“It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half of the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen.”
Herodotus (Ancient Greek Historian and Author)
“A third of people are villains, a third are cowards, and a third are heroes. Now, a villain and a coward can choose to be a hero, but they’ve got to make that choice.”
Tom Hanks (Actor, Captain Phillips)
“Hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated.”
George Bernard Shaw (Noble Prize Winner, Literature)
Most people don’t realize they’re turning into a coward until it’s too late.
“I’m about to go Donald Trump on you and fire everyone.” This is what owner of the company sent out to our entire department a week after I started working for him.
It was my first real job after graduate school. I had no idea what was going on but I was pretty sure I was going to get canned. At the same time, I thought this was ridiculous. What kind of boss sends out an email like that to a group of people.
For a split second I imagined replying back something inflammatory like “Who’s Donald Trump” or maybe something a little more level-headed like “this is an inappropriate email for a boss to send to a new employee.” But I didn’t reply. I hid. I just buried my head in the sand and tried to limit my visibility over the next few weeks, hoping that it would all go away.
The Perfect Thing To Say
My first real girlfriend broke up with me and started dating my best friend while I was at a 28-day wrestling camp. It was the summer before my senior year of high school and I was over 1,000 miles away from home going through 4 grueling workouts a day. I bought a bunch of phone cards so I could call her every night before going to bed but about 7 days into camp she stopped answering the phone. She answered a few times but she’d always have to go after a few minutes.
One day I asked where she was going and she said jet skiing with my friend. Another time she said she was going to the movies with him. But they were “just friends.” About 14 days into camp, she told me that she wanted to see other people. I called my friend like 100 times but he never answered. But then he did answer. I froze. I pretended like I didn’t hear anything and hung up. A few seconds later I thought of the perfect thing to say. Damn! Why does that happen?
You Were Meant To Test Your Limits
Life has a way of turning you into a coward. When you’re young, you have unlimited energy. As soon as you learn to walk, you spend nearly every waking moment learning, discovering, and testing your limits. You try to touch hot surfaces, stick your fingers into light sockets, and jump off of couches. Then you move outside. You climb trees, jump off roofs, and dive off of rocks. This behavior is wired into you. In fact, without adventure, childhood development is slowed.
You were meant to test your limits. The problem is this behavior tends to die off in adulthood. We’re told by mediocre teachers to sit still and to get along. We’re taught and conditioned to accept limits without testing them anymore. Eventually, these limits crowd in on us until we can’t move. They suffocate us because we stop testing them. Our brains slow down. We stop taking risks. We turn into cowards.
Face-To-Face With A Live Snake
Cowards are created by habit. When you compromise on your goals, when constantly apologize for who you are, when you give up on yourself over and over again, you decrease the level of activity in a part of your brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). The sgACC is right next to the amygdala (the part of your brain that controls fear) and is thought to keep the amygdala under control.
Studies show that cowards have low levels of sgACC activity. For example, in one study participants were tested to see how closely they could move a snake to their faces while their brains were being scanned. The study found that people who kept the snakes the furthest away from their faces had unusually low levels of sgACC activity.
Are You Going To Die A Coward?
Baby elephants are tied to trees with chains when they are young to keep them from running away. But, as adults, they’re only tied by ropes because they’ve learned that they can’t escape. Studies dating back to the 1970s show that animals and humans who are conditioned to receive a mild electrical shock will not try to escape from the shock even when they are free to do so.
Learned helplessness is what happens when you are repeatedly subjected to a negative situation that you think you cannot control or escape from. Over time, you stop trying to change the situation and start behaving as if you’re utterly helpless. In other words, you give up. You accept your fate. As a result, your sgACC activity plummets and you turn into a coward. A person who has developed learned helplessness will continue to act helpless even when opportunities to control a situation are presented.
The only way to avoid learned helplessness is to keep testing your limits–to keep trying and failing and pushing back against the people and things that are working to reign you in.
7 Signs You’re Becoming A Coward
Pay attention to how your thoughts and actions are changing over time. By default, human beings become more cautious and stop taking risks as they get older. They learn to be helpless. Don’t let this happen. Instead, pay attention to any signs telling you that you’re turning into a coward. Here are 7 signs you’re becoming more cowardly:
1. You find yourself coming up with the perfect thing to say only after the confrontation is over.
Everyone has had the experience of thinking of the perfect thing to say only after they got of the phone with a relationship partner, or after they left their boss’s office during a difficult discussion.
Most people simply dismiss this as their brains working a little slow that day or a result of being too angry to think. The truth is these people have started to get into the habit waiting for permission to say what’s on their mind. They’ve slowly gotten used to being polite and keeping their mouths shut instead of being firm and speaking their minds.
The next time you find yourself in a confrontational moment, don’t get shaky and start clamming up. Instead, stay calm and commit to the moment. Refuse to back down until you deliver your point. You can’t control if the other party will accept or even understand your point but you can control whether or not it’s delivered.
2. You rationalize taking abuse by telling yourself it’s only temporary.
How many times have you let a family member or friend treat you like crap and told yourself that it’s only temporary and the overall relationship is more important than this moment?
How many times have you let a boss or manager yell at you like you were a little kid while you justified it by telling yourself that you’re going to quit soon anyway. Or maybe you told yourself that you’re being the bigger person by taking the abuse?
The truth is you’re being a coward. Anytime you let someone walk all over you and treat you like dirt, you give part of yourself away. It’s impossible to take this kind of abuse without it slowly turning into a habit. The more you let things slide by telling yourself it’s only temporary, the more you learn to be helpless and the more of a coward you become.
3. You say I’m sorry for the smallest things without realizing it.
Do you ever catch yourself saying you’re sorry when you know you shouldn’t? Maybe someone bumps into you at the street or in a crowded restaurant–it’s their fault but you say your sorry out of habit. Or maybe someone close to you gets upset over something you say (or how you said it) and you apologize just to calm them down.
Apology is the pathway to cowardice. Studies show that people who constantly apologize for themselves have low levels of self-esteem. So, stop apologizing. If you’re in a situation where you have to apologize or face someone else’s nightmarish behavior, get out of that situation. Leave that person. Quit that job. Eliminate the problem. Don’t just become a bigger and bigger coward.
4. You feel an underlying heaviness in your life, like someone is watching and judging everything you do.
Human beings can get used to anything. This is why some of your friends who used to be strong, independent, and fun are now weak, needy, and miserable. This is why some of the wildest people in the world turn have turned into fragile shells of their former selves.
The set up is always the same. The strong, independent, and fun person stats hanging out with a controlling person. The strong person starts making little concessions. Then the strong person makes bigger and bigger compromises. Then, one day, the strong person isn’t so strong anymore. In fact, they’re not really anything anymore. They’re just a puppet–and mouthpiece for the controlling person.
If you have let controlling people into your life, start cutting them out. These people will inch in on every part of your life until you’re living completely in fear. When this happens, you’ll start to feel like your every move is being watched. You’ll feel heavy, slow, and sad for no reason. Get rid of the 200-pound monkey on your back. Stop letting these people back into your life.
5. You routinely sacrifice your goals and your happiness to the goals and happiness of others.
Nothing is more common than people giving up their happiness or giving up their goals under the false guise of caring more about other people than themselves. The truth is these people are either scared of achieving their goals or too lazy to do the work necessary to achieve them. So, they make excuses and set themselves up as a crutch to take care of other people.
Many of these people delight in playing the martyr. They enjoy the significance of having other people rely on them. They collect dependents like they collect stamps. Then, they use guilt and obligation to get these dependents to take care of them. This is a cycle that generations of people have played out over and over again.
The only way to avoid this cycle is to commit to never giving up your happiness or giving up your goals to others, and to never ask anyone else to give up on their happiness or goals for you.
6. You get a spark to change your life but quickly dismiss it or put it on the back burner.
Cowards don’t have breakthroughs, they have breakdowns. Imagine trying to split a rock in half using a sledgehammer. You hit the boulder again and again and again but nothing happens. You don’t see any progress, which is extremely frustrating. But you keep swinging the hammer. Then, on the 30th hit (or maybe the 300th hit), the boulder splits in half–like this.
It seems like magic but it’s not. It’s science. Even though it looks like nothing is happening on the outside, each blow by the hammer is reducing the rock’s internal integrity. The rock is getting weaker. You just can’t see it. The problem is most people stop swinging before they have a breakthrough. They stop picking up the hammer. They get conditioned to thinking that their efforts don’t matter.
Yet, cowards are still human. They still have creative sparks. They still get urges to do something great with their lives. The only difference is cowards ignore these urges by telling themselves not now or maybe later.
7. You talk about people behind their backs instead of confronting them directly.
The biggest sign that you’re slowly turning into a coward is that you start trying to hold people back. Instead of being happy for other people’s accomplishments, you start being fake happy for them. You pretend to congratulate them. Then, you run away and find other cowards to gossip with.
Rather than being motivated by other people’s accomplishments, you’re threatened by them. Rather than being infused with a competitive spirit and taking action to achieve something, you sit back, do nothing, and belittle other’s achievements. You become bitter, slippery, and whiney. You train yourself to shy away from competition and eventually lose the ability to confront anyone or anything at all.
Listening to the little voice inside of you telling you that other people’s accomplishments don’t count is a sure sign you’re turning into a coward. Shut this voice up. Turn it off once and for all. Don’t ever let it talk.
The One Thing Cowards Don’t Do
As part of a famous skydiving experiment in Germany, 16 terrified people were convinced to leap for the very first time from an airplane at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Then, they were asked to jump a second time. Then, a third time. The goal of the experiment was to determine how the body responds under stress, as well as how this response changes in response to practice.
By collecting saliva samples from the participants after each jump, the study found that the initial stress was reduced dramatically with each subsequent jump. In most cases, by the third jump, the stress levels of the participants were the same as those found in people after an argument with spouse or a scary movie. Think about that.
Another study involving over 200 bomb-disposal operators found that the only thing separating a good operator from a bad or “risky” operator was a certain amount of live-action experience. The study found that soldiers chosen at random to become bomb-disposal operators had the same odds of being a good operator as soldiers carefully selected based on personality traits. Again, the only thing that mattered was the number of live-action repetitions the operators had performed.
Practice taking on challenges. This is the one thing cowards don’t do. If you practice taking on challenges, you will become more courageous. But, if you practice being helpless, you will turn into a coward. You can’t be a coward and a courageous person at the same time. You simply can’t practice both simultaneously.
What about you? In the comments below, tell me one time that you stood up for yourself and how it paid off.
If you want to learn more about changing your focus and changing your future, get my book: Black Hole Focus