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Can Courage Be Learned? Article by: Vic Conant

If you look at the most revered people in history, the people who have done the most for the world, the people who have pushed society forward, you’ll invariably find that a major characteristic of those individuals is courage. But what is courage?

S. J. Rachman, a Canadian psychologist specializing in fear and courage, says that many people think of courage as fearlessness. However, Rachman defines courage as perseverance in the face of fear and stress.

Courage is a personal strength, which equates to the ability to act when others of lesser courage will not. It’s the ability to act in spite of fear and overwhelming opposition. It’s the ability to act in spite of hardship, despair and sometimes, imminent personal physical danger.

Ask yourself, Who’s the most courageous individual you’ve personally known? Next, who’s the most courageous person you can identify throughout history? Now, what were the courageous characteristics that caused you to choose these individuals? My personal favorite is Winston Churchill. At the end of World War I, Churchill was in charge of the British navy. After a major naval defeat, he was removed from office and then had to endure more than 20 years of rejection of his political views. He admittedly suffered some very low times. But he never wavered on his beliefs. His views were eventually proven correct when the Germans swept through Europe, and Churchill was the obvious choice to become Britain’s wartime prime minister.

Everyone automatically looked to him in this time of need because they knew where he stood and they witnessed him display courage in battle, putting himself in harm’s way over and over again. His personal courage and determination helped inspire an entire nation to continue to resist a force that at the time must have seemed to most … insurmountable. And yet Churchill wasn’t a likely person to become courageous. According to Stephen Mansfield, in his book Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill, Churchill didn’t have physical strength or towering stature. He was neglected, ridiculed, and misused by friends and family alike. He was brought up in the leisure class, which seldom produces principled men of vision. However, in spite of all that, he developed a staggering moral and physical bravery.

Mansfield goes on to say about courage, “It cannot be taught, though it can be inspired. And it normally springs from something like faith or resolve — a commitment to something larger than oneself. It can burst forth instantly as though awakened by a sudden jolt. But, more often, it waits in silence until aroused by some pressing challenge. What is certain of courage, though,” he says, “is that true leadership is impossible without it.”

Churchill himself said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees all others.”

Mansfield is right to say that it would be difficult to teach someone to operate at, as he says, “the staggering level of courage of a Churchill or a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.” However, it’s been proven that courage can be learned, and that is incredibly important for any of us who would like to increase our courage in some area of our lives.

Among S. J. Rachman’s research, he observed the military bomb-disposal officers serving in the British army in Northern Ireland. He discovered that these men were able to cultivate a great capacity for courage, even if they initially lacked a high degree of self-confidence or a natural ability to persist under pressure. He found that the ability to persist and function well in the face of great danger was largely the result of intense and specialized training for their job. Not only being prepared, but knowing you are prepared.

Denis Waitley describes fear as one of the strongest motivating emotions we can experience. Yet we do have the power to choose an even stronger motivation that can override fear and cause us to act courageously.

Denis used to be a Navy pilot, and he observed the training of our astronauts. After some of the most arduous and intense training ever devised, astronauts have been able to act efficiently and effectively, even in incredibly dangerous situations. As Neil Armstrong said after he walked on the moon, “It was just like a drill. It was just like we planned it.”

It’s apparent that we can become more courageous with enough preparation. If we venture, we do so by faith, because we cannot know the end of anything at its beginning. Isn’t this the ultimate reason that doubt and fear are able to eat away at our courage? We’re fearful because we cannot know the end of anything at its beginning, and we start imagining the worst possible scenarios. So, it seems our best chance to overcome fear and become courageous is to prepare and then have faith. Now, in what area of your life would you like to become more courageous?


Vic Conant is the President of Nightingale-Conant Corporation, the world leader in personal development. Read more articles by Vic Conant.

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