Some big enemies of everyday courage

Last week we noted that courage is such a fundamental ingredient of everyday life and personal growth and that “having the courage to …….” features prominently in all four Lenses. But everyday courage has some big enemies which we explore in this blog.

For professional inspiration, I (Ian) often think of Dr Raff, a German surgeon. While saving my mother’s life after a car accident in 1972, Dr Raff also sewed her almost fully severed hand back on and she gained 28 years use of it.

Dr Raff used micro-surgery techniques which were in their infancy. He had only read about them in a medical journal.  Nevertheless he had the courage to attempt the operation in a small regional hospital without specialised equipment or a YouTube of microsurgery on severed hands. He had enough challenge just saving my mum’s life.

What are some of the enemies of such courage?  

A disempowering concept of “failure”

Do you find failure disempowering and discouraging?

Superficially success and failure are often perceived as being opposites and mutually exclusive – if you didn’t succeed, you failed. And if you failed, then it’s an emotional and disempowering low. However, is it a success or failure when:

  • you swim a PB but do not win the race?
  • you complete your comeback game injury-free, but your team doesn’t win?
  • you don’t win but you identify how you can next time?

On closer inspection, it appears that success and failure are neither mutually exclusive, nor opposites. Nor need failure be discouraging.

The most empowering perspective on success and failure we have found is that provided by Peter Senge. He defines ‘failure’ as “simply a shortfall, evidence of the gap between vision and current reality”.  It is simple and unemotive and it empowers you to recognise that gap as an opportunity to learn and as a source of energy for change. It also gives you the choice as to whether you work to improve your current reality or take the easy way out and rein in your vision.)

Dr Raff could easily have decided that saving Mum’s severed hand was too hard and the risk of failure too great. 

Fixed mindset

Do you believe that your intelligence and character are largely inherent and static, with your potential determined at birth? If so, then American psychologist Carol Dweck coined for you the term “fixed mindset”. She has shown that your fixed mindset makes you consider your performance to be a reflection of your total potential (not leaving much room for growth) and that consequently looking and feeling smart are important for you. Alternatively, if you believe that your potential is unknown and that you have the ability to learn and continuously improve yourself, then Dweck would say you have a growth mindset.

Experiments have shown that people with fixed mindsets stick to what they know, avoid failure and challenges; whereas those with growth mindsets confront uncertainty and embrace challenges as they are not afraid to fail.

Dr Raff’s ongoing study is clear evidence of his growth mindset.

Unwarranted perfectionism  

Do you strive for perfection in most things you do?

Striving for perfection is vital in world-class sport and music, in science and mathematics and in heart and brain surgery. But ironically in many areas perfectionism is unwarranted and doesn’t lead to success. Rather it can waste time, hamper learning and progress, and foster anxiety, sometimes even depression. If you can remove the burden of unwarranted perfectionism (in your mind or the minds of those around you), you are more likely to find the courage to deal with the contexts you face, take responsibility for the outcomes and more forward effectively.

No one is perfect and perceptions of perfect minds or bodies and expectations of perfect outcomes or relationships can lead you down dangerous paths (like the vicious circles which can result from harsh self-criticism).

Dr Raff could achieve a PB with Mum’s hand but not perfection. He even had to resort to using an ox bone as the principal connection between her wrist and her hand.

Comfort zones

These are risk-free contexts where your courage muscle doesn’t get a workout. You can find a comfort zone in:

  • an ideology, or in the topics you regularly revert to to avoid more personal or more challenging discussions
  • the familiarity of your old mates at your regular pub;
  • in the job you have done with ease for the past 3 years;
  • in relationships with people who never challenges you.

Ironically there is ultimately nothing comfortable about these. Most obviously comfortable jobs are never secure.

A general surgeon’s experiences in a regional hospital know few bounds. Dr Raff must have gone beyond his comfort zone many times.


Not knowing who you are

Do you know your values?  If not, you’re unlikely to find the courage to draw lines on your behavior or what you get involved with.

Do you know your purpose, your aims and your passions? If not, you’re unlikely to find the courage to seize the moment, prioritise some things and say “no” to others.

Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? If not, you’re less likely to find the courage to collaborate or to seek help.

Do you recognize and acknowledge your negative emotions? If not, how will you find the courage to deal with things causing you fear, anxiety, panic, boredom, loneliness or embarrassment.

Do you explore what you’re truly capable of? If not, you’re unlikely to take on challenges beyond your comfort zone.

Dr Raff knew himself, his values and his purpose. I know from speaking with him that he had a deep faith and a commitment to using his skills for the benefit of others.

Big opportunities can come from a little bit of extra courage. So it’s worth reflecting as to what aspect of a decision or potential action has held you back from giving your courage muscles a workout.