A friend sent me an unexpected note last week. He had observed me having a confrontation with a bully — and he had something to say about it.
“I wish I had your courage,” my friend’s note started. “I have wanted to tell [Bully] to ‘go to hell’ on more than one occasion, but I haven’t.”
This surprised me. I certainly hadn’t seen it as courage on my part. It just seemed like the obviously right thing to do. The bully was trying to be intimidating to me and to others — about something he knew nothing about — and I called him out on his behavior. I calmly pointed out his factual errors. When he doubled down on arrogance and bluster, I pointed out what he was doing and then moved on without allowing it to escalate.
As I’ve thought about my friend’s comment since then, it’s occurred to me that courage can be very different for different people. When I’m standing up for what I believe is right — or for people who I believe are being bullied or oppressed — it seems natural to speak up if I think I can help.
About other things, though, I’ve sometimes been a coward.
We face different sorts of decision points in our lives. At some of those, the facts are clear and we know what we have to do — in that moment. I have tended to be pretty good at those, at least in the ones when I thought I could make a difference.
When I was about 14 years old, a bully was picking, both verbally and physically, on my younger sister at the city swimming pool. He was several years older than I was — a high school football player — and he was a really big guy. But my sister was getting scared, so I stepped between them and told him to leave her alone.
I was terrified. I was certain that I was about to get beaten up, because I would have no chance against him. But I had to do the right thing. It wasn’t even a choice for me. I just acted. And then a strange thing happened. The bully backed down. He blustered and he said a few ugly things. But he backed away — and never said another word to either one of us again.
There’s another kind of decision point that isn’t so clear for me, though. And those are the ones when I’ve shown myself to be cowardly.
Through my life, I have constantly faced points at which I needed to make changes in my life. They’ve been points when it was obvious that something was wrong — in a relationship, in a business situation, in a job or even in friendships — and it’s been obvious what I should do.
But I’ve avoided taking those obvious steps. I’ve been the master of telling myself that I’ll wait. I’ll deal with it later. I’ll see if something will change. I’ve made up every excuse — at times — to avoid doing things I needed to do, because I fooled myself into thinking I could wait. I could always make the change next week, next month, maybe next year.
And you probably do the same thing in some way.
We keep putting things off because we know we would have to pay a price to fix things. We keep acting as though we can avoid paying the price, that things aren’t bad enough yet. We lie to ourselves that things will get better, because that’s easier than taking the acton that’s required to make change now.
We tell ourselves we have plenty of time. I’ve been the master of that lie.
I was 30 when I realized that I was an artist who needed to make films. In all the time since then, I’ve made exactly one short film. I’ve been telling myself that I had plenty of time to do it. The time wasn’t right yet.
You might be 25 when you realize you need to make a change, but you have plenty of time, so you can put off the decision. Then you’re 30, then 35. You still have plenty of time to change things. You’re not happy. The same horrible feeling nags at you when you can allow yourself to feel the truth.
Then you wake up one day and you’re 40.
You’ve wasted years. Then you’re 45. Before you know it, you’ve wasted decades on a life that seems almost meaningless to you — all because you didn’t have the courage to deal with things when you knew you should.
It could be your job. You know you need to leave, but it’s easier to keep putting up with what’s making you unhappy. Or it could be a relationship. It’s not bad enough for you to pay the price you’ll have to pay today to fix it. So you tolerate unhappiness or mediocrity or even abuse — because you can always decide later. You have plenty of time.
And then when things inevitably get even worse — and when they finally reach the worst and you have to do something right now — it’s too late to take the option you could have taken earlier.
Doors have closed. Offers that you felt flattered to receive, but that you didn’t take, are no longer there. Your options are now limited. And you’re really stuck, all because you didn’t have the courage to do what needed to be done — when you had choices. When you could make change on your own terms instead of in a panic.
I’ve not had the courage to make the choices I needed to make because I was waiting for everything to be perfect. I’ve looked for a solution that would not require me to pay any price. I understand now that there’s not one. There never has been one and there never will be. But I let chances pass that I regret not grabbing when I could.
Worst of all, I wasted time. I let years pass by me while I waited for a time when I could make a change that didn’t require courage.
Marketing guru Seth Godin encourages people to have the courage to do things for which they’re not ready. He suggests they do something badly until they get it right.
“If you wait until you are ready, it is almost certainly too late,” Godin wrote.
The best time for me to have become a filmmaker was when I was 30. The idea was ludicrous at the time, so I waited. The best time to have married someone who loved me was when a woman badly wanted me, but I thought I had plenty of time to decide, so I waited and lost the chance. The best time for me to have done a lot of things was 10 years or 20 years ago or even 30 years ago.
But the second best time is right now.
I don’t know whether I really have courage or not. When I’ve had to react — and I haven’t given myself any choice — it’s been easy. When I’ve left myself with a way to delay and avoid paying an immediate price, I’ve been a coward.
There are things I need to have the courage to do right now. If I keep waiting — if I keep being a coward — the day will come when it’s really too late for me. And I don’t want to live with that kind of regret if I can avoid it.