When I was younger, I struggled with shyness and nerves even more than I do now. My fears frustrated me because I believed they were false and outdated. If I were to stand out, or start a conversation around an important issue, it’s not like I would be left to die in the wild. Privileged and in the 21st century, I was safe. Why couldn’t I feel safe? I resented fear—and the arbitrary social norms to which it confined me.
Back in those younger years, I made lists of “social dares” that I dreamed of doing. I wanted to go door-to-door, jokingly cast Harry Potter spells in public, or sing while walking down the street. I’m talking Improv Everywhere stuff. But besides just expressing myself for the freedom of it, I also made a list of activism dares, or compassion dares if you will. To my chagrin though, few of the dares ever got done. I’d do one occasionally, then retreat back into my shell.
Fast forward to late summer, 2021. By now, I was more socially experienced. I had worked in several professional advocacy roles as well. My life at home had gotten boring, however. I sensed I was playing small. I desired to get back out there, grow deeper connections, chase greater success, and make my heart thump again!
So—out-there idea generator that I am—I started plotting to do a 100-day courage challenge. I decided that every night, I would ask myself, “What’s the top thing I could do tomorrow to move my life forward, but something that would require courage?” And I’d commit.
Now, by this point, the way I was approaching the idea of courage was already different from what I’d originally pictured.
Courage isn’t just about acting in spite of fear. It’s also about acting toward what you love, toward what you want. When I had pushed through too strong a fear in the past, to the point where I was weirding people out or embarrassing myself, it actually didn’t get me the results I sought. Instead, I could treat courage as more of a means to an end, based on what truly mattered most to me and what seemed to be most effective.
I could honor the fact my bravery was a finite resource, to be spent wisely. Maybe it was about balancing courage plus comfort, rather than thinking of my comfort zone as an enemy.
Here’s how the 100-day courage challenge went
On the first day of courage, I watched one of my old YouTube videos, as well as a friend’s video. I was afraid of giving myself a cringe attack, but I wanted to be comfortable seeing myself, and to find the confidence to make videos again. To support my friend, too!
On Day 4, I completed a list of phone calls. On other days, I checked all my Medium comments, got bloodwork done (despite doctor’s office anxiety), posted in a slightly intimidating Effective Altruism Facebook group, opened up to friends to ask for advice, or simply watched a vegan vs. non-vegan discussion video to increase my comfort with the contest of ideas.
None of these dares were terrifying. My resistance to doing them was mild to moderate; it was manageable. The effect of the dares, in most cases, was clearly positive! I walked away from the phone calls, comments, and friends’ advice feeling more confident. The Facebook discussion wasn’t that enjoyable, but I was proud I’d tried. And I noticed that when I took the time to expose myself to differing points of view, even in an article or video, it made my blood boil for a minute but it lowered my anxiety later. It made me better able to smoothly bring up topics and discuss things with my family.
Over the 100 days, I learned even more about what bravery means to me, and how to make my courage sustainable.
There were days I forgot to do a dare yet still had an amazing day, where I felt alive. Sometimes we don’t have to be brave, simply because we are already in a good social situation or productivity setup that makes things easy for us. In fact, some of the best steps of bravery we can take are the ones that make bravery less needed in the future. For example, I recently started doing book feedback for someone—as a favor—and I was nervous about requesting payment going forward. But once I did, we happily agreed on a price. Now, I don’t need to exert any more courage in this relationship, at least not for a while. I can just flow through the book editing with ease and joy, for a few weeks straight, knowing that the financial part of my work is taken care of.
One brave thing a week, if it yields a big return, can be better than 50 random braveries.
From the start of my challenge on August 16th, I gave myself permission to have some fail days and rest days. I took 126 days to get through the 100, so I was actually only “brave” 80% of the time. It was enough to keep the momentum going, but it felt like less pressure, which was nice.
I feel like more of a Gryffindor now, because I’ve been logging down my daily acts of courage. Yet, I have always done brave things; I just tended to dismiss them as “not impressive enough.” Not anymore!
The thing I regret slightly is how I fell out of the habit of planning my dares the night before. Planning made it easier for me to commit to the big steps, rather than being tempted to shy away and pick a dare of secondary importance in the nerves of the moment. I also liked doing my dares first thing in the morning when I could. I plan to get back on those habits, and make even better progress with my life in 2022.
I loved my 100-day courage challenge so much, I am doing a new one
Indeed, I have enjoyed this courage routine so much, I wish to continue! It only takes a few minutes a day to get present and decide on a little dare—and then add what I did to my celebration list.
To escalate the challenge (keep it engaging and meaningful), my new plan is this: I’m doing 100 days of vegan courage.
As a writer, I love my self-reflective blogging but I do shy away from my “priority topics.” You know, the topics I perceive as more challenging, but also potentially more impactful. Compassion that includes non-human animals is a major area of passion. As most of society does not yet embrace anti-speciesism, and the vast majority of beings are other than human, I feel that promoting moral concern for them is a lovely way I can focus my energy. I have been trying to nudge myself to be more consistent with this for some time now. I think with this challenge, I’ll make that happen and start to build a more sustainably outspoken life.
Of course, just like the first 100-day challenge, this vegan challenge will not be what my younger self would have expected! I don’t plan on doing any leafleting like I used to (obviously, with COVID). Nor will it be about pushing myself into awkward conversations. Nowadays, I see activism as about finding collaboration, and achieving a positive result with minimum conflict. At least, that’s my style.
Many of my baby steps will be things like reading challenging material (on both sides of arguments), spending a half-hour on an important article pitch, or going to an activist event on Zoom. I’ll seek to strengthen my bonds with vegan friends and peers whose projects inspire me, as I can see that I absorb the qualities of people I associate with.
Gone are my days of forcing past fear. I’ve learned I prefer dancing with fear.
While it’s worth admitting that some of my fears can be disproportional, fear is also a great friend. It keeps me safe, and it teaches me social norms which must be followed to an extent in order to accomplish things. Fear makes me sensitive to my shared vulnerability with others; it makes me more empathetic. My favorite part, of course, is that it invites me to challenge myself and to feel invigorated each time I do.
My fear isn’t any more perfect than I am, but it is trying its best. It is pointing me in a direction of growth and service. It is my dance partner.
From now on, I look forward to a life of gentle, patient courage together.
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Photo: Michael Dziedzic via Unsplash