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What It Takes To Be Courageous

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Running a marathon is a feat that few people can ever accomplish, let alone even consider. Yet I watched videos this morning of Marine veteran Jose Luiz Sanchez, who lost his leg in Afghanistan, running the entire 26 miles of the Boston Marathon carrying the American Flag…and Army veteran Earl Granville, who also lost his leg in Afghanistan, actually carrying his aide—who was supposed to help him get through the race—cross the finish line. The strength, courage and commitment of these men are just two examples of the kind of men and women who protect our country and who have helped us “mere mortals” to have the freedoms and comforts that we enjoy today.

Courage fascinates me. What is it about some people who face fears of all types, and, rather than shrink or blame, they stand tall and fight? How do they do it? And why are some people more courageous than others?

Thanks to the suspension of the draft, there are very few Americans born in recent decades who can even fathom the courage that it takes our men and women of the military to leave their families and fight to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Most of us are naïve about the commitment of the brave few who do step up to register for military service. Or the policemen and women and firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way every day so that the rest of us can be safe in our homes and neighborhoods.

But even looking back in history, what kind of strength did pioneer families need to set out in their horses and wagons to find new homes and opportunities in uncharted land with no Safeway or Starbucks nearby?

Or those European parents in the early 20th century who put their children on a boat and sent them across the ocean with all their worldly possessions to start a new life in America? Every time I watch my niece play the violin that my grandfather carried over from Austria when he was a teenager, I think of his—and his parents’—amazing courage and faith. It wasn’t like he could text and let them know that he had made it to Ellis Island.

To me, the secret to these courageous people is their commitment to their goals or mission. When you are deeply focused on a specific goal, there is nothing that can stop you…not even fear. The founders of this country were absolutely committed and driven to being free of British rule. Nelson Mandela was so committed to the dissolution of apartheid that he withstood 27 years in prison for his beliefs. Many would say that Steven Jobs was “maniacal” in his drive to create desktop computers that were accessible to all. And my great-grandparents were absolutely committed to helping their children have a better life than what they expected in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

In his Ted Talk, author Simon Sinek talks about inspirational leaders being successful on their quests because of their commitment to their missions. These leaders focus on “why” they are doing something, rather than “what.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., got 250,000 people to march on Washington, DC, in 1963 not because of his experience but because of his passion for the Civil Rights movement. Pioneers were searching for a new and better life. Entrepreneurs are driven to bring their ideas to life. And those fighting life-altering health challenges are laser-focused on beating their diseases and returning to a world of normalcy. One of the contestants on this season’s Dancing With The Stars is champion bull rider Bonner Bolton. One year ago, he was paralyzed after falling from a bull, and he feared that life as he had known it was over. Yet his determination to overcome his injury now has him ballroom dancing!

We are all faced with challenges every day, many of which can be frightening. That fear comes in all shapes and sizes—children fighting cancer and the parents of children fighting cancer…midlife career changes…individuals facing the difficult decision to stay in a marriage or to leave…teens facing assorted social pressures for performance and acceptance.

One young woman I know recently had to make the challenging decision to accept or decline a potentially lucrative offer for a new role at her company that would have required relocation to another state. It could have been a good move for her career, but the relocation did not fit with her life’s plans and she didn’t want to harm the company after they invested in her training in the new location. She courageously made the decision to decline the offer.

There are those who suggest that taking action helps overcome fear, and yes, in my opinion that is a start. Action allows you to initiate change and helps you feel in control, whereas inaction will generally change nothing and could potentially leave you feeling stuck and helpless.

But before you can take action, you must have a goal…an objective…a reason for acting. Hapless movement is merely activity. But action driven by a focused vision of success can be so all-consuming that you forget about what could get in the way. Envisioning themselves healed and healthy helps individuals face difficult and often painful treatments. Knowing where you want to go in your career helps you avoid distractions along the way. And believing in a home life that is filled with love and support makes the pain of tough decisions with the family that much easier.

There are always plenty of reasons why not to do something. Finding that deep, driven purpose for doing something can trump all of them. And if you feel like you just can’t find the strength to fight the fight facing you, try watching Jose Luiz Sanchez or Earl Granville finish the marathon to see what deep focus and inspiration look like.

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Sarah Hiner is president and chief executive officer of Stamford, Connecticut–based Bottom Line Inc., which publishes books and the consumer newsletters Bottom Line Health and Bottom Line Personal.

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