Courage is calling by Ryan Holiday

How Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday changed my life. 

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

A Little Story

Once upon a time, there was a young warrior. One day he was running in the forest. There was this typical smell of wet soil after heavy rainfall. Normally, this smell calmed him down, but not this time. There was something in the air, and it wasn’t only geosmin. He was stressed. It was a big day. A few weeks earlier, he had applied for a renewable energy project in the tropics. He had already survived some selection rounds, but that day the final verdict will come in. It was all or nothing. He didn’t know what time he would know the result, and that agitated his nerves. Nevertheless, he had a good feeling about it. In his opinion, he did well in these selection rounds. All of a sudden, his phone rang. He stopped running and took his phone out of his pocket as it almost slipped out of his shaking, sweaty hands. “Hello?” he picked up the phone while trying to hide the fact he was still panting. “Hello there” was the answer, “I’m sorry, you’re not selected for the project.” His heart sank, and he listened apathetically for the rest of the conversation.

How could he not be selected? He was surprised and angry. The warrior had always been good in everything he did. He performed well at school, reached far in the national mathematics competition, and often heard compliments about his listening skills. He was pretty decent at basketball, and after a lot of years of practice, he could play the piano very well. Furthermore, he had even never been refused a student job! In other words, not being selected for the project was the first significant drawback he had ever experienced. It may sound silly, but the warrior was indeed so privileged that his biggest concerns were about not getting selected for a project.

Arriving back at home, he showered. And as so often happens during showering, he started to think. What had happened? The person on the phone had said he came close to getting selected. He was not selected because he appeared too chaotic in his thoughts during the interview. Hearing that hurt a lot. While speaking, he often felt he was not able to fully express what he meant. He knew he needed to work on his speaking skills. But how could he even do that? Maybe joining some public speaking club? No, that was too scary.

There was also this other question. Why was this the first time he experienced such a drawback? Was he underprepared? Was this project not his “thing”? Should he just give up and live with the fact he was bad at speaking? Was the project itself the problem? Were the interviewers the problem? Or was he the problem, like a little voice in his head was saying? Yeah, it was true that he was good in everything he did. But what does that tell about him? Maybe it just meant that he blocked off the things he was bad at. He didn’t learn French, he didn’t dance, he didn’t sing, he didn’t play piano in public, he didn’t ask questions in class, he didn’t start conversations with strangers, and he didn’t say what he thought. And that was all out of a fear of making mistakes. So he had stayed in his little comforting bubble. Deceiving himself into believing he was good in everything he did. He chose it was time to do something about it.

A few weeks later, the Read More Warrior was in his natural habitat: the library. He had noticed earlier that there was a piano in the library, but he never dared to play it. Playing piano for other people was scary, especially for strangers. He remembered his shower thoughts and decided it was time to step out of his comfort zone. After looking around if nobody was watching him, he stepped to the piano, sat down on the chair, opened the piano, and placed his trembling fingers on the keys. He took a deep breath… and started to play. It felt freeing and scary at the same time. Out of the blue, he played a false note which ruined the whole song. He immediately stopped playing and felt embarrassed, but then he had a flashback to something his great-grandmother once said:

“Don’t be afraid to play a false note, because one false note is not as bad as a beautiful song the world will never hear.”

He pulled himself back together and finished the song. When he was done, there was no applause, but that was okay. Knowing he just conquered his biggest fear gave more satisfaction than applause could ever give.

Making mistakes seemed not that bad after all.

On a distant bookshelf in the library, there was standing a book called Courage is calling by Ryan Holiday. It had heard everything from a distance and was determined to help this warrior conquer his fears for the rest of his life.

Courage as one of the three key values

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. This book helped me to define the three key values of the Read More Warrior: Curiosity, Honesty, and Courage. Now I want to investigate these key values a bit more. I already wrote partially about Honesty in the post about the book Lying by Sam Harris. Now I want to investigate Courage deeper using this book by Ryan Holiday. Below I list my 10 biggest fears and I will take a closer look into two of them. Maybe you can list yours too.

My 10 Biggest Fears

1)     Fear of making mistakes

2)     Fear of not living up to the expectations of my surrounding

3)     Fear of putting myself out there 

4)     Fear of public speaking

5)     Fear of losing family or friends

6)     Fear of asking questions

7)     Fear of writing a book

8)     Fear of standing up for myself

9)     Fear of getting addicted to non-essentials

10)  Fear of writing this blog post

1. Fear of making mistakes

The fear of making mistakes shows itself in many forms. It doesn’t matter if I’m just starting, or I’m already at an advanced level, this fear will be there. It paralyzes me. I can’t move on. But in order to grow, mistakes have to be made.

To whoever also has a fear of making mistakes, just watch this speech by Neil Gaiman.

"Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody has ever made before."

Greg McKeown writes in his book Effortless about his friend who is a language teacher who said to his students that they have to imagine a bag with a thousand beads. Each time you make a mistake, you can put one bead out of the bag. So you better make many mistakes early on to master the language as soon as possible. I think this is not only applicable to learning a language, but to learning in general. Mistakes are the best teachers.

By reading books, you can learn from the mistakes of the author. Maybe that’s the reason why I love to read books. But are you really learning from their mistakes just by reading them? Because wouldn’t you actually learn more from making the mistakes yourself, instead of avoiding them? I’ve not figured it out yet. A friend of mine read a lot of books, but now he doesn’t because: “From real life, you learn a lot more than books”. I’m on his side, I also think you can learn a lot more from life than from a book. As Ryan Holiday puts it in his book: “Words don’t matter. Deeds do.” But still, I think a book can serve as a guide, as a mentor, or as a map. When you’ve read the book, it will be easier to notice what you can do better in real life. It can show you mistakes you hadn’t thought about. It can give you the motivation you would otherwise lack. Maybe you can be stubborn and make the same mistake deliberately, just to experiment. If you get stuck, you’ll still have the book which might help you. Books are in my opinion catalysts of change, not the change itself. The change happens in real life, by making mistakes and improving, and books can be your map in this journey.

2. Fear of not living up to the expectations of my surrounding

There is an Australian former palliative carer who has something to say to us. Remember the quote which opened this blog post?

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Her name is Bronnie Ware and while she worked as a palliative carer she discovered The Top Five Regrets of the Dying of which she also wrote a book. As you can see, the number one regret of the dying has to do with courage. It also has to do with living up to the expectations of your surrounding.

Like most people, I sometimes feel heavy weighing expectations from family, friends, and others to live my life in a certain way. Sometimes they verbalize it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they put explicit pressure, sometimes I’m just imagining it. Pressure from your surrounding is not always bad. If nobody cared about what other people did or thought, we probably didn’t even have a society. But I have to draw a line somewhere, my life must still be true to myself.

Fear is powerful. We can use fear against itself. On top of the list of my fears should be:

0) Fear of living a boring life untrue to myself. A life not fully lived.

Using Fear

“Our fears point us, like a self-indicting arrow, in the direction of the right thing to do.”

When we are afraid of something, it is often a sign. It is a sign that you should actually do it. Where there is fear, there is opportunity. Opportunity to face your fear and learn something. Progress is waiting for you just around the corner, but the dragon Resistance too. When you’re afraid to tell your parents how much they mean to you, you should do it. When you’re afraid to talk in Spanish, you should do it. When you’re afraid to step into that cold shower, you should do it. Resistance is always awaiting you just around the corner. You can freeze, knowing that moving on probably leads to coping with the dragon. Or you can choose to flee from Resistance, which leads to nothing. Or you can choose to move on no matter what, face the dragon, slay it and choose that path, knowing that following where the dragon came from will lead you to the treasure, which might be even better than finding the exit.

Training Courage: Cold Showers

“Do one thing each day that scares you” That is how you train courage. The “easiest” way to train courage daily is to take a cold shower first thing in the morning. I put “easiest” between parentheses in the previous sentence because, as you will soon realize, it is not easy. When you’re standing completely naked in front of the shower, still with sleepy eyes, you can already feel the cold. “Maybe I can start with a hot shower and then gradually make it colder?” you think. “Isn’t it also okay if I just turn the knob to slightly warmer than the coldest?”. Enough with the self-pity. You should respond to these thoughts with “Silenzio Bruno!” like in the Disney film Luca. Or remind yourself, “Who is the boss? … I am the boss!”. You step into the shower fiercely and turn the knob to the coldest while already getting goosebumps. When the cold water touches your skin, probably your first reaction will be hyperventilating. Controlling your breath will make it easier. For me, it helped a lot to try to exhale as long as possible. Wim Hof talks in more detail about how to take cold showers. After half a minute or a minute, you can stop, and you will feel reborn. You have started the day by fighting your fear of cold showers, which will probably never go away. What can hold you back for the rest of the day?

My mother told me this when I told her I take cold showers daily now: “Well, thankfully being crazy doesn’t hurt, it only is a bit cold”

Ending thoughts: What if I’m not courageous enough?

Do you see yourself as a brave person? Or do you see yourself as a coward? Maybe that is the wrong way to look at it. Ryan Holiday puts it this way:

“A person isn’t brave, generally. We are brave, specifically. For a few seconds. For a few seconds of embarrasing bravery we can be great. And that is enough”

You probably think that the person who quits his job drops out of college, ends that abusive relationship, or makes that lifechanging decision after reading a book is a courageous person. In reality, all those decisions came down to a few seconds of bravery. Nevertheless, being brave in that few seconds is not easy, it requires preparation, for example by taking cold showers. Or by facing your fears regularly in other ways.

For some big decisions, you might think, “Brave and quick decision-makers are cool, but I just can’t make that decision right now” I was in that situation myself. So what I did was write my future self a letter. In this letter, I explained to my future self what the current situation is and which decision I expect him to make. Time will tell if it works or if it is just procrastination taking another form.

Your Turn

Take a cold shower as soon as you can and try making it a daily habit.

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