Ryan Holiday’s bestselling trilogy—The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key—captivated professional athletes, CEOs, politicians, and entrepreneurs and helped bring Stoicism to millions of readers. Now, in the first book of an exciting new series on the cardinal virtues of ancient philosophy, Holiday explores the most foundational virtue of all: Courage.
Almost every religion, spiritual practice, philosophy and person grapples with fear. The most repeated phrase in the Bible is “Be not afraid.” The ancient Greeks spoke of phobos, panic and terror. It is natural to feel fear, the Stoics believed, but it cannot rule you. Courage, then, is the ability to rise above fear, to do what’s right, to do what’s needed, to do what is true. And so it rests at the heart of the works of Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle, and CS Lewis, alongside temperance, justice, and wisdom.
In Courage Is Calling, Ryan Holiday breaks down the elements of fear, an expression of cowardice, the elements of courage, an expression of bravery, and lastly, the elements of hero'sm, an expression of valor. Through engaging stories about historic and contemporary leaders, including Charles De Gaulle, Florence Nightingale, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Holiday shows you how to conquer fear and practice courage in your daily life.
You’ll also delve deep into the moral dilemmas and courageous acts of lesser-known, but equally as important, figures from ancient and modern history, such as Helvidius Priscus, a Roman Senator who stood his ground against emperor Vespasian, even in the face of death; Frank Serpico, a former New York City Police Department Detective who exposed police corruption; and Frederick Douglass and a slave named Nelly, whose fierce resistance against her captors inspired his own crusade to end slavery.
In a world in which fear runs rampant—when people would rather stand on the sidelines than speak out against injustice, go along with convention than bet on themselves, and turn a blind eye to the ugly realities of modern life—we need courage more than ever. We need the courage of whistleblowers and risk takers. We need the courage of activists and adventurers. We need the courage of writers who speak the truth—and the courage of leaders to listen.
We need you to step into the arena and fight.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Call We Fear . . .
Before she knew any better, Florence Nightingale was fearless.
There's a little drawing done sometime in her early childhood. An aunt captured Florence walking with her mother and her sister, when she was maybe four years old.
Her older sister clings to her mother's hand. Meanwhile, Florence "independently stumps along by herself," with that wonderful innocent confidence some children have. She didn't need to be safe. She didn't care what anyone else thought. There was so much to see. So much to explore.
But sadly, this independence was not to last.
Maybe somebody told her the world was a dangerous place. Maybe it was the imperceptible but crushing pressure of her times, which said that girls should behave a certain way. Maybe it was the luxury of her privileged existence, which softened her sense of what she was capable of.
Each of us has had some version of this conversation, when an adult does us the cruel injustice-whatever their intentions-of puncturing our little bubble. They think they are preparing us for the future, when really they're just foisting upon us their own fears, their own limitations.
Oh, what this costs us. And what courage it deprives the world.
As it nearly went for Florence Nightingale.
On February 7, 1837, at age sixteen, she was to get what she was later to refer to as the "call."
To what? To where? And how?
All she could feel was that it was a mysterious word from on high which imparted to her the sense that something was expected of her, that she was to be of service, to commit to something different than the life of her rich and indolent family, something different than the constraining and underwhelming roles available to women in her time.
"Somewhere inside, we hear a voice . . . ," Pat Tillman would say as he considered leaving professional football to join the Army Rangers. "Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become, but it is up to us whether or not to follow. More times than not we are pointed in a predictable, straightforward, and seemingly positive direction. However, occasionally we are directed down a different path entirely."
You might think that a brave girl like Florence Nightingale would be primed to listen to that voice, but like so many of us, she had internalized the beliefs of her time, becoming a scared teenager who could not dare to imagine a path other than that of her parents.
"There was a large country house in Derbyshire," Lytton Strachey wrote in his classic Lives of Eminent Victorians, "there was another in the New Forest; there were Mayfair rooms for the London season and all its finest parties; there were tours on the Continent with even more than the usual number of Italian operas and of glimpses at the celebrities of Paris. Brought up among such advantages, it was only natural to suppose that Florence would show a proper appreciation of them by doing her duty in that state of life unto which it had pleased God to call her-in other words, by marrying, after a fitting number of dances and dinner-parties, an eligible gentleman, and living happily ever afterwards."
For eight years this call sat there in the recesses of Florence's mind like an elephant in the room, not to be addressed. Meanwhile, she was vaguely aware that all was not right in the Victorian world. Life expectancy was barely forty years at birth. In many cities, mortality was higher for patients treated inside hospitals than outside them. In the Crimean War, where Nightingale would later distinguish herself, just eighteen hundred men out of some hundred thousand troops died of their wounds. More than sixteen thousand died of disease, and thirteen thousand more were rendered unable to serve. Even in peacetime, conditions were terrible, and to enlist was itself life-threatening. "You might as well take 1,100 men every year out upon Salisbury Plain and shoot them," she once told officials.
But as urgent as that crisis was-as fast as the altar of murdered men grew-the fear was greater.
There was china to look after, Strachey wrote. Her father expected her to read to him. She needed to find someone to marry. There was gossip to discuss. There was nothing to do, and that was all that a woman of means was allowed to do: nothing.
Barraged with this banal pressure, Florence tuned out the call, afraid to let it intrude on polite society. Sure, she helped the occasional sick neighbor. She read books. She met interesting people like Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor. But still, at twenty-five, when she was offered an opportunity to volunteer at the Salisbury Hospital, she let her mother squelch it. Work in a hospital? Why, they'd sooner she become a prostitute!
After eight years of denial, another call came. The voice asked, more pointedly this time: Are you going to let reputation hold you back from service? That was precisely the fear: What would people think? Could she break with the family who wished to hold her close to them? To go from a rich debutante to a nurse? Could she pursue a vocation she knew next to nothing about-which in the nineteenth century hardly existed? Could she do what women were not supposed to do? Could she succeed at it?
This fear was strong, as it is in every person when they consider uncharted waters, when they consider blowing up their lives to do something new or different. When everyone tells you that you'll fail, that you're wrong, how could you not listen? It's a terrible paradox: You'd have to be crazy not to hear them when they tell you you're crazy.
And what about when they try to guilt you? When they try to punish you? What if you're afraid to let people down? That's what Nightingale faced. Parents who took her ambition as an indictment of their own lack of ambition. Her mother wept that she was planning to "disgrace herself," while her father raged at her for being spoiled and ungrateful.
These were painful lies that she internalized. "Dr. Howe," Florence once ventured to ask Julia Ward Howe, philanthropist and author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "do you think it would be unsuitable and unbecoming for a young Englishwoman to devote herself to works of charity in hospitals? Do you think it would be a dreadful thing?" Her questions were loaded with some many assumptions. Unsuitable. Unbecoming. Dreadful.
She was torn-did she want permission to follow her dream, or permission to leave it unfulfilled? "My dear Miss Florence," Howe answered, "it would be unusual, and in England whatever is unusual is thought to be unsuitable; but I say to you 'go forward,' if you have a vocation for that way of life, act up to your inspiration and you will find there is never anything unbecoming or unladylike in doing your duty for the good of others. Choose, go on with it, wherever it may lead you."
But that fear of being unusual, of more guilt trips, more threats, remained. All of it was designed to keep her at home, to keep her within bounds. And as is so often the case, it worked-despite the explicit encouragement from someone she admired.
"What a murderer am I to disturb their happiness," Florence would write in her diary. "What am I that their life is not good enough for me?" Her family would hardly speak to her, she recounted, "I was treated as if I had come from committing a crime." For years, these tactics worked. "She had the capacity to assert herself," her biographer Cecil Woodham-Smith writes, "but she did not. The bonds which bound her were only of straw, but she did not break them."
Nightingale was not the exception in this-in the 1840s or today. Indeed, in the so-called Hero's Journey, the "call to adventure" is followed in almost all cases by what? The refusal of the call. Because it's too hard, too scary, because they must obviously have picked the wrong person. That's the conversation Nightingale had with herself, not for a little while but for sixteen years.
Fear does this. It keeps us from our destiny. It holds us back. It freezes us. It gives us a million reasons why. Or why not.
"How very little can be done under the spirit of fear," Nightingale would later write. A good chunk of the first three decades of her life had been proof. But she also knew that there had been a brief moment where she had not been afraid. She needed to seize that power inside herself, to break out on her own and accept the call she had been given to hear.
It was a scary, terrifying leap. Walking away from a life of ease. Flouting convention. The chorus of doubts and demands. Of course this had held her back-it holds so many of us back. But for Nightingale it would no longer. Two weeks later, she took the leap.
"I must expect no sympathy or help from them," she wrote of her decision to break free. "I must take some things, as few as I can, to enable me to live. I must take them, they will not be given to me."
Within a year, she was setting up field hospitals for wounded troops in Crimea. The conditions were horrendous. Men died in the halls of buildings and on the decks of ships for lack of beds. Rats stole food from their plates. Patients huddled in freezing hospitals without clothes, some spending their last moments on earth completely naked. Their rations were unsuitable, and their doctors incompetent. It was everything her parents had tried to prevent her from sullying herself with. It was enough to scare away even the bravest of public servants.
"I have been well acquainted," she explained, "with the dwellings of the worst parts of most of the great cities in Europe, but have never been in any atmosphere which I could compare with that of the Barrack Hospital at night." By now the fear was gone. In its place was steely determination. She funded the repairs out of her own pocket and got to work.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would capture her heroic image perfectly in one of his poems, contrasting the dreary, cheerless corridors of the hospital with the image of Florence Nightingale, going from room to room, carrying a lamp and her good cheer.
On England's annals, through the long
Hereafter of her speech and song,
That light its rays shall cast
From portals of the past.
A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic, period. Possible only because she was brave enough to overcome those pedestrian but powerful fears.
Her work in Crimea, done under fire and at grave personal risk-indeed, she picked up "Crimean fever" (brucellosis), which plagued her for the rest of her life-would inspire the founding of the Red Cross. Her innovations, her pioneering work afterward in systematizing the care of the sick and vulnerable, continues to benefit anyone who has ever been to a hospital in the 180 years since she stepped off the path that so many others had tried to intimidate her into staying on.
Her mother had wept when her daughter asserted herself. "We are ducks who have hatched a wild swan," she said. Imagine crying because your child turned out to be special. Imagine growing up in a house where that happened. As Strachey would write, Nightingale's mother was incorrect. Her daughter was not a swan. They had birthed an eagle. It had been a long time incubating, a long time in the nest, but once it flew, it was fearless.
What we are to do in this life comes from somewhere beyond us; it's bigger than us. We are each called to be something. We are selected. We are chosen . . . but will we choose to accept this? Or will we run away?
That is our call.
One way to see Nightingale's story is that she spent years ignoring her call to service. The other is that she was preparing herself for the mission of her life. It took time for her to see through the smoke and noise of the family and society that attempted to discourage her from doing what needed to be done. It took time for her to acquire the skills she needed to transform nursing.
In either version, fear-and the triumph over it-is the defining battle of her existence. Just as it has been for anyone who has changed the world. There is nothing worth doing that is not scary. There is no one who has achieved greatness without wrestling with their own doubts, anxieties, limitations, and demons.
As it turns out, for Nightingale this experience was itself formative. When she finally threw herself into the establishment of hospitals and the reformation of Britain's military and civilian health systems, she faced incredible opposition-from bureaucracy, from the elements, from the political powers that be. She had to be more than an angel of mercy in the sick ward: She was a quartermaster, a shadow secretary, a lobbyist, a whistleblower, an activist, and an administrator. It would be her ability to do this, persisting in the face of this relentless and intimidating opposition, to wage a patient but indefatigable battle against those who wanted to deter her, that would make her work possible.
No one could intimidate her any longer. She could not be bullied.
"Your letter is written from Belgrave Square," she said in a letter challenging Britain's secretary of state for war, "I write from a hut in the Crimea. The point of site is different." This from the woman who a few months earlier was afraid to disappoint her hysterical mother. Now when a doctor-or anyone-told her that something could not be done, she replied with quiet authority, "But it must be done." And if it wasn't-for instance, when a hospital she worked at refused to admit Catholics and Jews-she threatened to resign. They got the message.
Her experiences with fear helped her relate to and love the thousands of wounded, dying patients she would care for. "Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion," Nightingale wrote. "Remember he is face to face with his enemy all the time, internally wrestling with him, having long imaginary conversations with him." This was a battle she knew firsthand, one she could help them win.
Today, each of us receives our own call.
To take a risk.
To challenge the status quo.
To run toward while others run away.
To rise above our station.