Here’s how to become courageous and stop following the pack

According to Dr. Cynthia Pury, one of the world’s leading scholars on the science of courage — courage involves three crucial elements:

  • A voluntary act
  • In response to a perceived threat or risk
  • In pursuit of a personally meaningful and often moral outcome or goal

Put simply, courage means you proactively acted, in spite of risks, toward something you believed to be important or meaningful.

It’s not courage if it’s not risky.

It’s not courage if it’s not important to you.

It’s not courage if it wasn’t purely your choice to do it.

Know the rules so you can break them

“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso

Humans are really good at creating rules.

Without rules, it would be hard to understand the world and ourselves. Our brains naturally create rules as we are developing as children — such as forming rules to separate things like colors from sounds, addition from subtraction, cats from dogs.

Interestingly, though, the development of rules can ultimately have detrimental effects on a person’s ability to freely express themselves.

Usually, between the ages of 6-11, children develop a “concrete” version of themselves, wherein they have developed a sense of identity. They realize that how they think and feel is different from how other people think and feel.

In their teens, they attempt to test out these rules. This usually doesn’t go very well for them. A few possible scenarios occur:

  • They get in trouble from their parents
  • They get in trouble at school or with the law
  • They rebel against their family and join more radical social groups

For most people, the testing of “rules” is either rejected entirely or pushes people to become outcasts in some form or fashion.

As a result, a “concrete” identity becomes solidified and the person develops a fairly stable personality, which they have for the majority or remainder of their lives.

This concrete-self becomes a fixed identity or fixed-mindset.

When a person has a fixed mindset, they’re not likely to act courageously very often — only when the situation really requires it, like when a loved one is in danger.

But’s that’s reactive courage. That’s courage that wasn’t planned for. Yes, it was voluntary. Yes, it was a choice to act. But it was also a response.

But what about pre-planned courage?

What about choosing to act courageously because you designed a situation to rise up to?

What if you decided to break the rules of how most people do things, but in a mature manner?

When you really dig into the lives of the most creative and successful people in the world, you notice that at some point, they stopped following the “rules.”

You cannot be authentic if you’re following other people’s rules.

You can’t be authentic if you’re copying someone else’s style.

Authenticity doesn’t mean you’re being true to yourself. Rather, authenticity means you have the inner freedom to be and do whatever you want and believe. Who you are is continuously transforming through courageous creativity and a deep commitment to what you believe.

Being authentic means you can hear your own voice, and you have the freedom and emotional security to make your own decisions.

It takes courage to be authentic because authenticity isn’t a fixed trait. Authenticity means you did something for your own reasons — not for someone else’s reasons.

Very few people are truly authentic.

How can you tell?

Most people’s lives and work look quite a bit like other people’s lives and work.

They’re still operating under rules that someone else created, rather than rules they’ve formed themselves.

They are still learning the rules like a “pro,” and haven’t developed the emotional maturity to break those rules and create their own. They’re still following in someone else’s footsteps.

You can’t read the label from inside the jar

“When you’re inside the bottle, you can’t read the label. Get out of the bottle so that you can read the label.” — Unknown

According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems:

  • The truth of any component of a system is unprovable within the system
  • Any system cannot demonstrate its own consistency

You cannot comprehend or appreciate the nature of something from within it.

You can only see how your family works by experiencing how different families work.

You can only begin to understand your own worldview by experiencing other worldviews.

This is why it can be extremely limiting to be entrenched in a certain field or profession. You operate mindlessly under the rules everyone else is operating under, and your creativity is incredibly capped.

Your ability to be courageous is capped as well because you have no perspective to innovate.

In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Nick Kokonas, an innovative entrepreneur said, “I just look at some things and go, ‘Why is that? Why does it work that way?’ Oftentimes, the people most entrenched in a system have no idea why.”

If your work looks and feels quite a bit like other people’s work — then you’re entrenched in a system.

You can’t see the label because you’re too far inside the jar.

You haven’t begun questioning enough.

You haven’t developed your own authentic sense and views.

You’re still operating under rules that, in reality, only exist in respect to that system. But they certainly don’t exist outside of that system.

The only way to break the jar is to stop playing by the rules of that jar. You need to get way outside of it and start innovating. Start getting new perspectives. And stop caring what the people in that jar think about you.

This takes an incredible amount of courage and creativity. It takes depth and reason for doing so.

Authenticity is pursuing what you want (and this is very good for your brain)

In a beautiful lecture by Dr. Susan David, she explains how our brains re-organize the entire world around us when we shift from “needing” to do something to “wanting” to do it.

When you believe you should do something, you operate out of willpower. For example, when you believe you shouldn’t eat the chocolate cake, then you’re suppressing an emotion that creates increasing fixation on that cake. Eventually, you eat the cake.

Willpower is never a way to success. Willpower is how you suppress your emotions even further. It’s based entirely on should’s and should not’s.

Interestingly, Dr. David references lots of research explaining how to become more emotionally agile or flexible. For instance, research has looked at what happens when children spend 10 minutes writing down their deepest held values. They reframe temptations and are less inclined to peer pressure. They can choose to act for themselves as an agent, rather than being acted upon as an object.

When you become clear on your WHY — on the values you believe in most — then you re-orient your perspective of the entire world. The jar dissolves. You see things more clearly and have entirely new levels of freedom to create as you see fit.

When you remind yourself daily of your WHY, you see the world differently. You stop wanting the chocolate cake. It becomes less of an impulse. Of course, from time-to-time, you’ll be triggered to do something, but you will no longer be at the mercy of your emotions. Instead, you’ll be flexible to the situation. At that moment, you’ll also be reminded of your values, and thus, despite the emotions you experience, you’ll be able to make values-based decisions.

According to Dan Sullivan:

  • Needers are externally motivated, seek security, have a scarcity mindset, and are reactive to what other people are doing.
  • Wanters are internally motivated, pursue freedom, have an abundance attitude, and are highly creative.

Being authentic requires emotional flexibility. It requires the courage to break out of the norms of what is happening around you.

For many people, it takes courage to break out of the rat-race of the 9–5 to pursue “their dreams.” But then, quickly they fall prey to another rat-race, the one where they are following someone else’s footsteps toward success.

Eventually, you must reach a place of complete authenticity — where you no longer pay attention to how anyone else is doing their work. You have the confidence and the courage to do what you want, how you want to.

You stop following the rules. You start inventing your own.

You stop competing with others. You make them compete with you.

You stop playing the game. And you start innovating and changing the game.

— — —

Are you playing the game other people are playing?

Or have you redefined the game altogether?

Have you created a new game that others are now playing?

In the book, Relentless, Tim Grover explains that “cleaners” — those who are unstoppable — create the context in which other people operate. These are the people who re-invent their industries and allow other people the privilege of starting from a new vantage point.

Usually, those operating in the new jar don’t realize or appreciate that their ability to act and operate is based on the rules set by someone else. Most people take this for granted. They can’t see themselves from within the jar. Think believe they are acting “independently,” and thus, lack gratitude for the innovators who courageously and creatively shaped the new system.

Evolving beyond your “concrete” self

In the book, The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk M.D. explains that traumatic experiences halt or “freeze” a person’s development. When a person experiences emotional pain and doesn’t allow that pressure to pass, but instead bottles it, they become frozen and rigid at that moment.

They become concrete and inflexible.

To some extent, we all have suppressed emotions. However, we will always remain stuck until we decide 1) what we believe in (our values) and 2) what we want.

Until we decide what we believe in, we will always be operating out of “shoulds” and “needs.”

This keeps us from authentically creating our own rules. This keeps us in a place of scarcity, fear, and the need for security.

Once you know what you believe and what you want, and you develop a sense of inner freedom and emotional flexibility, you evolve beyond the “concrete” self.

You are then enabled to design your identity and your life. You begin to see the world differently. You stop paying so close attention to what others are doing and you begin asking far bigger and deeper questions.

You begin to step outside the jar.

You step outside of the rules.

You begin to see new things.

You begin to make more compelling connections.

You begin to set more ambitious goals — one’s those in the jar could never comprehend — but one’s they’ll soon desire themselves once they see what you’re doing.

You immediately remove all of the things in your life that conflict with your values and goals.

Your time immediately free’s up.

You no longer operate with fear or worry about the judgments of other people.

You also stop attaching to outcomes altogether. Your internal sense of freedom provides you the ability and confidence to limitless creativity. You no longer worry about success or failure — because ultimately, you know that you cannot be stopped.

You will fail plenty of times.

You aren’t worried about potentially squandering everything you’ve built to this point.

Your future is what you’re focused on, not your past.

Growth is your agenda, not status.

You live completely authentic and fluidly — being willing to step into unknown situations and create what you believe could and should be created.

Forget “Blue Ocean Strategy,” you now live in a Blue Universe.

You’re not in any oceans. You’re not even swimming. You’re now flying or floating or some other thing that doesn’t even remotely reflect what others in your “industry” or “field” are doing.

You’ve redefined what water is.

You’ve built a new language and model for living and thriving.

You’ve stepped outside of a jar, and now realize that there is no ceiling. And this is where your creative potential really takes off. This is where you begin creating things that may make no sense to most people — and you no longer care.

You now have nothing to lose — because you’re no longer attached to what will happen. You’re living in what Dr. David Logan, the author of Tribal Leadership, calls “No man’s land.”

No one can compete with you, because you’re no longer playing their game.

No one can follow what you’re doing because you only know the next step of where you’re going. You’re completely guided by values and reasons — but radically iterative in your process.

The moment you summit an enormous goal, you begin summiting another. As Dan Sullivan has said, “The moment you arrive is the perfect time to start back over.”

You never get stuck. You never stay stagnant. You’re always re-inventing and innovating and shaking things up. Or as Seth Godin would say, “Make a ruckus!”

You take action first, and then gather relevant information based on the feedback you get. You’re fine looking stupid. You’re fine failing. Because you know that these things are only the perceptions of other people. And they have no clue what you’re building. They have no orientation toward the world or future or universe that you’re living in.

They are still operating by the rules.

They’re still inside the jar.

They’re still concrete and frozen — bound to their emotions and fears and rules.

Now that you’ve developed emotional flexibility, you are fluid and authentic. Your personality becomes formless and you have the freedom to invent and re-invent yourself over and over.

You have the confidence to design your life, right now, based on your highest values and aspirations.

You know that when you take bold action, your universe will re-arrange itself to fit the new standard you’ve set.

You no longer wait until you have enough connections, money, knowledge, or any other excuses you have built in your mind for why you’re not living your life completely how you want, right now.

You make bold decisions and then figure out how to make it work after. This is experiential learning. This is gathering relevant and timely information. Unlike most people who use “learning” or “information” as a form of distraction — you only learn that which will produce the needed outcome you need, right now.

You apply Parkinson’s law, which means you put FIRST THINGS FIRST and proactively procrastinate the “urgent and non-important” stuff. You let those smaller balls drop. If there’s time for them, you’ll get to them. But you’ve put only your top priorities first.

Everything else is what it is.

Your life is how you want it.

You design the rules.

You create the game.

You now have the courage to be authentic — and your authentic self is never set in stone but always evolving based on the values you have and the dreams you pursue.

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This article first appeared on Medium.