Self-Powered Mathematical Courage

How would you define courage? Go ahead, take a moment to grab a pen and paper or open a text document, and write down your thoughts. What does courage mean to you? Can you think of examples where you demonstrated courage or where you didn’t but could have? For just a moment, be courageous enough to try and define courage.

My coach asked me this question last week. I first remember that the word courage comes from the heart, and it’s inspiring to know that the mind doesn’t need to be involved in courage. I gave a long-winded answer about actions, beliefs, and thoughts overpowering a “cannot” mindset. Later in our discussion I came to the simplified thought “Courage = Motivation > Hesitation”. When motivation is stronger than hesitation, this is courage, to me.

From my vantage point, some global societies and especially individuals have faltered in the past year, due to the unanticipated change of priorities and decision-making criteria. Where have you hesitated and/or felt less courageous during the Coronavirus pandemic? Where have you acted with a high degree of motivation and courage?

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt gives a definition of moral systems which focuses on behaviors and identities that “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible”. I like to think of this as action/thought/belief/etc in the interest of the common good. Perhaps we have started to hesitate, to ponder decisions, and to act less readily, due to the fact that “common good” has been called into question more frequently. With personal ethics at each of our foundations, it’s natural that we struggle to act when we face ethical dilemmas. We have seen a re-shuffling of the hierarchy and new faces become the essential, critical actors that deserve priority. The richest players have, in some cases, been replaced by the most vulnerable, and we are not used to the rules of this new game. Haidt’s moral systems ask us which outlets we use to suppress self-interest and make cooperation possible.

We increasingly and repeatedly ask ourselves: What public health precautions are in the interest of the common good? What policing strategies serve the common good? What activities should be allowed / disallowed against a raging virus? What tasks should I prioritize in my routine when the routine is disrupted and my environment becomes stagnate?

In a separate publication, Haidt also determined that people who highly respect authority figures are far more likely to believe society will break down if strong institutions do not regulate conduct. I suspect that in today’s set of crises, the lack of clarity and certainty at the authoritative level limits the factors on which we can base our decisions. Ambiguity thus impairs action. Perhaps this is why start-ups and ambitious companies strategically employ people who can work autonomously, and thriving is hard. Where authority lacks, autonomous beings attempt to self-regulate. Autonomy comes from the Greek words for “self” and “law”. Of course, people participating in a system cannot be fully autonomous, else wise the system is necessarily non-existent. The capacity to make an informed decision depends on having information. Thus, we are a bit handicapped these days, not having the same degree of reliable information, realizing what we thought to be facts are more stories and agreed-upon-realities, and not being our usual “autonomous” selves.

Hesitation is thriving, and what’s the status of motivation? With frequent thought patterns of no-end-in-sight and increasing rates of burnout, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have undoubtedly suffered across the collective. Hesitation has blossomed, while motivation has hibernated. To re-empower ourselves and flip the tables, experts like Daniel Goleman and Viktor Frankl recommend focusing on incremental goals and acknowledge that achieving (even small) intrinsically motivated outcomes can restore motivation, like a self-charging battery.

I find myself relieved to land on such a simple definition of courage. Although hesitation sometimes outweighs motivation, I think we can all look for an area where we have zero hesitation, we can act, and we can start to re-empower ourselves to be a soft blend of motivated and courageous. Can you relate?

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