On Courage

2-12-2021 Carl Riis

Me reading the book in some random Swedish forest

I recently read the book “Courage Is Calling” by Ryan Holiday. It is the first of a series of books he is writing about the four stoic virtues. The book is full of stories about history’s most courageous men and women. It’s a fantastic book that I highly recommend.

Any quote not marked otherwise is by Ryan Holiday. The rest is a mix of points from the book and my own opinions.

What is courage

The book starts with a story about Florence Nightingale, born in 1820. She came from a wealthy and indolent family. Quite early in her life, she felt a calling to do something more meaningful than what was expected of women like her. She kept ignoring it and lived a very dull and underwhelming life for many years. She was finally, however, able to summon enough courage to follow her calling to help the sick. She ended up being the founder of modern nursing and lived a life of great devotion and meaning. She ignored her calling for so many years because her parents considered it unbecoming of a woman with her social status to work with patients in a hospital. Her mother cried because her daughter wanted to “disgrace herself” to such work, and her father raged at her for being spoiled and ungrateful. Despite what they thought, she followed her calling and got to fulfill her dream and more.

Courage is being able to follow what you believe is right despite what others say or think. Fear will always try to stop you from unleashing your potential. Florence Nightingale would later famously write:

How very little can be done under the spirit of fear

Courage is not being deterred by difficulties. Not only should you prevent difficulties from deterring you, you should embrace them as good and necessary training. They make you stronger and prepare you for when times are even harder. Shielding yourself from risk will inevitably lead to a very boring life. Your anxiety will always try to hold you back. To achieve something, you need to risk something.

If it were easy, everyone would do it. If everyone did it, how valuable would it be? The whole point is that it’s hard. The risk is a feature not a bug.

Besides, by enduring hardship and risk, you naturally cut away the large majority of your competition.

It’s good that it’s hard. It deters the cowards and it intrigues the courageous.

Courage is about being able to take a leap of faith into the unknown. You won’t always be in a situation where the outcome of your actions will be certain. To do anything innovative or worthwhile, you need to be able to leap. As Holiday writes:

No one can tell you that your plan will succeed. No one can tell you what their answer to your question will be. No one can guarantee you’ll make it home alive. They can’t even tell you how far down the hole goes.

Every person that has ever achieved any measurable success had to leap into the unknown. You owe it to yourself to see what you can achieve without the safety of certainty.

What courage is not

Riding a motorcycle without a helmet, quitting your job because you’re feeling lazy, or actively seeking conflicts, are not courageous acts but rather reckless lunacy. As Ryan Holiday puts it:

Courage isn’t about measuring dicks. […]. Courage is about risk, but only necessary risk.

Your courage must have a purpose.

In the book, Holiday writes about Lord Cardigan. He commanded the charge of the Light Brigade, where six hundred British cavalries were sent against Russian forces. It was a brave but insanely pointless attack that resulted in many British casualties. After the incident, he refused to take any responsibility or blame for the outcome. This is in all sense of the word cowardice. As Holiday writes, “You decided to go. Now you have to own what happens. No excuses. No exceptions.

To give your bravery a purpose, you must take responsibility.

We also need to shed the idea that courage always comes from some spontaneous heroic explosion of action. Brave acts often manifest themselves in carefully laid out plans.

There is nothing admirable about being a hothead. As Holiday writes, “Caution and care are not antonyms for courage but complements

Caring what others think

Too often, we do things because it’s what we’re supposed to do, without pausing to question if it’s the right thing for us. If there is one thing I know to be true, it’s that no one knows what you’re supposed to do. Everyone going through life is, to a certain degree, lost. You might find some shallow comfort in following the masses, but it will inevitably leave you disappointed. You have to be tough on yourself and decide what is best for you. No one else can.

Be original. Be yourself. To be anything else is to be a coward.

People will laugh, mock, and judge you. Cowards test the brave.

If you speak up against others, people will consider you difficult. You must stand your ground and not compromise on your values. Ask yourself: What would the world look like if no one spoke up against this? By conforming to their world, you let them win.

It doesn’t matter who or how many come at you, you have to be you.

It’s so easy for others to put you in a box. The bounds of this box determine what you can and can’t do. If you too accept the bounds of this box, it becomes real and confines every decision you make.

We accept the limitations that other people put on us. We listen to what they tell us is feasible or not. We, upon reviewing the odds, make them an effective truth.

Fuck what others think.

Doing is another story

A few months ago, I read “The Little Book of Stoicism” by Jonas Salzgeber. It was an absolutely amazing book that I really enjoyed reading. While reading it, I carefully considered the points and wrote a lot of notes. The book’s logic made a lot of sense to me, and it included a lot of action points. To my surprise, it was surprisingly difficult for me to carry them out in practice. I much preferred sitting at home reading about stoic practices than actually incorporating them.

Words don’t matter. Deeds do.

Everything you learn from books, articles, and lectures is meaningless if you can’t manifest it in action. Unfortunately, this is an extremely hard thing to do. But trying is what’s important.

My own story

I dropped out of high school when I was 19 and moved to Sweden to work at my software engineering job in person. It was an extremely difficult decision, but I’m glad I went for it. I’m still only 19, so it’s hard to know if I made the right choice, but I think so. I make a decent living doing something I absolutely love, and I’m overall very happy and satisfied living the life I want. I still work very hard to self-study, which I will never stop doing. You could argue that this will come back to bite me hard later in life, but I doubt it. I have my backup plans, and I won’t let pride get in the way of me going back to school later in life if need be. Besides, I don’t really care what you think. If I truly have made a mistake I can at least have some fun before my world comes crashing down.

Up until fairly recently, I was a very anonymous person online. I wasn’t sharing anything about who I really was. I wanted people to follow me and enjoy my content, but I wasn’t willing to share what makes me me. I was afraid of judgment because of my young age and purposeful lack of education. I was scared to be considered unprofessional because of my silly projects and odd humor.

But I fully stand by who I am and my choices to become who I am. So I have committed myself to never be afraid to express that. I won’t let fear deter me. I won’t settle.

From now on, I will be much more open and genuine about what I put up online.

Thank you so much for reading to the end of my ramblings. I have a lot more content planned for the future, like more blog posts and even YouTube videos. So long.

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