There are critical moments in your life when you build your capacity for courage. This typically happens when your foundation shifts revealing cracks that can open you up for self-discovery and renewal. My pioneering moment came when I graduated from college. For the first time in my life I was faced with unfettered autonomy causing fear and uncertainty to smack me in the face. I had a choice to make; protect and preserve the structures that defined me or create a new skin. I chose the latter and discovered a unique muscle called psychological courage. A muscle that is ignited when we decide to take or are forced to undergo a terrifying personal or professional risk.
How we handle these experiences, particularly these first encounters, with psychological courage can set the foundation for the rest of our lives. When we choose the easy path we allow others determine our criteria for success. We become someone else’s brand. This is a dangerous proposition. It typically starts with college, then your job, followed by your partners job, then your neighborhood, then your kids school, etc. As we continue on this journey we feel subtle pangs of dissatisfaction as others tell us what we should be doing. Slowly, and we don’t even know how, our personal metric for success is inextricably linked to the performance review of our current manager, the validation of the crowd, or the branding a company, asset, or location provides. I still remember a card my mother gave me when I was a first year college student “The challenge is to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else”. Unfortunately we live in a society that is trying to put us into boxes.
Psychological courage is the muscle that prevents us from becoming like everyone else and helps us determine our own criteria for success. Once it is identified we must learn how to draw upon it and strengthen it so that we can find our unique identity.
I was only a few months away from graduating from the University of Virginia. I had been anxiously anticipating my acceptance letter from Teach for America. When the crisp white envelop finally arrived I read the word “You were highly qualified but didn’t make the cut”. I was devastated and had zero backup plan but mustered up enough courage to walk over to the library to begin my career search. As I sat down in front of the computer I thought about the strongest skill I had (English) and typed “teach abroad” into Google. Hundreds of entries appeared on the screen. I was completely overwhelmed. At this time two things were running through my head; one material, one emotional. First, I had to financially support myself. Second, I had to prove to people that I was not a failure. As I skimmed the listings it became clear for criteria number one my target markets were in East Asia. Criteria two was a bit more complicated. I thought to myself, this is a bad idea I should go find a career counselor who can set me back on the right path. But then I had an epiphany. I decided if I found a unique job it might it would prove courage, something that I could feel proud of at reunion dinner parties. I wrote emails to about twenty of the listings, took a deep breath, and waited.
The fog of jet lag abruptly evaporated when I realized that I had just traveled half way around the world and there was no one there to meet me at the airport. After an hour of arbitrary problem solving and praying someone would arrive with a sign “Blair Miller” I walked slowly outside of the airport and found a bench. My journal served as a source of solace. I began scribbling down my feelings, emotions, and fears on to the pages with a sense of urgency I had never felt before.
July 8th, 2002. 8:37 EST
“I am so scared right now. I am at the airport waiting for the director of the school. I don’t know where he is or why he hasn’t come to pick me up yet. This is one of the most frustrating things. Where am I/ What am I doing? Who am I trying to prove this to? What am I trying to prove? I don’t know anything about this school, this country, this place? I miss my boyfriend, so much right now, where is he? What is he doing? I have to be strong, crying will do no good, although the tears are beginning to swell in my eyes as I wait longer in anticipation of my fate. Now the airport is almost empty and I am alone. There aren’t any taxi’s left so I guess I am basically stranded. Falling into the Arctic is sounding good right now. Is that what I am doing? Falling off the edge of the world? What is it they say, you have to find your self to lose yourself, or something like that?…I have the worst feeling in the pit of my stomach. What do I do?”
The pages devoured the worlds like structure devours uncertainty and when my hand could no longer write and the tears had begun to dry up I noticed a white van had appeared in front of me. A white van filled with three Korean men. They yelled out the window at me “B/Rlair?!”. After a brief discerning pause I determined, in my desperation and hope, my name was enough to validate their identify and mine. Within seconds I hopped in the van to begin what would be a life changing adventure in the Far East.
The following year was spent in an isolated village in Ulsan, South Korea. After two months I called my mother and said I wanted to come home. After a bit of consoling she said, “suck it up Blair and commit to at least six months”. And so I did. There was something that happened to me in that moment when I decided to commit. I allowed myself to move from uncertainty to resolve creating a space for newness relinquishing expectations that no longer fit my situation. For the next eleven months I was the only ex-patriot for miles and spent most of my time in silence learning Korean, teaching English, cooking Kimchi with my friends from town, and finding escape in literature. I also found the space to join a Korean tour of Bejing, take a boat to Japan to hike Mt. Fuji and wander the streets of Kyoto, backpack through Southeast Asia to explore the temples of Ankor Watt, get stranded on remote beaches in Thailand, and hike the mountains of Vietnam.
The risk I had taken to go to Korea had created a prolonged state of vulnerability and I discovered what it felt like to strengthen my psychological courage. Most importantly I was stripped of my branding. The school I went to, the family I grew up with, or the town from which I came, no longer defined me because they had no meaning in this place. I had to determine from where to draw meaning and what brands I wanted to create or leave behind. I felt total loss of control and a deep humility of being in an environment I had no understanding of how to control because there was no foundation from which to start. I experienced deep solitude that can only come when there are no ears for your foreign voice. A solitude that comes with uninterrupted silence, uninterrupted discomfort. This solitude teaches you how to be alone with your own thoughts, how to determine your own criteria for success or failure, and your own philosophy for life.
But over time my fears of the unknown became comfort with the familiar. The things that had most terrified me had become a source of strength. And, slowly, I was changed.
The tricky thing about developing psychological courage is that the strength only comes with the unraveling. This can be a difficult process that leaves you in a state of vulnerability. My experience in Korea did not set me on a clear career track where I could easily see the path before me or the steps I needed to take to get there. It did the opposite. My post-Korea life was not easy. The experience in Korea and traveling around Southeast Asia had solidified my passion to do something socially conscious. I knew that much but, beyond that, I was stuck. So I applied to nearly 50 unpaid internships in issues related to social justice and policy, did multiple interviews at ungodly hours and only received one offer at a think tank in New York. They offered me $15 a day and I took the offer.
The next two years were extremely hard both materially and emotionally. I kept thinking back to the criteria I had set for myself early on, I had to support myself and I did not want to look like a failure. I waitressed on weekends and some evenings to support myself. The think tank was not right for me as I was thinking a lot and felt like I was not doing anything. So I kept my waitressing job and joined a non-profit doing youth policy and advocacy, predominantly at the United Nations. While I learned a tremendous amount, this was not the right place for me either. I was frustrated, confused by by my own trajectory in non profit sector, and had no idea what to do. I started reading voraciously about aid and development finding inspiration in people like Amartya Sen, Jeff Sachs, and Hernando DeSoto. While they all had aspects I loved, none of them fully spoke to me. Then finally I read a book called “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by C.K Prahalad and my worldview was changed, again. Prahalad said, we have to stop seeing poor people as passive recipients of aid and see them as consumers with dignity and choice. Poor people, consumers? Markets help with charity? I was intrigued. So I did a little research and found that C.K. was teaching at the University of Michigan’s Business School. I put all the money I had saved into a GMAT prep course and applied. When I received my acceptance letter, I knew it was time to put that muscle to use again.
I still remember the first few days after I arrived on campus for my first semester of business school. Before we even had a chance to take a breath, on campus recruiters from the likes of McKinsey and Goldman were hosting events, organizing “case competitions” and convening coffee hours to determine the best and the brightest. I remember my new friends talking about what event they were going to attend, what summer internship they aspired to, and who were the top firms of the year. Even though I had no intention of ever becoming a banker or a consultant I felt myself swept up in the tide of what was expected, what was deemed success and what would set me on the path to “achievement”.
The pinnacle of this experience was at the end of week one in which I was told Jeff Immelt would be speaking to our class about the future of businesses. I must confess I had no idea who he was but I was told he was one of the greatest CEO’s in the business world. So I went to his lecture. After his somewhat non-descript overview of Eco Imagination (GE’s Corporate Responsibility effort) about how business should invest in “green” solutions I softly raised my hand. The presider of the event walked over to me as another one of my classmates asked a question. He handed me the microphone and whispered in my ear “this better be good”. When my turn arrived I asked Mr. Immelt what exactly he meant by Eco Imagination and what was the use of that small program when the rest of his work, to be honest, was countering these efforts. The man who had given me the microphone snatched it back out of my hand as I listened to Mr. Immelt maneuver around my question and then throw his head back and look into the audience and said “she will probably be working at Goldman Sachs in 10 years”. Angry and frustrated, I quietly sat down.
The two years that followed were more of the same. The pressures of business school held tight to me like shackles chained to the promise of a stable life of success and certainty. At the same time Business School gave me incredible insight into how capitalism (which I deeply believe in) functions both psychologically and structurally. I was increasingly equipped to join the system I had previously avoided. So, I had a big choice to make. I could step in and join the system to gain some real “skills” (according to my professors), make some money, and then step back out again better equip to do what I wanted. Or I could try something risky and help create a new system altogether? The latter terrified me. Would I be able to pay off my student loans? Would I lose the opportunity to ever work in a traditional job? After all, business school was my chance at “rebranding” myself from an NGO girl to a business woman. Could I even find an organization doing what I wanted to do? Would they even want to hire me?
In those moments of fear and uncertainty the psychological courage I had strengthened in Korea saved me. The knowledge that I could survive and even thrive in an unknown environment, that the world was so much bigger than the golden shackles of an MBA, and that there is no traditional model of success, gave me strength. And so, I drew on my experience and my newly found mentor, C.K., to give me the courage to, again, set my own criteria for success. With a lot of hustle, a team that developed a non-profit loan repayment system, and zero help from the business school career center, I landed my dream job at an emerging impact investment fund called Acumen.
At Acumen and the subsequent roles after, I traveled the world investing in social enterprises and developing entrepreneur incubation programs. It has led me to the villages of Bihar, the slums of Nairobi, the pristine hotels of Mumbai, the tech hubs of Lagos, and the night clubs of Morocco. The courage to join Acumen provided me with a foundation to then step out and begin to create new impact funds, to build philanthropic collectives in the US, India, and Nigeria, and to be a part of a movement that is redefining the way we think about the role of business in social change. A movement that is fighting for a system of capitalism that is inclusive of social as well as financial value. It has also led me to a group of people around the world who, to this day, I treasure to because they help me strengthen my psychological courage and sense of purpose.
Psychological courage manifests differently for all of us. For some, our path is to be a banker, a social entrepreneur, an engineer, a consultant, an artist, or a mother. But choosing what is right for you rather than having the path chosen for you can be challenging. At times I can feel my psychological courage shrinking. I can feel my muscle atrophy as I hold dear to the structures that are no longer serving me. I have to work very hard to find ways to take risks and to build structures which help me strike out in new and creative ways. I build communities of crazy people around me; communities for which courage is a defining moment of their past or just a regular part of their day. I also find ways to rediscover solitude. I try to recreate the silence by finding new experiences and environments that challenge me. I am constantly trying to understand and redefine my criteria for success. Finally, I try to find experiences like Korea, admittedly a smaller scale, to push the boundaries of my mind and experience. and remind myself that courage is not something you are born with, it is strengthen or weakened with each choice you make.