Can Courage Be Learned?

Courage is ultimately born out of competence.

Our society loves to talk about courage.

But what I've discovered in studying so many exceptional people is that the ones we consider courageous don't see themselves that way at all.

This week, I worked on a Profile Dossier featuring Clarissa Ward, a world-renowned war-zone correspondent. She has completed multiple assignments in Syria, Egypt, Russia, China, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Most recently, she was working 19-hour days in Kabul, Afghanistan, covering the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s sudden return to power. She delivered her reports calmly — sometimes in the midst of gunfire sounds around her — without showing too much emotion on air.

“I appear calm, but that doesn’t mean I am calm,” she said. “I don’t panic because you can’t panic in those situations. If you are someone who panics, then you probably should be doing a different job, because it will get you into more trouble. But it doesn’t mean I’m calm on the inside. That’s just the way I deal with fear: I get quiet and very focused.”

At one point, she attempted to interview a Taliban fighter who shoved his hand forward to block her cameraman’s lens, told her to cover her face, and waved a whip made of heavy chain and a padlock. He told her that the chaotic scene around the Kabul airport was America’s fault.

Like Ward, Kyle Carpenter had an encounter with the Taliban but under slightly different circumstances. In November of 2010, he was a 21-year-old U.S. Marine stationed in Marjah, Afghanistan. He stepped out of his sleeping bag around 8 a.m., to the sound of AK-47s. The Taliban had initiated another attack on his patrol base, which had become a daily occurrence.

When his time to be on post came, he was positioned on a roof with his best friend and fellow Marine Nick Eufrazio. A hand grenade landed beside them, and without hesitation, Carpenter threw his body on top of the explosive to shield his friend from the blast. He has no memory of what happened next.

Carpenter was evacuated out of Afghanistan in critical condition — the grenade had shredded his flesh, torn his bone, severed major arteries, splintered his right arm, collapsed a lung, and taken his eye. His heart flatlined three times, and doctors labeled him P.E.A, patient expired on arrival.

Miraculously, Carpenter woke up from a coma five weeks later. Since then, he's had to re-learn how to live. Although Carpenter became the youngest living recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, he doesn't see his action of sacrificing his life to save a fellow Marine as an act of bravery.

Instead, he reminds us that none of us know how we’ll react in an emergency situation until we come face-to-face with it. He says, “If you had ever asked me, ‘Hey, in 10 minutes, will you jump on a grenade?’ I couldn’t — and I don’t believe anyone could — confidently say yes.” But, he says, you shouldn’t underestimate the courage that can take over in a moment of emergency.

“You never know when, how, or to what capacity you’re going to step up and take that grenade in combat or in life for those around you,” he says.

His story highlights that the human spirit is stronger than we could ever know, but I personally don't think we face enough adversity in our everyday lives to challenge that spirit enough. When I read about Conrad Anker — a mountaineer who survived a deadly avalanche — I understood that consciously inviting discomfort into our lives allows us to inadvertently invite competence and courage.

"Putting yourselves in a difficult situation and persevering forces you to dig deep and find the process to innovate," Anker says. "It builds confidence for facing hardship and being able to accept an uncertain outcome. Adversity challenges the human spirit and we are better for it."

By anticipating and embracing uncertainty, you can actively cultivate courage. In other words, courage is ultimately born out of competence. The more we learn to master our body and mind, the more likely we're able to step up in times of chaos.

As Ernest Hemingway put it, "Courage is grace under pressure."

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