What is courage?

How would you define ‘courage’? And what different forms can it take?

A number of recent events have left me pondering exactly what exactly courage is. Sometimes bravery is easy to spot. Climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. Tackling an armed criminal. That bloke who stood in front of an advancing tank in Tiananmen Square.

We often tend to associate courage with acts of physical daring. But there are many other, less obvious ways you can be brave that don’t involve putting yourself at risk of death or bodily harm.

And courage is not necessarily determined by results or outcomes either. Indeed, I would argue that courageous actions are more likely to end in failure than success. Only doing things where there is no or minimal risk is the exact opposite of courage. If we’re never willing to fail, how can we ever expect to learn and grow? A baby learns to walk through repeated failure and adjustment until they finally succeed. Every scientific discovery or technological advance comes from a process of trial-and-error.

As children, failure is a critical part of achieving success. Somehow, that is gradually conditioned out of us. We take fewer risks as we get older. Instead it becomes more natural to laugh at other people’s failures, rather than praise their willingness to learn and grow. As adults, too often cowardice mocks or criticises courage. It’s not a good look.

55 years of hurt (and counting)

I saw courage in spades in the England football team’s failure to win the final of Euro 2020 on Sunday. Some fans chose to attribute the failure of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka to convert their spot-kicks in the penalty shootout as “bottling it”. That’s not what I saw. I saw three men with the courage to step forward in a crucible of unimaginable pressure, with the expectation of a nation weighing heavily on their young shoulders. Saka, who had the responsibility of taking the fifth and most pressurised penalty, is 19 – still a teenager. I’m 50 and there is no way I’d have had the nerve to take that penalty. You could say the same for all the people who were quick to criticise him afterwards too.

More than that, as black players, Rashford, Sancho and Saka would have known the additional consequences of failure – that’s a whole separate discussion, don’t get me started – but they still volunteered. And in the all too predictable hail of racist social media comments that followed in the aftermath, did they retreat into silence? No, they – and their teammates – stood up unflinchingly and said no, this is not acceptable.

I may not be able to accurately define courage, but I know it when I see it and I admire it deeply. And out of the ashes of ‘failure’, I see a lot to admire and role models that I want my kids to look up to.

How do our children show courage?

Speaking of our children, are they courageous? I think they all are in their own way, although some more obviously than others.

Kara has the courage of fearlessness. Whether it’s performing on the beam in gymnastics or heading straight for the biggest, scariest rollercoaster at a theme park, she is a thrill-seeker with no fear of physical harm.

Toby’s the opposite of Kara. He doesn’t have her innate fearlessness. He’s both the most likely to duck out of a thrill ride and the least likely to venture outside of his comfort zone. It’s easy to say he lacks courage – and maybe he does within the bounds of a narrow definition of ‘physical’ bravery. And yet he’s also the child who will stick to his guns and not simply conform to other people’s expectations of him. He’s the one with the left-field ideas who will take creative risks. When he is motivated to do something, he will pursue it relentlessly to the point of obsession. I think that shows considerable courage in an 11-year-old; it’s just a different – intellectual rather than physical – manifestation of it.

And that’s the thing. Courage comes in different guises. Stepping up in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Physical bravery. Being comfortable with your own individuality. Driving a Formula 1 car. Leaving a stable job to set up your own business. Coming out to your family and friends. Standing up for what you believe in, regardless of the opposition you face. There are as many ways to exhibit courage as there are people in the world.

So don’t let other people define or restrict what courage is. As a parent, I’m determined to let my kids explore what it means for them, nurture it in whatever form it takes and support them through the inevitable failures en route. Courage is the key to finding contentment. And when we’re brave enough to try and fail, great things can and will happen.


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