The Surprising Path to Courage

Verla--head onWe met at a local Thai restaurant to talk about a possible consulting project for his newly-launched non-profit. I knew he was a passionate Christ-follower and a larger-than-life entrepreneur who sold his successful I.T. business for $25 million dollars and launched an organization to serve children in a part of the world which many relief organizations seemed to have abandoned. But I didn’t know much about his backstory.

After the usual preliminary chit-chat, I finally said, “Why’d you do it? Why’d you walk away?”

It turns out it was a story he loved to tell. “I didn’t feel like I could serve God in the marketplace,” he said. “I felt I was taking the easy way out. Sure, I could share my faith and promote values in the workplace that would teach people to serve others, act ethically, etc. But I never really got my hands dirty. I never had to leave my upscale suburban home and all the perks that came with my life. It was convenient. But God didn’t say ‘Stay.’ He said, ‘Go… into all the world.’ I needed to go where the broken people were. That’s where the fruit is.”

He became more animated as he picked up speed. Our server kept replenishing our tea, as if to dial down the amps. I chose my words carefully.

“Look, there’s no doubt God asks some people to walk away from The Good Life and take on a challenge that would scare the rest of us. And your drive, entrepreneurial spirit, and resources certainly seem to support the steps you’ve taken.” Long pause.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” he said.

“Well, I see a lot of reverse elitism in people who have done what you did. They signal that, ‘Now I’m doing work that matters.’ But when God said, ‘Run the race marked out for you,‘ he said nothing about there being a good, better, or best race. It was about finding your race.”

“Are you suggesting the non-profit gig is not my race?”

“Not at all! I’m just pushing back on the premise behind the decision. Whenever people ask me to help them sort out a major life change, I always ask them if they are running to something or from something. Working in a secular environment, sometimes it’s harder to stay than to go. There are no Indiana Jones adventures, no children who rush up to welcome you when you visit. Instead you may work with cynical, hardbitten people who wield power capriciously and who may find your values annoying. Get in the arena with those puppies and try to be salt and light.”

Long pause. More tea. His response came almost in a whisper.

“Okay, busted. I confess I looked elsewhere to serve because I stood in a boardroom during a merger and was told by a group of tycoons that I was being removed as CEO of my own company, because doing business with my values was hurting the bottom line. Behind my back they had bought out shareholders who were my partners, people who once shared my vision. Just like that…it was over. It shattered me.”

Our lunch was several years ago. Today, I’m happy to report, my friend and his non-profit are thriving. The point of telling the story was not to debate the merits of his decision or to debate the theology of work. Rather, it’s about the power of vulnerability, about taking emotional risks and learning to be authentic with ourselves and others. 

How did you feel when you read this story? Embarassed that he shared so much? Were you thinking you would never have been that vulnerable? (Rest assured, key details have been changed to protect his identity.)

Vulnerability is seen as a weakness in our culture. “Never let them see you sweat,” right? But here’s a surprise. Researchers who have made a lifelong study of the subject say that vulnerability is the most accurate measure of a person’s courage.

We think of courage as rapeling down a cliff or undergoing an experimental surgery…or going off to serve forgotten children. But the risk to share deeply and honestly with another human being takes equivalent courage.

Dr. Brene` Brown, one of the foremost authorities on vulnerability, says if you want to unleash creativity, innovation, and change in your life, it requires taking emotional risks, being willing to fail, to be misunderstood, or judged.

When was the last time you opened up about yourself to a spouse or trusted friend about your fears, the losses you’ve buried deep in your heart, the dreams you’ve been afraid to voice? Start with being honest with yourself. Then try taking a risk with God. Now that  you’re on a roll, tell fear to step aside, because courage has joined you and you and God are coming through.

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