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5 Inspiring Essays on Courage

Courage is a value held in high regard. There are countless quotes and explanations of what “courage” is. Some believe it’s the same as being fearless, while others say that courage is doing the right thing even if you’re afraid. Brene Brown says that “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you can’t choose both.” Courage is about stepping outside of what’s familiar and comfortable. Here are five essays exploring what courage looks like:

“The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” (2017) – Susan David

While technically not an essay, the transcript from this 2017 TEDTalk (and the speech itself) is a powerful exploration of emotional courage. Dr. Susan David, who lost her father when she was 15, describes how she dealt with grief. Societies often encourage people to suppress these types of emotions. She talks about a “radical acceptance” of every emotion, even the hard ones, and how this acceptance is necessary for true happiness. This acceptance isn’t easy. It takes courage. She has an especially poignant way of describing courage: she calls it “fear walking.”

Dr. Susan David is a world-leading management thinker and Harvard Medical School psychologist. She’s also an author and contributor to publications like The Harvard Business Review, New York Times, and more. David lectures around the world for clients like the United Nations, Google, and the World Economic Forum.

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“Profile in Courage” (2004) – Dana Calvo

The photo of a single protester facing off a line of tanks is one of history’s most iconic images. In this essay from Smithsonian Magazine, readers learn the story behind it. In 1989, students from over three dozen universities gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest government corruption, joblessness, and attacks on free speech. The government declared martial law, sending tens of thousands of troops to the area. Violence erupted. Several hundred protesters were killed, thousands wounded. The story of the photograph, taken by 33-year old Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, is a story of courage.

Dana Calvo is a former national and foreign journalist. She now works in television.

“This Is A Crisis of Civil-Military Relations” (2020) – Eliot A. Cohen

In this piece, author Eliot Cohen examines what’s going on with military leadership in the age of the Trump administration. While these people are willing to “take a bullet” for America and take on responsibility for the “gravest decisions anyone can make,” they must now show a different kind of courage. Under President Trump’s leadership, the military brass must stand up and risk getting fired. While this essay describes a specific situation between two incredibly powerful branches of American society, it taps into the essence of courage. Courage comes with risks. It often requires people to risk something they didn’t anticipate losing.

Eliot A. Cohen is the dean of The John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He served as the Counselor of the Department of State from 2007-2009. A contributing writer at The Atlantic, he’s also the author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

“How To Find and Practice Courage” (2020) – Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

This essay opens with a story of a CEO who went against shareholder advice to do what he believed was right, even as he feared the consequences. What gave him courage? Had it always been there under the surface? If you’re interested in brain science and the psychology behind courage, this is a great piece. At the end, it offers techniques on how to “practice courage,” such as going out of your comfort zone and taking care of your body when it’s afraid.

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries is a psychoanalyst, management scholar, and executive coach. At INSEAD in France, Abu Dhabi, and Singapore, he is the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change. He wrote Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life (2018).

“The Six Attributes of Courage” – Melanie Greenberg

What is courage? It’s something most people recognize when they see it, but there are different kinds of courage. In this essay, Dr. Greenberg briefly describes six defining characteristics of courage. She uses quotes from people like Nelson Mandela, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. Attributes include following your heart and letting go of what’s familiar and comfortable. The piece concludes with a courage-building exercise.

Dr. Melanie Greenberg is a psychologist, speaker, author, and coach. Her book The Stress-Proof Brain is an Amazon bestseller. She travels the world giving talks to non-profits, businesses, and professional organizations. Active on Twitter, she has been featured in media like CNN, Forbes, BBC Radio, and more.