It’s ok to be scared

Emilio Bazan Sanchez
12 min readMar 8, 2022

The science of courage

“Boy on a High Dive,” Norman Rockwell, 1947

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

For the longest time now, I have struggled with the idea of courage. What does it mean to be courageous? Is it the absence of fear? Or is it something else? I think it is something else, I think courage is about doing something even though you are afraid. It is about facing your fears and doing what needs to be done anyway, it is about knowing that you might fail, but doing it anyway

For several years, I have been afraid of doing certain things. I have been afraid to try new things, like publishing medium articles or reaching out to interesting people or even publishing a cool project on social media because I’ve been too afraid of leaving a bad impression on someone or simply being ignored. But I have recently realized that if I want to achieve my goals and live a fulfilling life, I need to start taking risks. And that means I need to start being courageous.

I am not going to lie, this is not easy. It is scary to put yourself out there, but I am starting to realize that it is worth it. The pain of courage is that of an epic journey and given how short life is, the only way to make justice of it is through courageous endeavour, I see no alternative.

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” — Tina Fey

We have to begin asking: Who gets to be courageous?

Research in neuroscience shows that some people have a thrill-seeking or “Type T” MBTI personality. The brain structures of these sensation-seeking people seem to be somewhat different from the brain structures of people who avoid risks. The regions of the brain that determined decision-making and self-control had a thinner cortex, the brain’s wrinkled outer layer or “grey matter.”

Type T individuals may have fewer dopamine receptors in their brains to record sensations of pleasure and satisfaction and as such, may require higher levels of stimulant and endorphin activity in order to feel good. Their higher level of testosterone, a hormone that seems to correlate with uninhibited behaviour, may also lead to a more risk-oriented lifestyle. A neurological architecture predisposed to risk-taking, combined with a strong value set determining what they perceive as right or wrong, could make it more likely when the situation requires it, that Type Ts will act in a courageous manner.

But is this set in stone? Does not having a certain personality trait means that you’re stuck without it forever? Can we change this?

Recent studies do suggest that some of your personality traits are related to your genetics, but there are plenty of other factors, too.

For example, as people age, studies suggest that they tend to become more conscientious. And life events like getting married have been shown to increase emotional stability, also a 151 person study made its participants make objectives toward changing specific personality traits, and during the span of 4 months, they found that people can significantly change their extraversion and emotional stability traits.

So, sure, your personality can change.

But the real question is, can you change it on purpose, without waiting for your life to change? Courage is something that you can learn and it is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice, just like any other muscle in your body, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

Self-efficacy

There are many factors that can influence whether or not someone is courageous. One of the most important is self-efficacy or the confidence we have in our own ability to confront the challenges ahead of us. A belief that “we can do it” will make a difference when the time comes for courageous action.

Self-efficacy is not only about our ability to do something, it is also about our belief that we are capable of doing something, this is an important distinction because it means that self-efficacy is not about actual ability, it is about belief.

Believing that we can do something is often the first step in actually doing it. When we have high self-efficacy, we are more likely to try new things and persist in the face of setbacks, plus we are also more likely to take on challenges and see them as opportunities for growth.

Students with high self-efficacy also tend to have high optimism, and both variables result in a plethora of positive outcomes: better academic performance, more effective personal adjustment, better coping with stress, better health, and higher overall satisfaction and commitment to remain in school

There are many things that can influence our self-efficacy. Our experiences, our success or failure in past tasks, and the feedback we receive from others all play a role, here are the main variables that affect self-efficacy:

  1. Performance Accomplishments

One of the most important things that can affect our self-efficacy is our past performance. If we have been successful in past endeavors, we are more likely to believe that we can be successful in the future. On the other hand, if we have failed in the past, we may start to doubt our abilities and become less confident. It is important to keep this in mind when setting goals for ourselves, as we should try to choose goals that are challenging but realistic so that we can have a sense of accomplishment when we achieve them.

2. Social Feedback

Our social environment, especially the feedback we receive from others, can also influence our self-efficacy. If our family and friends tell us we are good at something, we are likely to have a higher self-efficacy for that task. If they tell us we are bad at something, we are likely to have a lower self-efficacy.

This type of feedback can be especially influential during childhood and adolescence, when we are still forming our identity, for example, a child who is constantly told they are bad at math may start to believe it and have a lower self-efficacy for math tasks. For example, researchers have reported that mathematics self-efficacy is more predictive of mathematics interest, choice of math-related courses, and math majors than past achievements in math or outcome expectations.

3. Vicarious Experience

In addition to our own personal experiences, we can also gain a sense of self-efficacy from observing others. If we see someone else succeed at a task, we may believe that we can also succeed at that task. This is especially true if the other person is similar to us in some way (e.g., same age, same gender, same race), conversely, if we see someone else fail at a task, we may believe that we will also fail.

“If he can do it then so can I”

4. Emotional Arousal

Our emotional arousal can also affect our self-efficacy. When we are feeling anxious or stressed, we are likely to have a lower self-efficacy and when we are feeling confident or excited, we are likely to have a higher self-efficacy.

In stressful situations, people commonly exhibit signs of distress: shakes, aches and pains, fatigue, fear, nausea, etc. Perceptions of these responses in oneself can markedly alter self-efficacy. Getting “butterflies in the stomach” before public speaking will be interpreted by someone with low self-efficacy as a sign of inability, thus decreasing self-efficacy further, where high self-efficacy would lead to interpreting such physiological signs as normal and unrelated to ability. It is one’s belief in the implications of physiological response that alters self-efficacy, rather than the physiological response itself.

It is important to note that emotional arousal is not always accurate. Just because we are feeling anxious or stressed, does not mean that we are not capable of doing something. But, emotional arousal can influence our beliefs about our abilities.

Self-efficacy theory has been applied to the career area to examine why women are underrepresented in male-dominated STEM fields such as mathematics, engineering, and science. It was found that gender differences in self-efficacy expectancies importantly influence the career-related behaviours and career choices of young women.

Technical self-efficacy was found to be a crucial factor for teaching computer programming to school students, as students with higher levels of technological self-efficacy achieve higher learning outcomes.

Additional factors

Another important factor is self-esteem, which is a more familiar and at least partly a learned psychological factor. The degree of openness to experience, one of the five dimensions in the Big Five personality trait theory, may also be a factor: people who possess this quality may be more likely to act in a time of crisis. All of these characteristics can be developed and shaped with practice and help. Low self-esteem and anxiety, for example, can be worked on through therapy. And much can be done to develop a greater openness to experience, for example through creativity-stimulating activities like writing, painting, or making music.

So how do you become more courageous?

One way is to practice by doing things that scare you. This could be something as simple as going to a party where you don’t know anyone or speaking in public. These things may scare you, but they are not actually dangerous and you are not going to die or get hurt if you do them, a great mentor of mine made us make lists of what we’re afraid of and simply list what can be the worst thing that could happen if we pushed towards our fears (Turns out most times we catastrophize very simple things). This could be anything from learning about different types of spiders to studying and learning about different cultures. The more you know about something, the less scary it becomes, and especially the more you understand the real risks, anything becomes more manageable, as Elon asserts:

“People tend to overrate risk,” he said of entrepreneurship. “It’s one thing if you have mortgage to pay and kids to support. … But if you are young and just coming out of college, what do you risk?”

One of the most courageous things you can do is to face your fears. This could mean something as simple as looking at a scary picture or giving a public presentation. It could also mean doing something that is actually dangerous, like skydiving or rock climbing. When you face your fears, you are telling yourself that you are not going to let them control you. You are in control of your own life and you are not going to let fear dictate what you do or don’t do.

100 days of rejection

A great example is that of Jia Jiang, an entrepreneur who by being too afraid of rejection he self imposed a challenge of 100 days of rejection, where he’d ask random strangers crazy requests such as burger refills or ask a pizzeria if he could deliver a pizza for them, of course, most of this requests were denied and ignored sometimes, but what’s most interesting is that more often than not people would be more willing to support his initiative even if they could not fulfil their request initially, for example, even if he was not allowed to speak over Costco's intercom the owner was still impressed with his interest and decided to give him free hot dogs! Of course, the most rewarding attempts are those that actually yield what was requested, and the ones most worthy of a grandpa tales, like asking for a ride on a gyroplane from a stranger, or asking for (non-existent) Olympic-shaped doughnuts at a Krispy Kreme and actually getting it!

Against all odds

Another example of courage is that of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. On 9 October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home from school on a bus. Despite being shot, Yousafzai survived and continued campaigning for girls’ education, why?

“I raise my voice not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

She survived and continued to campaign for education. In 2013, she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for freedom of Thought.

What is most inspiring about Malala is that she did not let the Taliban stop her from speaking out and fighting for what she believed in. Even after being shot, she continued to fight for the rights of girls and women to receive an education. She is a great example of how courage can inspire others to stand up for what they believe in, even in the face of adversity.

Again, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.

I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right. — Malala Yousafzai envisioning a confrontation with the Taliban

Elon Musk is another great example of someone who is not afraid to face danger. He is the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Tesla Motors is a company that makes electric cars and SpaceX is a company that is trying to make it possible for people to live on other planets. Both of these companies are in the exponential technology industry, which is a field that is known for being risky and unpredictable. However, Elon is not afraid to take risks and he is not afraid of failure. He knows that failure is a part of learning and that it is important to take risks in order to achieve great things.

“I think I feel fear quite strongly. It’s not as though I have the absence of fear, I feel it quite strongly. But there are times when something is important enough and you believe in it enough that you do it in spite of fear.”

I’m beginning to realize there’s no such thing as a super-secret formula amongst those who I could consider extraordinary humans, while It’s true that the nurturing of certain people out there can facilitate certain causes to be emotionally attached to them, it’s a common factor between all these people that they took the energy to push past the uncomfortable terror for an important enough cause, for Jia Jiang it was overcoming his fear of rejection, for Malala it was education and for Elon, a vision for a multi-planetary species.

You don’t need to have found a mission or a big-enough cause by now, there’s a lot of societal pressure to give the impression that we’ve figured out most of what life is about by a certain age but this can only hurt us, life is not a pretty-shaped narrative but a complex tango of joyful depressions, sad achievements, the euphoria of excitement and wide valleys of despair.

From elegant hack, source: https://eleganthack.com/the-shape-of-story/

What’s interesting is that you don’t need to follow this narrative ark to find meaningful causes, there are close enough missions that are accessible to most people once they open their eyes a bit wider and get rid of the preconceptions of what it means to be courageous or live a life worth living, my favourite hack to turn this usually paralyzing realization around is to think:

What if my life’s purpose is to live courageously?

This reframing usually does the trick, it makes the responsibility of figuring out what we’re supposed to do less daunting and more accessible, so go out there and take some risks, it’s the only way you’ll find out what’s really important to you. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the decision to do something in spite of fear. So tell me.

  • What are you afraid of?
  • What is more important to you than fear?
  • What can you do today to face your fears and become more courageous?

Sources:

Self-efficacy — Wikiwand

What I learned from 100 days of rejection | Jia Jiang — YouTube

Can You Really Change Your Personality? — YouTube

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PS. Thank you Meli, one of the most courageous out there, for inspiring and informing this essay ❤️

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Emilio Bazan Sanchez

Aspiring neurotechnologist writing about math, humans and human enhancement. UNAM Undergrad studying applied math and neuroscience