How to be brave
Lately, I’ve been wondering why we don’t do the things that would bring us joy. We chalk it up to time or money, but just as often, it’s not a question of resources. It’s a question of fear.
The fear I’m talking about isn’t always conscious. It manifests as a subtle avoidance. Case in point: recipes. As I’ve been cooking more recently, I’ve noticed that there are certain recipes I tend to avoid. Recipes that involve making dough, like pie crust or flatbread. Steaks. Any kind of custard. I realized that I’ve written these things off as “hard” and so I just avoid them. But I do plenty of other hard things, and I’m reasonably confident in the kitchen. Why am I afraid of custard?
As I was pondering this, I put the question out on Instagram stories: “Do you have something you think would bring you joy, but aren’t doing because you’re afraid?”
83 percent said yes. The responses ranged from small things like “coloring my hair!” to big ones like “starting my business.” Here are a few more examples:
- “Swimming in the cold Pacific ocean”
- “Use really bright colors in my home”
- “Traveling with my baby. I’m nervous I’ll have to breastfeed in public so I don’t go.”
- “Hobbies like journaling or scrapbooking”
- “Move across the country and ‘start over’ at 37”
- “Learn to ice skate”
- “Introducing my kids to my amazing boyfriend after surviving divorce”
- “Meeting my neighbors”
- “Painting. I don’t know where to start, afraid to ‘waste’ materials”
- “Leaving social media and becoming less digital in general”
- “Making new friends”
- “Writing a book”
- “Have a baby on my own”
- “Learning to drive”
As I read through this list, I couldn’t help but think: what a lot of joy we’re leaving on the table.
Joy is painted as light and easy, spontaneous and carefree. But the reality is that joy takes a lot of bravery. The very things that light us up in life are often the ones that lie beyond the edge of our comfort zone. To find joy, it sometimes means sacrificing security, a good paycheck, a well-worn routine of evenings on the sofa, the simplicity of relying only on yourself.
And so I asked our community for advice on being braver. There was some deep wisdom in the responses. I’m sharing a summary of them here. Note: I’m keeping sources anonymous because some of these conversations can feel personal.
Make your curiosity bigger than your fear
One commenter said of her fear that she was “petrified, but so curious!” This reminded me of something the late John O’Donohue once said (and I’m paraphrasing), which is that curiosity is always stronger than will. In other words, if you try to force yourself to do something, it’s like you’re pushing yourself along. It feels exhausting because you’re using willpower to try to overcome your natural resistance. But if you appeal to curiosity, it pulls you forward. The irresistible desire to know more propels you.
So if you need bravery, see if you can stoke your curiosity. Let yourself wonder, imagine, and research, and allow your will to follow.
Tell everyone you know
“Tell everyone you meet about what you want to do,” said one commenter. “It puts it out there and wraps your mind around it and gives a little peer pressure since now everyone knows… Plus, often your loved ones will be your immediate cheerleaders.”
This advice rings true for me, and in fact, I credit it with ensuring that I actually finished writing Joyful. When I was a graduate student working on my master’s thesis, I told everyone that I was working on a book about joy. Sure, plenty of people didn’t care. But the people that did helped inspire me and hold me accountable.
It’s important, though, to make sure you’re telling people who you believe will be positive and encouraging. If you know that a friend or family member is likely to react with jealousy or harp on obstacles to your dream, it might be better to keep that person out of the loop until you get a little momentum.
Take very small steps
“My way through fear: do the very very small steps leading up to the thing,” says one commenter. “Buy the supplies one day. Put the supplies where you will use them another day!”
I can relate to this approach. I often talk to myself as I’m doing this, saying something like, “I’m not about to go jump off that cliff. I’m just walking up these steps!” I definitely felt this way when I committed to do a TED talk. I was petrified, but only allowed myself to focus on the next step. This was especially helpful on the day of, where I just had to think, “Ok, now I just need to let this person put a microphone on me. Ok, now I just need to walk over here and stand here until they call my name. Ok, now I just need to step up there without tripping.”
Break anything down into small enough steps, and it becomes much less overwhelming.
Borrow courage from your future self
Another commenter says that she “borrows courage from her future self” by imagining what her best self would do, and then doing it. So if her best self wears bold clothes without fear, then that’s what she needs to do to embody that best self.
I love this idea because it helps you to imagine a version of you who has already done the thing. Picturing that self, and believing in that self, can help you to see conquering the fear as inevitable and make it easier to take the first step toward making a change.
Model bravery for someone else
Another commenter shared that she decided to go ice skating after more than 20 years away from doing it, because her “five year-old is so brave and I don’t want her to ever lose that.” Parents know that kids “do as I do, not as I say,” and that the best (perhaps only) way to encourage your child to behave in a certain way is to do it yourself.
But it doesn’t have to be a child. It’s interesting to me that so often our reason for not doing things that bring us joy is fear of judgment from others — yet when we actually do those things, what often happens is that we inspire others with our bravery. For example, painting your walls a bright color might inspire a friend who had been afraid to do the same. Or being the first one on the dance floor might encourage others who feel self-conscious to get jiggy.
Judgment has power because it threatens to isolate us, to leave us alone in shame. Anyone who is brave enough to resist the fear of judgment helps take its power away, because the joy of doing what you love is usually so contagious that it draws in more people than it repels. If doing something for yourself feels scary, doing it for those who will follow in your footsteps might be just the thing to help you be more brave.
Get real about the risk
Several commenters shared that they ask themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?” As one wrote in, “Usually it’s only wasting time, a bit of money, or getting slightly ashamed which is so little compared to refraining from living my own life!”
Yes, some life decisions have big risks attached. Making mistakes in choosing a partner, buying a house, or having a child are hard, if not impossible, to reverse. But the problem is that our fear often doesn’t discriminate between big decisions and small ones, and this keeps us feeling stuck. For big decisions, there are steps we can take to get more information and reduce some of the risk involved. For small decisions, it’s helpful to remember that failure probably won’t matter much in a couple of weeks, much less a month or a year’s time.
Develop a healthy fear of regret
Lastly, says one commenter, “I’m working on developing a healthy fear of regret. If I don’t do these things soon, I’ll be too old and regret not having taken the risk.”
And the reality is that many people do regret the risks they didn’t take. In The Power of Regret, Dan Pink conducted a massive survey of regrets. He found that there were four core types of regrets that people held, one of which he calls “regrets of boldness.” Regrets of boldness are about not asking out a beautiful stranger, nor pursuing a hobby, not taking the risky dream job, but following a safe path instead.
As Pink writes, “At the heart of all boldness regrets is the thwarted possibility of growth. The failure to become the person — happier, braver, more evolved — one could’ve been.”
I don’t know what the purpose of life is. But I do know that when I think about a good life, it involves not leaving the things that matter undone. A good life is doing the things that make you feel alive, and not letting fear, or obligation, or anything else get in the way.
But it’s one thing to aspire to this, and another to realize that living this way means having to be brave right now. Yes, it won’t matter if I don’t paint today. It won’t matter if I don’t paint tomorrow. But eventually I will run out of tomorrows, and if I never faced down that fear of the blank page, it will be hard to forgive myself.
So often, I feel like I beat myself up for wasting time or not making the things that matter a priority. But the reality is that I don’t need more efficiency. I need more bravery. The good news is that bravery is something anyone can practice. And like joy, the more we practice it, the more it grows.