What is courage?
- Working to overcome a serious illness? Yes, certainly.
- Defending a victim of bullying? I think so.
- Caring for others in the face of a global pandemic, at the risk of becoming sick yourself? Absolutely.
- Skydiving? Hmmm…Debatable.
I think we can all agree that each of these activities involves some level of heroics, but what is it about each of these pursuits that makes them inherently courageous? What does it mean to embody the kind of spirit and fortitude that makes us capable of doing great things? In other words, what does it mean to be brave?
For me, this quote by psychologist, Susan David, sums it up:
“Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is fear walking.”
In summer of 2019, I did something big. I left the corporate world where I’d worked for over 15 years in various client services/project management/marketing operations roles and became an independent contractor. I found a company that offered their consultants autonomy, a supportive environment, and the chance to use the skills I’d cultivated across many different platforms, and I took the leap. The best part was, there would be flexibility in my schedule to work on my writing, which was a huge bonus and one of my main requirements for finding a new position.
I remember so clearly the first time my new boss referred to me as, “fearless.” In context, he meant it as a compliment, as I would often volunteer to jump on client calls without prepping first. But it meant something more to me. I laughed the first I heard him say it (and for every time afterward), because it wasn’t true. I was anything but fearless.
There I was, jet-setting across the country (in a pre-COVID world), meeting with marketing and creative teams employed by highly influential companies, and I was in a constant state of panic. Thanks to years of practice, I was cool, calm, and collected on the outside, but on the inside, I was all kinds of stressed. Even though my team was super supportive, self-imposed pressure kept me from feeling really good about my decision. It might have been brave of me to take that initial step to change my circumstances, but I was still letting Fear drive the car, only offering to fill up the tank every now and then at my own expense.
One of the first projects I worked on was with a retail organization in New York City. I shadowed a colleague for a couple weeks, learning all I could about the client’s business and brainstorming with her on how we might translate their process into the new tool. She and I had both agreed that I would give the first demo presentation to the client as part of my training but, ten minutes before the presentation I messaged her and told her I didn’t think it was a good idea. I was prepared, but the thought of showing the client what I’d done was terrifying. I was so afraid of failing that I didn’t even want to try.
I’m still so grateful for my friend’s reaction that day. Instead of berating me, or taking over the presentation herself, she laughed. She knew what I didn’t, or couldn’t, see in that moment. That I was actually capable of the task, but I was letting fear drive. She encouraged me to do it and I finally agreed.
Was that first presentation perfect? Nope. Not even a little bit. But I still count it as one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my professional life. As was, the workshop I held a few weeks later with a different client when – despite my fear – I stood up in front of a roomful of twenty marketers and creatives and facilitated a session to help them work through a future state process that made sense for them.
Neither of those experiences was particularly easy or comfortable, but they both taught me something valuable. I learned that making the choice to walk with fear is choosing to show up. And showing up is brave, too.
We put so much on the line in our creative lives. When we share something with the world, we’re really sharing ourselves in the most vulnerable of ways. After all, we have no way of predicting how others will react to our work. We can’t control their perceptions, just as we can’t control what they will do with those perceptions. Will they reject the work? Devalue it in some way? And if they do, what does that say about us and what we’ve created?
Many writers, including author and writing mentor, K.M. Weiland, have discussed the concept of writing scared. In other words, challenging yourself to push through your limits so you can get to the good stuff. The path we need the most is the path that leads us outside of our comfort zones. If we can acknowledge our fears, we can learn to walk with them. We can co-exist with them; get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We can show up. The magic happens when we show up for ourselves.
And so, that’s what I’m going to do. This November I will join thousands of other writers in participating in National Novel Writing Month. If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it’s a yearly writing challenge. Each year during the month of November, writers embark on a journey to write 50,000 words on their new or in progress works in 30 days. Even though I have a daily writing practice (more on that later), I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo before. I’ve never had the courage.
I have no idea if I’m going to be able to write 50,000 words of my novel in 30 days, but I’m going to try anyway. I’m going to show up.
What can you do to show up for yourself today? Whatever it is, do it. Even if you’re afraid. Do it now. Be vulnerable. Be willing. Stay open.
And wish me luck, as I do you, every day.
Stay tuned for more on my NaNoWriMo journey. Until then…