In 2006, Benjamin Mee bought a zoo. Literally a zoo. It was broken down and in desperate need of a caring owner. Mee and his family were struggling too. Things hadn’t been going well for them either. But in one scene—immortalized by Matt Damon in the movie version of the story—Mee explains to his son that our lives are defined by the moments when we put ourselves out there. When we take a risk that, if we had thought about too much or been too deliberate about, we’d never have been capable of taking.
“You know,” he said, “sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
This idea of breaking courage down—the most important of the virtues to the Stoics—into little pieces is a very good one. A person isn’t brave, generally. We can only be brave, specifically. In the moment. This is as true for you or me or Benjamin Mee’s son as it is for the hardest, most decorated soldiers who have ever served in the military.
The two highest honors in the U.S. military are the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The criteria for being worthy of either of these medals is virtually identical, but what distinguishes the former from the latter is this phrase in the description: “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” And if you read the citations for many Medal of Honor recipients, particularly in more recent conflicts, they are choked with heroism and selflessness like those for Distinguished Service Cross recipients, but the moment in the action that changes everything, that rises to the level of gallantry and intrepidity, is almost always just a moment. It’s not the fighting off of 12 insurgents for 5 hours— it’s the sprinting across an open plain for 20 seconds, exposed to enemy gunfire on three sides, to come to the aid of a fallen comrade, while you fight.
Just literally twenty seconds of insane, embarrassing bravery. That’s what courage is.
Marcus Aurelius wrote that we shouldn’t be intimidated by life as a whole. We should just look at what’s immediately in front of us. Assemble yourself step by step, he said, no one can stop you from that. That’s the brilliance of this twenty seconds of insane courage too. Even your own fears and your own weaknesses take longer than that to kick in.
Think about that today as you consider whether to get up and approach that attractive person across the room. As you’re mulling over that big decision. As you’re questioning whether you should speak up or just go along with something you disagree with. Don’t get intimidated by all of it as a whole. Just take that single step. Give yourself a few seconds of courage.
Something great will come of it. Promise.
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