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April 2012
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The Courage Quotient with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener (Part 1)

Posted by: Alex Linley

 

I am delighted to announce that Capp friend and collaborator Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener has written a stunning new book, The Courage Quotient, which is released TODAY on amazon.com and on April 25 on amazon.co.uk (although the eBook is available now).

 

I caught up with Robert to find out more about why he has written The Courage Quotient, and what he would like us all to take from it. Here’s what he had to say…

 

AL:  So, Robert, you have just written a new book on courage, why?

 

RBD: It is amazing to me how much attention has been devoted to the topic of happiness by scientists, myself included. The shelves of major book retailers are littered with titles on happiness. By contrast, there are no titles on the science of courage and I think this is a conspicuous oversight. I would argue that bravery is an important phenomenon, a vital part of living a full and engaged life, a topic directly relevant to management and business, and a concern that touches literally everyone. As such, I felt an irresistible impulse to contribute to this fascinating topic. Specifically, I hope that readers will come away with new information, practical tools, and perhaps a bit of enjoyment after spending time with this book.

 

AL: What are the key messages you want to get across to people in the book?

 

RBD: If I had to boil the book down to only a few main take-home messages they would be these:

 

First, courage is an everyday occurrence. Many people immediately jump to acts of physical bravery when they think about courage but this is a mistake. Every individual has a personal history of bravery. If you have ever accepted a new job, relocated to a new city, or gotten married, then you have taken a chance and faced some personal fear.

 

Second, courage can be learned. We tend to think of courage as a trait – and to some extent it is a predisposition toward risk-taking – but courage is also about managing fear and this is a learn-able skill. This is a non-trivial point because it suggests that people can get more of this highly desirable skill. I would even argue that by learning a few techniques for increasing your courage quotient you can have a better life!

 

AL: What exactly is courage, and why do you think it’s important?

 

RBD: People have all sorts of definitions of what courage is. I particularly like the way some psychologists think about this topic. Courage, by one attractive definition, is any action that a person engages in when three conditions are present:

  1. There is a perceived threat to you
  2. The outcome of an action is uncertain
  3. You feel fear

 

Many psychologists view courage as the choice to take action despite the presence of these three conditions. Specifically, courage can take place in any realm of life, ranging from entrepreneurship, to relationships, to investing, to physical heroism.

 

AL: The title of your book is The Courage Quotient; is a “courage quotient” somehow different from courage?

 

RBD: Courage is made up of two separable processes: managing fear and the willingness to act. At first glance, these two processes seem to be directly linked, like a see-saw, where when one goes up the other necessarily goes down, and vice versa.

 

On closer inspection, however, you can see that these two processes are independent of one another. A person could still be willing to act despite experiencing a huge amount of fear, which is to say that the willingness to act must be greater than the experience of fear, for courage to take place. A person’s courage quotient, then, is simply a ratio between these two processes. If they are equal, or if fear is greater, then a person will not act courageously.

 

AL: What did you find out in doing your interviews with people?

 

RBD: In researching this book I had the terrific opportunity to interview 50 highly courageous people who came from all walks of life. These included a polar explorer, a cage fighter, a witness to a crime who chose to testify in court, an executive and many others. Among the first, and most interesting, insights I gained through these interviews was that people are largely unaware of their own bravery.

 

At first I attributed this to simple norms for humility. But it turned out to be more than people simply downplaying their own achievements; they literally seemed oblivious that they were acting in extraordinary ways. Time and again I heard the refrain “I just did what anyone would have.” I call this phenomenon – the tendency to perceive extraordinary personal action as being ordinary – “courage blindness.” When I work with clients on developing a more courageous living style, I often start here with them taking more ownership and gaining more insight into their own past bravery.

 

AL: What tips could you give to readers of The Capp Blog on how they could develop their own courage?

 

RBD: I would offer two simple places to start. First, a common problem that holds people back is the fear of the unknown. Uncertainty is a bit anxiety-provoking for most people. I recommend that people try to fill in gaps in their knowledge by making the unknown known. For people who are afraid of public speaking, for example, I recommend that they explore the venue, stand on stage, sit in the audience, and imagine the applause at the end of the talk, rather than the nerve-wracking time on stage. To the extent a person such as this can picture a successful image in detail, the greater their ability to act bravely.

 

Second, I encourage people to embrace mistakes. Not to tolerate mistakes, mind you, but to embrace them. People who understand mistakes – especially small-stakes mistakes – as unavoidable, and even as an important part of learning and growth, are more likely to take appropriate risks.

 

 

Robert will join us again in two weeks’ time for the second part of our interview on courage, this time focusing on courage in women and in entrepreneurship. Watch this space!

 

In the meantime, if you have a question you’d like to put to Robert about courage, please let us know in the Comment box below, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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5 Responses to The Courage Quotient with Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener (Part 1)

  • I. Macheridis says:

    Hi there,
    A very interesting topic, and enlightening views by Robert. I would like to ask him, what is he role of firstly the willingness to improve things, and secondly of being desperate in courageous actions?
    Thank you both, Alex, and Rob.
    All the best
    Ilias

    • I think a major part of courage is the willingness to act, and this is counterbalanced against fear. So you have one process-fear– holding you back and another– the willingness to act– urging you forward. Desperation is a particularly interesting point because it is strongly associated with a push forward. Like a cornered animal, a desperate person feels intense motivation to act, understands the importance of swift action, and is more prone to face risks.

  • Doug Jordan says:

    Robert has done us all a service in exploring this fascinating field. Philosophers call courage one of the great virtues, and to live a virtuous life is, among other things, to live a courageous life.

    Many people limit the idea of courage to momentary acts of bravery, action under direct physical threat, but most courage is long term, sustained behaviour. I’m thinking of the parent or spouse staying with a disabled family member or partner for as long as it takes. Where does this sort of courage come from? and how do they sustain themselves?

    Perhaps Robert has some thoughts on this theme?

    • well, you definitely bring up the idea that there are different types of courage, and these might be rooted– to some degree– in different causes and mechanisms. Rushing into combat might be part of a physiological system of automatic action. Whistle blowing, by contrast, is likely more deliberative and ensconced in personal values. I believe that people frequently return to their personally held values when making tough decisions because these values remind us why we are willing to sacrifice, face uncertainty and risk ourselves (i.e. act bravely).

  • John Burik says:

    While the pursuit of happiness is asserted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence its direct pursuit may be a futile effort. Looks like Robert has identified an important component moving toward our well-being. Thank you, Robert.

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