Courage is a slippery concept but, like art, we know it when we see it.
Author Harriet Rubin defines courage as a virtue that allows us to face real risk.
Lack of courage shows when we use the word too loosely, she says, as in “He’s a courageous guy. He just invested $2 million.” That’s not courage; it’s risk tolerance. He’s not going to die and it may not even be his money.
On the other hand, the British loved their Queen Mother because they value a stiff upper lip and, during the bombing of London in World War II, she refused to flee to safety. She manifested physical courage in her willingness to take the same risk as ordinary citizens who had no choice.
Rubin divides courage into components, noting that you never know who’s going to deliver and who will crack under pressure. On that note:
The first component is luck. If you’re lucky on the day you’re put to the test, you’ll be able to muster your reserves of character. Even a person who doesn’t scare easily can become disoriented.
The second piece is training—drill and practice. Many people who escaped the World Trade Center on 9/11 had long practiced evacuations, and the emergency personnel had long practiced saving lives.
The third element is a courageous nature. Some people are simply cooler under pressure. It might be a genetic predisposition to thrill-seeking, or merely delayed responses to fearsome situations.
The fourth is a sense of confidence that fuels courage. Read stories of courage, practice acts of courage, associate with courageous people and make a study of selflessness in the face of danger.
Or, as the Cowardly Lion says in his speech about courage in The Wizard of Oz: “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage.”
— Adapted from “What Is Courage?” Harriet Rubin, Fast Company.