In 1911, a man known as “Ishi” (the name just means man in his language), believed to be the last of the Yahi people, emerged from the wilderness after 44 years.
He was taken from Oroville, California to San Francisco by an anthropologist, to work with a group that wanted to learn more about Ishi’s language and culture.
When the train came into the station to take him to San Francisco, Ishi went to stand quietly behind a pillar. Puzzled, the researchers beckoned to him, and Ishi joined them and got on the train.
They asked him about it later, and he said his people had seen the smoky, noisy train snaking through the valley for many years, with faces visible through the windows. The Yahi had always believed it was a demon that ate people.
The researchers asked, if that is what he believed, how could he have possibly gathered the courage to get on board?
Ishi’s response was:
“Well, my life has taught me to be more curious than afraid.”
I first read that story in Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Ishi’s story is sad and complex, but he struck the people who knew him at the end of his life as being markedly calm, measured, and kind.
His words have never left me — they strike me as being a true motto for a life worth living.
Fast-forward a few decades. Last summer, I was doing an “ask me anything” session in Chicago with Andy Crestodina, and someone asked me:
“Where do you get your courage?”
I genuinely thought it was a funny question. I told her that I don’t think of myself as particularly courageous at all. In fact, I’d say I’m scared most of the time.
But if Ishi, who had survived so much that he outlived all of his people, could be more curious than afraid, I’ve never thought I had much of an excuse for holding back just because something scared me.
Pursue the beautiful and rocky path
When you’re finding the courage to share your authentic voice, I can almost promise you’ll have days when you ask yourself:
What on earth was I thinking?
There will be trolls, creeps, delusional people, and the occasional idiot.
People will question your motives, your competence, your scruples, your beliefs, your body fat composition, and what you’re wearing.
I’m not going to tell you that it doesn’t matter, because that probably won’t help. If you could shrug these things off so easily, you probably wouldn’t have clicked through to read this article.
But I will tell you that courage is a habit, and you can get better at it.
Allow me, a lifelong coward, to share some of the techniques I’ve learned for being more curious than afraid.
Discover the biology of courage
I’ll start with a resource I discovered not too long ago. If you haven’t picked up Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress yet, I found it fantastically useful.
It pulls together a lot of research to support a single point: Despite what we believe, stress is not always harmful.
How we think about our stress affects how our bodies react to it. For example, when people perceive stress as a sign that they’re doing something that matters — something hard but rewarding — their stress-related health risks drop dramatically.
“How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”
– Kelly McGonigal, “How to Make Stress Your Friend” (TED talk transcript)
But “embrace your stress” only goes so far. You’ll also want to take some practical measures to neutralize it.
Protect your privacy
One concrete thing you can do is reduce the number of things you need to worry about.
If you’re going to claim a public voice, it just makes sense to be smart about keeping yourself secure. There are sensible actions everyone can take to keep our sanity and protect our privacy.
Before you explore the technical solutions, start by making a commitment to be intentional about how much personal information you share.
Decide how many details you want to share about your family. You can draw this line wherever you feel is best for you — there are plenty of folks with successful online businesses who share pictures of their kids. Just be conscious about it, and be consistent.
Protect your website. Use hosting, themes, and plugins that have a good security reputation. Subscribe to a monitoring service like Sucuri to make sure bad guys aren’t doing anything weird to your site.
Protect your online privacy. It’s always smart to use free, legal privacy protections.
For most of us, trolls aren’t much more than an annoyance. But if you were lying awake at night worrying about burglars, it would make sense to get up and lock the door. These are straightforward measures that can help prevent problems.
When you do encounter trolls, block and report them promptly. Don’t engage with them, and don’t try to convince them to be good people.
At first, you’ll be sorely tempted. You’ll think that if you just calmly explain to them that you are not, in fact, possessed by Satan, surely they’ll see reason.
I can tell you from annoying experience, it doesn’t work. Worse, it’s an invitation to the troll to live rent-free inside your head. Block them so they can’t keep spewing their nonsense at you, report them if it’s an option, and move on to more important things.
If you’d like more thoughts on how to deal with trolls, you might benefit from this podcast episode, in which I compare trolls to flaming bags of poop.
But courage is about more than protecting ourselves against creeps.
Focus on service
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: When you know why you’re doing what you do, you’ll have more courage, more power, and more resilience.
Making a living is a perfectly good place to start. It’s where I started, and it’s still important. I have bills to pay, like anyone else does.
But a life spent just paying the bills becomes a grind.
Business, and especially online-based business, is built on helping people.
When you know who you help, and why it matters, it will give you an energy and resilience that’s hard to describe.
The first time you get a heartfelt message from someone telling you that you meaningfully changed their life, you’ll realize:
This is why I do this.
And, unlike so many things in life, it never gets stale.
Find your people
Are you going to have tough days? Maybe even serious crises of faith?
Sure you will.
Most of those outwardly ultra-confident people you see have moments, or days — or whole years — when they feel afraid and small. Being fearless is not normal, and it’s not beneficial.
The handful of genuinely fearless people are usually fearless because they lack empathy. Their ability to help others is seriously compromised, because trying to help without understanding tends to do more harm than good.
Nothing is better for getting through the rough days than having a crew who understands you.
It might be an official mastermind group, a community of business owners, or just a few friends who get it. Assemble a Council of Allies who are in the same game you are. Lean on one another when the days get tough.
Another thing I learned from McGonigal’s book is that oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” is also a stress hormone.
When we’re afraid, we can choose to “Tend and Befriend” — seeking the comfort and company of people we care about — over the more common “Fight or Flight” response.
Not only is Tend and Befriend more comforting, it’s also actually healthier. Here’s another quote from McGonigal’s TED talk:
“… oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart.”
Reaching out to your community will not only help you feel better and manage your stress, it actually creates a physiological response that benefits your heart health and keeps your stress on the “healthy” side of the equation.
Live a life worth living
Why put ourselves through it?
Why stand up and speak with a true voice, about something that matters, even when we know that we may have some rocky days because of it?
Because, whether your life is long or short, it’s a good idea to spend it on worthwhile things.
Spend your life creating meaning. Spend it helping other people. Create a satisfying life, not just an easy one.
Take reasonable measures to protect yourself. Remember the rewards of service. And get your crew together to Tend and Befriend on the rocky days. Finally, realize that stress is a sign that you’re doing something you truly care about.
Be more curious than afraid.
How about you? What’s your best tip for finding your courage? Let us know in the comments!