Developing courage, one conversation at a time

How committed are you to your values? Would you stand by them even if it meant losing your job or alienating you from your friends?

John F. Kennedy’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, tackles these questions through a series of narratives featuring eight senators who demonstrated courage in office.

While they differ widely across the ideological spectrum, one commonality is that they all put their reputations on the line, risking their careers—and in some cases their lives—to support unpopular measures. They did this not to be rebellious or contrarian, but to stay true to their principles.

For instance, Edmund G. Ross voted against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, defying those in Congress who desperately wanted to oust Johnson. Even death threats from other senators, knowing Ross’s vote was the deciding one, didn’t deter him. On top of that, Ross despised Johnson! But he knew that voting in favor of impeachment would set a dangerous precedent where Congress could kick out any president based on flimsy evidence.

Of course, most of us don’t face these kinds of momentous decisions, ones where our lives and livelihoods are at stake. But the lessons in this book can apply to any situation.

As Kennedy writes: “To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience—the loss of friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men—each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”

Have you ever avoided telling your friends about a song or movie you liked because you knew they would make fun of you? Or, after disclosing the name of the song/movie and then being ridiculed, meekly changed the subject rather than defending your choice?

Have you refrained from publicly expressing an unpopular opinion on a controversial subject for fear of being condemned by others?

I know I have.

While the Internet provides a forum for a diversity of voices, it’s also susceptible to group-think. It’s no coincident that you see the same jokes and phrases floating around Twitter and Facebook on any given day.

It’s more important than ever, then, to express what’s truly on your mind, even if it means dealing with the inevitable fallout.

Of course, sometimes it might be difficult to articulate (or know) what your authentic thoughts are when you are bombarded daily by inauthentic thoughts. These are times when it may be helpful to step away from the Internet and allow yourself the space to reflect.

Many of the senators in Profiles in Courage ended their careers as pariahs, with only their family (and sometimes not even that) for support. But they were at peace, knowing they had made their choices on their own terms and not anyone else’s.

When was the last time you held back from expressing your opinion? What steps have you taken to be bolder about speaking your mind?

Can instant gratification lead to long-term gains?

Does an ad’s claim that a product will help you achieve instant wealth/weight loss/happiness instantly make you skeptical?

In a seminar with copywriting legend Gene Schwartz, one attendee asked Gene this question. After all, his company was called Instant Improvement. Was his claim that a product yielded instant results a credible one?

To this Gene replied: “Almost anything that we do as publishers can be made instantaneous.” Applied to information products, this means the writer will identify a specific problem the reader has and then present a solution, thus helping the reader obtain instant gratification.

But this concept can be applied to just about anything.

Bob King, then of Phillips Publishing, added: “No one goes to, say, medical school and says, ‘Gee, what, I’m gonna work hard for ten years in school so I can be a doctor.’ Instead, you think about ‘Why do I do that today? Why am I doing that? I do it because it feels right to me today to do that.’ If it didn’t feel right, there’s no way you’d work in the dark for ten years. So I think that you’re constantly doing things that give you instant gratification.”

I had never heard “instant gratification” applied to choices we make not just because they feel good in the moment but also because they are right and necessary, choices that have an impact on our long-term well being.

Instead, I had long associated this phrase with wasteful actions—shopping on Amazon for hours, eating an entire cheesecake, reading about the latest developments on Brad and Angelina or Kylie Jenner’s lips—that give us temporary pleasure but derail us from our long-term goals.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, our culture tends to paint beneficial actions such as exercising, eating healthy, and building our business as necessarily grim and un-fun. “No pain, no gain.”

For writers, this mentality is especially true. We approach our writing sessions like punching in the timesheet, driven more by obligation than desire. As Hemingway supposedly said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

But must our daily writing rituals (or working out, etc.) be devoid of pleasure by default? Can’t we learn to find instant gratification in everything we do, even those things that are “good for us?”

Which got me to thinking—even though I had found an intrinsic motivation for writing, been better about writing on a regular basis, and experienced fulfillment in my sessions, many days still felt like a slog, filled by instances where I hated my story, was bored to death by my characters, and could not wait until my hour (the length of time I had designated as the minimal acceptable) of writing was up.

So I looked for ways to make it more fun. What I found was that giving these routines an order and structure, and continually reshaping the parameters, made it feel less like work and more like a game.

For instance:

1) Using Mind Mapping software to chart out character and plot developments (I resurrected many character/plot points from my notes that I’d forgotten about!)

2) Setting a timer for 15 minutes and setting a goal of 250 words (I didn’t always reach my goal, but I definitely wrote a lot more than I normally would have in that span of time)

3) Writing 100 sentences about my characters without pausing to think or second-guess myself (courtesy of “Outrunning the Critic” from The 3 A.M. Epiphany)

What I discovered from this experiment was that I began to enjoy these sessions more and take pleasure from the process, not just the end result. I also found that, ironically, I was way more productive.

Think of “good for you” actions, then, as your favorite milkshake. If it’s lacking flavor, just add a few ingredients and put the blender on a different setting. Instant gratification can bring instant (and beneficial) results.