The Generative Power of Courage
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” - Goethe
Those who know me know that I care deeply about the virtue of courage. I was taught by a wise man in college that courage is the first and last of the virtues to be cultivated. Courage underpins all of the other virtues. The lack of it erodes them and clears the way for vice.
Courage takes many forms, each of which worthy of contemplation and reflection. But one of the variations I enjoy thinking about and exercising the most is that of boldness. You can hone an aspect of courage in the form of fortitude where you can withstand challenges and encroachments on your deepest convictions. You can develop a facility with hearing and telling the truth, which is another mode of courage. There are other forms and states of courage, but the most magical to my mind is the form of courage which is boldness.
I encountered a blog post that was tracing the origin of the Goethe quote above. It uncovered some interesting scholarship that I think is fun food for thought on the topic of courage. Meredith Lee of UC Irvine found that an adventurer by the name of W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition wrote:
‘But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’
Committing to a thing with boldness somehow activates serendipity…
I grew up in Texas, in a family where fear was the primary organizing and animating principle, in a town where hesitancy and conformity were prized above individual thought and bold action. Ironically my little part of Texas was oil prospecting country. Extremely bold (perhaps to the point of foolish) people would come in and out of that town seeking to strike it rich in the oil business. They were not the norm though. Those people came and went. The constant population in my town seemed to dig themselves deeper and deeper into the dark hole that is fear and anxiety. I’ll spare you the details other than to say I urgently sought to escape by the time I graduated high school.
I hadn’t really prepared myself well for college. I was bored in school. Many of you can relate I’m sure. I was so bored and under stimulated that I couldn’t pay attention to my school work. I didn’t have the grades worthy of being admitted to a decent university or college. Somehow I knew something was off though. So I conceived of my California plan.
I had visited a friend in Northern California a year prior to graduating high school. Through that visit I had fallen in love with the Pacific Ocean. I could think of no other thing than to return to the ocean once I was done with high school. So I came up with the idea to drive out to California, find a place to live, go to a junior college, then transfer to some university.
I was of course counseled over and over by the fearful in my town that mine was a dangerous course. They came up with the most nonsensical fears for me. I would be kidnapped while sleeping in my car. (Yes that was a component of the plan. I only had $500 bucks at the time.) Or I would fall in love with some surfer chick and never return to school, stuck working fastfood all my life. Or I would get lost along the way and starve in the desert. Nonsense, fear driven nonsense.
What I know now as I reflect on the course I took was that my plan was not necessarily that bold in the grand scheme of human endeavor. But what matters is that it was bold for me. It was courageous for me. Something about committing to my decision by selling most of my possessions, going to Costco and buying a case of beans and rice, severing my local ties and otherwise taking a massive irreversible leap—something about that act of courage through bold commitment in itself filled me with life and vitality. It was as if, in the act of committing boldly, I had finally filled my lungs with a full breath of fresh clean air. I felt alive in a way I never had before.
It was powerful to experience having taken a personal action that filled me so completely with bright vitality. But far far more interesting as I reflect on it is how much the universe opened itself in front of me once I did take the step. So many things began to fall into place. People who had been quiet up to that point now began to tell me of relatives they had in California that I could visit and stay with. People broke their silence and told me how they admired my effort. People came forward and urged me to try this thing or that thing or see this place or that place once I got out to California. And once I was on the road, the full force of serendipity made itself known to me. I got to a point as I wandered, and this was very much an exercise in wandering in the Taoist sense, that I could tune in to the rhythms of providence. I could begin to feel when a path or a direction was not right. I could feel when a step or a turn or a sitting still was soon to be rewarded with what felt like good luck. I began to steer the car by this new faculty. The more I did, the more fully I felt I was living.
“A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”
I was learning, thankfully at a very young age, that making a bold step, or using different language, making a leap of faith, always bore with it sweet fruit. There was always some surprising and delightful reward to be found on the other side of a courageous action.
For me the lesson has much depth. Everything I now am, everything I have, all of those whom I now know came about through that one bold step. The two beautiful children for whom I am a father are a result of that step. My loving wife is a result of it. My fulfilling and successful work life is a result. My relationships with loving and courageous friends are a result. But most of all, my appetite for living fully and with eyes wide open, in short, my ability to truly appreciate my life and the living of it came forth from that one simple step I took as an eighteen year old in Texas.
Why do I bring this story to your attention? Mainly I wish to suggest to you that there are larger forces waiting for you on the other side of bold action. You and I are small. We are finite. There is vastness that we cannot see. But when we take courageous steps across the known and into the unknown, we open ourselves to a form of grace that greatly enriches life.
You know that this is mainly a business oriented blog. And I most often care about the intersection of psychology, business and entrepreneurship. In this regard, my topic, I think, is right on point. Those of you reading are among the bold. You run your own business. You write your own ticket. You define your own circumstances. There is courage essential in this. We have before us a daily gift and opportunity which is the invitation, perhaps the obligation to move boldly. And in so doing, we have a daily connection with the full life, the rich life and the life well lived. I write this mainly to remind us both that we have been visited by grace and good fortune. Most surely we know that good fortune can be brought about by acts of our own faithful courage. Acknowledge that something great is waiting to unfold itself before you. Speak to it and invite it in by moving boldly toward it.