from living a deep and meaningful life.

For example, most treatments for depression, phobia and anxiety involve a degree of graded exposure, where you need to place yourself in uncomfortable situations. Treatments for PTSD actually involve mentally reliving and reprocessing the experience, which can be quite distressing. The difference between these situations, and “feeling the fear and doing it anyway”, is that in therapeutic cases, strategies are evidence-based, and only applied if they are most likely to result in a positive outcome. 

So, overall, it is fair to say, that there are some cases where “courage” and “facing your fears” are essential for moving forward, and others where it is possibly the worst thing you can do for your future (e.g., risking your house on a get rich quick scheme). 

Is Courage Really What You Need?

Courage is thought of as taking action despite your fears. But your fears are often fully justified, as they flag risk.

So in an uncertain and volatile world, perhaps de-risking your life, to lower the need for courage, while increasing the odds of success is a better strategy.

For example, Jordan Peterson, talks about the “curse of creativity”, in which creativity can be thought of as a high risk / high reward undertaking. Creative people NEED to be creative for their psychological well being. And creative ideas do change the world. However, the odds that a single idea will lead to financial success is incredibly unlikely. So, the wise strategy is to mitigate risk. Simply put, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – balance exploration and creativity with activities that put food on the table. Safe-to-fail experimentation is the key.

Another cause of fear is uncertainty. The brain simply, and rightly so, doesn’t like to take action that can lead to harm. However, you can reduce uncertainty, again, through safe-to-fail experimentation. For example, if you are reluctant to leave a job or relationship due to fear of what may be lurking on the other side – explore your options. Learn as much as possible – e.g., look for jobs, or rental properties, talk to people, and do the math. Having a strategy, both reduces the need for courage, and boosts the likelihood of success.

Building Resilience

But sometimes, you do need to willingly crawl through the marshes of despair to reach the higher plateau of happiness. Life is definitely like that at times.

But again, there are strategies that are useful, for reducing the emotional toll, making it far more likely that you will embark on the journey. If too much fear is experienced, and too much courage is needed, you are unlikely to take action.

One strategy that is useful, and central to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (one of the main evidence-based approaches to treating depression and anxiety), is mindfulness. In ACT, the general idea is in order to live a full and meaningful life, you need to take actions that are aligned with your core values, which at times is scary. Mindfulness is a strategy in which you detach yourself from your emotions, watching them from afar as a non-judgemental observer. Having distressing thoughts, but not “buying into them” is a useful strategy that changes your relationship to stress, lessening its hold. But again, it is a STRATEGY.

Other strategies for boosting resilience, is learning to self-soothe (partaking in activities that bring you peace), or building your competencies in the areas that are lacking (e.g., partaking in social skills classes, if you are socially phobic).

Having ways to decrease your stress or improve your competence, reduces the need for courage, and increases the likelihood you will take action.

In Summary

We see much airtime devoted to the “Courage Myth” – that we need to “feel the fear and do it anyway” in order to be truly successful.

This is a massive oversimplification, and not necessarily helpful in most cases.

Perhaps, what we need more than courage, is strategies for dealing with the underlying fear – ways to de-risk our lives, improve our competence, and reduce the impact that negative emotions have on us. Such strategies, not only reduce the fear, boosting the likelihood you will take action, but significantly increase your chances of success. With these strategies in place, THEN you should ‘feel the fear’ (or what is left of it) and ‘do it anyway.’

Just my thoughts on this topic… I hope they have been interesting/useful.


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Dr Scott Bolland

Leadership Expert

Dr Scott Bolland is an executive coach, international speaker, facilitator and futurist. His PhD and background (of 25 years) are in the area of Cognitive Science - the scientific study of how the mind works, spanning areas such as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and artificial intelligence. His passion is playing in the intersection between these areas, in particular how to best prepare individuals, teams, schools and organisations to flourish in the digital age.

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