Choosing Courage (Over Everything Else)

I was 21 when my mother passed away. She was the light of my life. She was also the greatest teacher of courage. Not in the valorous sense of the word, of course (even if she did work for the police department!). It was in the tenacity of not letting fear stand in the way of what I wanted to do. This post outlines 4 instances of how life invited me to choose courage, despite everything.

My First Public Speech

The Bangalore Palace | Conrado Piano | Flickr CC

At 17, I was selected to travel to Australia for a 12-month, Rotary Youth Exchange Program. I was invited to present at an event hosted by Rotary International and Rotary District 319. I wasn’t afraid to present. But presenting in front of a 4000+ capacity crowd in The Bangalore Palace Grounds? That was a first and enough reason to break into a sweat. The guest list was intimidating, if not awe-inspiring. This included Rama Jois, senior attorney in the Supreme Court of India and Vyjayanthi Mala-Bali, noted dancer who is known as the “first female star of Hindi cinema” and many senior Rotarians and a truly august audience.

When it was my turn to present, I was nervous but not terrified. My anxiety came from the intent to do well (challenge response) vs. a fear of failure (stress response). On hindsight, I realize that this is exactly what I learned from Health Psychologist and Stanford University Lecturer, Dr. Kelly McGonigal! I chose to view this stress as “helpful” and therefore, created the biology of courage. My courage came from choice, not by accident. Because I went in there expecting to do well, it set the tone for a successful speech.

A Failed, Internal Job Interview

Early in my career, my organization was going through a tumultuous time. The CEO and COO were ousted and much of the executive leadership team was about to be replaced. There was massive restructuring and we lost nearly 50% of our team. A few of us, however, made the cut.

At the time, one of our premium clients was ramping up. My leader encouraged me to interview for a role in that team. I had the skills, attitude, and the hunger to learn. What I perhaps lacked was the deep experience they were looking for. Sadly, the outcome of the interview wasn’t positive. My interviewer said: “…Look, this is hard for me. Your heart’s in the right place and you have everything we need except that I need someone who can ramp up faster. Your lack of experience could cost me…” I didn’t get the new role but stayed in my old project and continued to thrive.

First, a comment on the interviewer’s courage. He looked me in the eye and broke the bad news. It takes strength of character to have that difficult conversation. Second, I was disappointed by the outcome but it never occurred to me to be ashamed or embarrassed. My job, title, or role didn’t define my self-worth. My values, grit, and resilience did. The courage to accept this less favorable outcome came from a willingness to confront, discover, and examine the truths for what they are. Not unlike my post on The Leadership of Being vs. Doing,

Tragedy at Play

My fourth year in college was the most difficult year of my life. The pendulum swayed between hope and despair and I fervently prayed that my mother’s health would improve. But higher forces had already determined her next journey and towards the end of the year, she passed away.  I was an active member of my theater group. I regularly attended rehearsals. As fate would have it, we were scheduled to perform just 4 days after her passing. And I was essaying one of the main roles in the play.

When I talked to my Director and fellow artists, they asked me to do whatever was in “my best interest”. In their quiet courage and diligent planning, I think they even had a back-up artist. Grief-stricken and confused, I had to dig deep into my inner reserves of resilience. What was the right thing to do? Would I be shirking away from my duty if I didn’t show up? Would I dishonor her precious memory if I did? After spending a sleepless night, I made a decision.

On the day of the performance, I showed up early in the green room. My team welcomed me with hugs. Their eyes conveyed all the love and support I needed without a single word. With their unrelenting support and faith in me, I played my part. Our show was a success, thanks to the incredible team I worked with. On the way back home, I finally gave myself permission to cry. Choosing to perform on stage amidst such raw grief was terrifying. I had to delay even the gratification of tears. But on that day, I chose courage because I didn’t want to let fear stand in the way of honoring my mother. After all, she was the very embodiment of courage.

A Writer who Also Sings 

Sergey-Zolkin | Unsplash report indicates that 87.6 million posts are published, monthly. An amazing 409 million people view WordPress blogs, every month. How daunting is that figure to even consider blogging? Furthermore, when I typed, “Why Should You Blog?”, Google search engine returned a staggering 383,000,000 million results! I made an interesting discovery when I reviewed the top results from my search. Nearly all them suggested a common reason to blog. This is also the no. 1 reason Mark Schaefer lists on how blogging makes you better, especially if you’re a leader. It’s called Clarity. 

After 4 months of blogging, I had the astonishing and painful realization that I’m actually a writer, who also sings. Here’s some context to that note: Music has always been an integral part of my life. As a student of Hindustani Classical music, I had hoped to dedicate my life to becoming a full-time musician. In fact, it was almost a foregone conclusion. But the mere act of writing had changed what I thought I knew, my whole life. And now, I had to find the courage to accept this with kindness and compassion. But first, how did this happen?

The great William Zinsser once said: “…Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other…” There’s nothing more freeing than hard-won clarity even if it is painful in that moment. Music and I will forever remain inseparable. I may never become a performing artist but I will always sing to nurture my soul. However, my true purpose and calling is to write. Even about music and its power to move you to tears or the incredible lessons  it continues to teach me. After all, the light that I see is the music in me.

Finding Your Quiet Courage

When Mary Anne Radmacher spoke of courage, she said: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes, courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow”. What does courage look like in your worlds? What stories would you like to share? Post a comment below. I look forward to learn and grow with you.

Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.


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