The opposite of fear isn’t bravery.

The opposite of fear isn’t bravery.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Ever heard of courage porn?

I bet you have. It’s the podcast that tells you that all you need is to be brave. It’s the book that tells you to overcome your fears. It’s motivational posters. It’s that TED talk.

Let’s be honest. You could probably use some cajones. But is courage the main thing standing between you and your dreams?

Swan Song

If you ask me (you didn’t), The Departed was one of the most entertaining movies of the early 2000s.[1]

Spoiler: In one of the last big action scenes, a powerfully intriguing side character named Frenchie executes some last-ditch maneuvers with icy-cold calm as his impending doom… impends.

Subsequently, faced with the options of (a) go to prison for life, (b) burn alive in the car he’s sitting in, and (c) shoot himself under the jaw with a revolver, Frenchie chooses the option that can only follow the self-exhortation “Fuck it.”

I don’t have a peer-reviewed, double-blind, longitudinal study for those of you with a data fetish. But I’d wager a good deal that the words “Fuck it” are a reliable contraindicator for whatever life decision is likely to follow.

(Just like you can bet you’ll need an ambu when a dude in the military shouts, “Hey guys, watch this!”[2])

Unless, of course, you’re backed into a corner. “Fuck it” is ideal for charging down the aisle of a hijacked airplane or saving a child who’s fallen through the ice. But, yeah, maybe think twice before saying “Fuck it” and choosing that high-paying job with the boss who’s a dick.

“Fuck it” is saying to yourself, “Yeah, I know this option is going to cause harm to myself, but I’m gonna do it anyway.” Feel free to replace “option” with “last shot of tequila” if it helps you remember.

In many ways the Frenchie model of decision making is what courage porn glorifies. The problem is that blurting an expletive and deciding to “overcome your fears” is a life soufflé: it’s a finicky recipe best attempted only by certain people at certain times and temperatures.

An Alternative to Courage

We all do things that aren’t good for us and then feel bad about it. For too many people, this is their entire life. Courage porn focuses on fear as the obstacle. But:

  • Fears can cover some deeper, unseen psychological tension.
  • Fears might even be a rationalization that helps deny or ignore some other tension.
  • Oh yeah, sometimes your fears are justified!
  • Focusing on fear can delude you into thinking the path you fear is really what you want.

Of course, there are myriad other obstacles like talent, network, funding, work ethic, and ego. But we’ll set these aside here.[3]

Often the right decisions day to day are not scary, super difficult, or potentially embarrassing. Many are simply not convenient.

Flossing your teeth is extra work when you’re already tired. Eating healthy can be boring, expensive, and time consuming.

Meanwhile, some things are indeed potentially scary, like giving feedback to a colleague. This can be terrifying to some people.

But what the scary and non-scary things have in common is that not doing what’s best for you causes tension inside yourself: regret, shame, blame, frustration, erosion of identity, anxiety, anger, and yes, Yoda, hate.[4]

Choosing the best path amounts to doing what will result in the most long-term inner peace (bathe in the woo-woo!). Of course, inner peace should not be confused with physical or emotional comfort.

Sometimes the best path means fixing yourself before pursuing your goal (e.g. reducing shame, improving character); sometimes it means choosing a different goal altogether.

Life Journey Over Lifehacks

Let’s say you have a big presentation to give. You’re nervous. So you Google something like big speech nerves. You get all kinds of tactical advice. Same for queries like asking boss raise and decide job offers.

You could navigate your whole life Googling stuff like that. And don’t get me wrong, you’ll find some useful tips. But when will you stop treating the symptoms and try to cure the disease?

If you focus on making decisions that reduce inner tension, fears will resolve. They’ll wane in significance, or you’ll persevere despite them without resorting to an impulsive moment of adrenaline or resignation.

If you care less about what people think (for example), you won’t need courage porn. This newfound peace will help you focus more on what you can’t not afford to do.

Bravado sounds kick-ass, like a Marine straight out of boot camp.

Peace gets shit done.


[1] The Departed has a score of 94% on the Tomatometer. Meanwhile, this review makes some really good points to the contrary.

[2] “Ambu” is short for ambulance if it’s not obvious. That’s pronounced <am’ boo> as opposed to <am’ byoo>.

[3] Yes, some of the “myriad other obstacles” are not mutually exclusive with fear itself. Like FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is myriad other obstacles themselves.”

[4] Maybe internal tension is the primordial soup to Yoda’s fear → anger → hate → suffering progression.