I recently heard someone say they wanted to be “fearless”. Then I heard it again the next night in a movie. A character was admired for being “fearless”.

Imagine never being afraid. Sounds like what Superman must feel like most of the time, minus those occasional encounters with Kryptonite. But, really, how little courage would it take to do awesome things if almost nothing could hurt you and your chances of success are literally sky high?

It’s normal to be afraid and experience fear regularly. I don’t know any sane person who is truly fearless. Being fearless is not the same as being courageous.

Fear is a friend, a friend who’s trying to keep us alive. Our ancestors are the ones who felt fear and responded to it. The long-ago humans who were without fear are the ones who don’t have descendants. Those humans were some creature’s lunch or ended up falling off the cliff our ancestors avoided.

The trick now is to understand our wiring, the inherited proclivities that enabled us to survive, and discern which fears are reasonable and helpful and which are keeping us from being awesome.

To be great at something and to have a remarkable life, you do need to be courageous, not fearless. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to take action in spite of the fear.

Some fears are there to keep you alive. Respect those fears and avoid doing stupid things. Other fears will keep you from coming alive. Consider the resistance you feel when you want to begin some great project or speak up for something meaningful or connect deeply with a fellow human being.

You know that voice that tells you to lie low, to keep your head down, don’t make waves, don’t risk failure? That’s the fear that should summon your courage.

The best way I know to respond to this kind of fear is action. Courage is like a muscle. It needs exercise to get stronger. Take on small moments of fear regularly. Even facing little awkward social fears, like smiling at a stranger or speaking up in a meeting, can strengthen your courage.

We have to be consistently courageous to overcome our predisposition for safety. I want to have courage. I have too often, though, skirted around hard things for fear of failure or embarrassment. I know my greatest obstacle to being the best I can be is the failure to confront caution — the spirit-suppressing, mediocrity-loving kind of caution — with courage.

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